An experiment in new media journalism was launched today, based loosely on an innovative US website called Spot.us.

Melbourne’s Swinburne University has set up the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, promising to bring together journalists, academics and the public to experiment with new ways of delivering high quality journalism in the new media world.

Its aim is to foster interactive and investigative reporting in an age when traditional mainstream media companies are cutting costs, shedding reporters and centralizing their operations.

The foundation is seeking donations from the public and philanthropic trusts and will establish a website, bringing together journalists and the public to pitch, fund and publish the types of stories the rest of the media are neglecting to cover.

“It’s an experiment and like experiments it will change over time,” says Dr Margaret Simons, who when she’s not writing for Crikey, is an academic at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research, the body behind the foundation.

Simons says she’s excited about the project because it offers a new way for “journalists to have a direct relationship with their audience, without the intervention of big media, and this is one of the models which is likely to strengthen in the new media age.”

Professor Julian Thomas, the director of the Institute for Social Research, says the foundation is recruiting members for its board and will then tackle the “tricky issues” of corporate funding and editorial direction. He says the foundation will aim to “cover the issues which are not being covered, and there are a lot of them.” He nominates local and regional stories and state politics as examples.

The spot.us model relies on individuals pitching stories which they would like to write themselves or which they’d like someone else to write for the public’s benefit. The public are then invited to make a donation to fund that story. The donors are transparent and the editorial direction is left in the hands of the reporter and the site’s editor.

The Australian model will be different and the emphasis appears to be on reaching large audiences and gaining the support of other publishers so that material generated isn’t confined to the website. But will Australian NGOs and individuals support the concept of paying for independent reporting?

Thomas is quietly confident. He takes a long term view, pointing out that Australians have a history of contributing to new and independent media. From the days when the Salvation Army trail blazed the film industry in the early 1900s, to the 1970s when the public got behind community radio, to the current day when on-line publishers like Crikey survive due to the support of subscribers who are seeking something different from the media.

Thomas says “We’re confidant that the public is interested in good quality investigative journalism and that we can translate that interest into material support.”

The foundation for Public Interest Journalism hopes to be up and running by the end of the year.

Disclaimer: Andrew Dodd is a colleague of Margaret Simons and was a member of the working group to establish the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism.

Peter Fray

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