A prominent journalism lobby group has asked the Gillard government to let “mum and dad” investors and corporate donors write off their donations to fledgling non-profit media organisations.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation — an independent body whose members include several notable j-school academics — wrote to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy last week “calling for mechanisms to promote philanthropic support for public interest journalism, such as tax deductibility for not-for-profit media organisations or for journalistic investigations”.

The suggestion formed a key suggestion of the recent Finkelstein report into the media, that stated philanthropists and smaller donors should be able to shell out funds for fresh initiatives with the encouragement of the tax man.

A foundation spokesperson, Monash University lecturer and former Age investigative legend Bill Birnbauer, says the focus needs to be shifted away from saving newspapers towards subsidised investments in public interest journalism centres — 75 of which have popped up with great success in the United States.

“We are in a time of incredible transition in the media and what is needed now is a recognition that meeting the information needs of communities is no longer the sole responsibility of newspapers,” he said. “The problem we face needs to be re-framed from one of ‘saving’ newspapers to finding new ways of preserving the core of quality journalism on a variety of digital platforms.”

Birnbauer told Crikey that the resulting institutions “should be treated like museums and galleries … given the lack of diversity in Australia it might prompt more voices and more outlets to be formed”.

In the US, initiatives like ProPublica have successfully emerged to conduct time-consuming, resource-heavy investigations increasingly shirked by what is left of the dead tree press. The stories — like the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — can then be syndicated across the mainstream media.

Another corking example is the California Watch website, which recently completed a multimedia-laden investigation into earthquake-prone schools that was picked up by a number of established west coast mastheads.

Birnbauer says the point is not to compete with the mainstream media, but to work with it. He says a recent example of a philanthropist-funded online venture, The Global Mail, backed by entrepreneur Graeme Wood, has failed in its mission to become a local ProPublica because of its lack of penetration and depth.

“They are similar in that one rich guy is funding them but they’re completely different in what they’re producing,” he said.

Despite Australia’s population deficit, the potential for a boom in non-profit journalism could be engineered with the right tax laws.

“The fact that there are now about 75 investigative non-profit reporting centres in the US is due to the fact that donations to them are tax deductible,” Birnbauer said. “Any reporting organisation created under this model in Australia would have to operate on a non-profit basis in order to attract tax deductibility. If successful, a commercial model could eventuate in future.”

While grassroots supporters may be willing to contribute micro-amounts to such a service, entrepreneurs may still be reluctant to stump up the necessary cash — Australia has one of the most disappointing per capita rates of philanthropic donation in the developed world.

Wood, a BRW Rich Lister, is an outlier in having committed $3 million a year for five years to The Global Mail, without any assistance from the taxpayer.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation is hoping to meet with Conroy to discuss the proposal in coming months.

Peter Fray

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