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.

Peter Fray

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