May 21, 2012

Here’s $1m for your newspaper … do you want it? Aussie editors respond

Editors of some of Australia’s biggest newspapers are divided over whether they would accept philanthropic donations, after the LA Times accepted a "no strings" US$1 million grant. Scott Barnes reports.

The editors of some of Australia’s biggest newspapers are divided over whether they would accept philanthropic donations, after The LA Times last week grabbed a "no strings" US$1 million grant to fund reporting in neglected areas. The Ford Foundation gave the grant to the Los Angeles newspaper, which will be spent on journalism around the California prison system, the US/Mexico border and on rising economic powerhouse Brazil. American billionaire Warren Buffett also committed to pouring millions of dollars into community newspapers last week. Australian editors were split on the prospect of receiving charity to boost editorial content. Neil Breen, editor of Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper The Sunday Telegraph, says he would happily accept a philanthropic donation if it was offered, provided he could be sure the money was given solely for altruistic reasons. "I would need to be extremely confident it was a genuine act of philanthropy. I would fear some 'no strings attached' donations down the track may have some strings," Breen told Crikey. David Fagan, editor-in-chief of Courier-Mail parent News Queensland, says he wouldn't accept a donation if it was offered because "diverting charitable funds from the needy is morally flawed and aimed only at feeding the indulgent who want to serve narrow interests". "I'd be uncomfortable about philanthropists funding commercial media when kids are homeless, good medical research is struggling for funds and there are many life and death causes that could use the money well," he said. The editor of Hobart’s Mercury, Andrew Holman, also told Crikey he wouldn't be comfortable accepting donations because he was dubious about the nature of any "no strings attached" claim. "They'll be telling you how to spend it in some way. The things they're proposing to cover should be part of the news agenda already," Holman said. Fagan reckons good newspapers with a strong online presence can continue to serve readers without relying on donations. "If there are under-reported areas we should be able to resource them if they matter to our readers," he said. Holman says it's important for an editor to prioritise to ensure the broadest coverage is maintained and to highlight areas of public interest. "Do we then say we aren’t going to cover Afghanistan because we haven’t got enough money?" he asked. Fairfax -- publisher of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review -- responded to Crikey through a spokesperson. "This is something we have not ever needed to consider," they said. "If such a proposal were ever made, it would be appropriate to consider the context of the proposal’s terms and the paramount importance of our values of editorial independence and our commitments to all of our stakeholders." But if The Sunday Telegraph received a million dollar cash injection, Breen told Crikey he would use such a donation to fund a "world's-best practice" three-year cadetship program to train journalists for the future. "The industry, in 10 years time, I fear, will desperately need highly-skilled and experienced journalists around the age of 30 to carry the torch," Breen said. In recent years many newspapers have slashed cadet programs due to shrinking editorial budgets. Breen then turned his attention to the national newspaper, News Limited stablemate The Australian, saying "if I got more than a million, I'd give it to The Australian so they could replace journalists like Imre Salusinszky". In an opinion column last week Salusinszky slammed Breen’s newspaper for not sufficiently scrutinising the "credibility and the motivation" of anonymous sources. Philanthropy will play a similar role in Australia to that in the US, but it will take several years to develop, says Breen. "I think it will happen at some stage in the next decade, most likely at the titles which are presently struggling for survival," he said. While not comfortable to take a donation himself, Holman agrees philanthropy will play some role in the future of Australian newspapers, "helping build better communities, highlighting disadvantaged areas and empowering communities". Fagan was more confident the newspaper industry won't need to rely on philanthropy. "I’m well short of giving up on newspapers as a business, particularly when we keep growing our overall audiences," he said. Crikey reported earlier this month that the Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail lost circulation in the March quarter. The Australian declined to comment.

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5 thoughts on “Here’s $1m for your newspaper … do you want it? Aussie editors respond

  1. klewso

    “……. under-reported areas … if they matter to our readers”?
    Like “good government”? That “doesn’t include The Greens (with 12% of the vote = more than the Nats)”, or (after years acting as assuagers of policy and apologists for Howard) concentrates our electorate’s attention through it’s negative campaign PR/publicity re Labor, through the volume of it’s published negativity?
    Like committing resources to rectify an under-reported/balanced view of the news?
    With virtually one paper in the state – how else do so many of us get the news, other than the way the “Curry or Maul” chooses to frame it? When editors have the final say on what qualifies as the “public interest” – worth printing and thus “circulation”? And what will be “Left out”?

  2. nerk

    Interesting that quite a few of them try the line that accepting donations would hopelessly compromise their hitherto pristine ethical standards. Not sure I see how philanthropic donations raise any more complex conflicts of interest than they already experience every day when their money comes from shareholders and corporate advertising. And that’s before you talk about the mutual back-scratching relationship with (particularly political) key sources and lobbyists.

  3. FunkyJ

    I’m more interested to know what Crikey would do in the same circumstances…

  4. Ian

    [ David Fagan, editor-in-chief of Courier-Mail parent News Queensland, says he wouldn’t accept a donation if it was offered because “diverting charitable funds from the needy is morally flawed and aimed only at feeding the indulgent who want to serve narrow interests”. ]

    Some one from News Ltd talking about ” morally flawed”? I have to ask…is it April 1st.

  5. klewso

    Too true Ian – fine words don’t make intentions – but they can hide them.
    There’s a bloke that takes a page last Saturday to have another “industrial-strength egocentric” go at “this government” over what his media considers it’s ham-fisted “handling of the mishandling of self-regulation by the media” – and uses as “evidence” of his bona fides “what the paper stands for” :- “good government, opportunity for small business to grow, sensible development of the state and the opportunity for each generation of children to advance through education and a fair go”?

    [So check their history – apparently “good government” doesn’t include Green representation (even if 1:8/9 of us vote primarily for them and they only get 1:150 seats in the federal house of legislation – and the stable rail and bray against the more representative, of the electorate’s wishes, in the Senate as “disproportionate and unrepresentative”? While the Liberals get little more than 1:3 votes and the Nats less than the Greens?) – and it’s once in a blue moon Labor gets anything like a complimentary commentary on whatever they do – but get the prolonged bastinado with big negative PR stick when they screw up? Compared to the positive : blithe ignorance (depending on embarrassment factor – ignorance for the most embarrassing) PR reserved for Conservatives?
    “Opportunity for small business (as long as it suits their criteria)”.
    “Sensible development” doesn’t have to go through red-tape – like impact studies – and it’s undertaken by the Right mob.
    “Education” – where league tables and superficial inflammatory analysis sells copy – and tertiary fees exclude the less affluent from studying (= “more foreign doctors” and such), after such education supplementary funding was diverted to “fend-for-yourselves tax cuts”, endorsed by the paper.
    And their fair go for some (Darcy, Groves, Conservative parties/governments) while summarily condemning out-of-hand others, under an avalanche of negativity?
    A media behemoth which, with it’s dominance of market share, in it’s less than full and frank fashion, playing partisan politics, coupled to a lack of competition for views (to round out the education of the electorate. And if some are going to argue “the diversity of on-line news” :- how many older voters own computers or are literate in them? Relying on the media for views into news?) – doesn’t serve democracy and the people half as much as it does it’s own agenda of it’s own Murdochracy? Despite all these florid platitudes – hansom is as hansom does!
    Look at the “Newman Dictatorship” in Queensland – how much influenced by the paper in it’s dominance of the image market (where the less well resourced/lazy media follow it’s lead – till it leads up a dry gully and they all evaporate into a cloud of journalistic self-absolution), pushing buttons, framing Labor much as it does the NSW Blues?]

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