Nobody can doubt the depth of Graeme Wood’s concern about journalism, despite his decision to ditch The Global Mail, the Australian start-up he founded with a promise of $15 million or more in funding less than two years ago. The Mail is not Wood’s only venture in the sector; last year he also funded the United States Centre for Public Integrity and, of course, is the angel investor behind the presence of The Guardian in Australia.
Of these ventures it is the latter — which he has described as an investment rather than a donation — that is most clearly a success. The Guardian has exceeded its own forecasts for revenue and profit, and is expected to expand its Australian presence this year.
While the longer-term success of The Guardian in making the leap from loss-making British brand to sustainable global venture is an experiment in progress, in terms of bang-for-buck Wood’s investment in it makes The Global Mail look sad.
After a rocky start and a change of focus in the middle of last year, The Global Mail published some astonishingly good material but failed to make much of an impact on the Australian polity.
Why? To the outside observer, the outlet seemed oddly ill-prepared for its launch, despite months of planning. To begin with it lacked people with experience in online publication, and offers of collaboration or assistance from those who might have helped were ignored or rejected.
Having declared that it would focus on neglected topics and investigative projects, until its change of focus it published a great deal of material of the kind that one might read in any mainstream media outlet.
It was debilitated by internal disputes, and never came up with a decent marketing strategy, meaning its best material failed to reach the audience it deserved. Judging from the comments on the site this week, many people found out about The Global Mail only when they heard it was likely to close. Which is a shame, because at its best it was very good indeed.
Nor did The Global Mail seem to give any thought to what might happen if Wood’s interest ended. There was no plan to move from a philanthropic donor to a self-supporting or even semi-self supporting model.
So what, if anything, can we learn from Australia’s first philanthropically funded journalism outlet?
In this fast changing sphere, any conclusions must be tentative, but here as well as internationally the indications are that philanthropy is not likely to be a long-term, broad answer to the failures of the news media business models.
As Bill Birnbauer has reported in the United States, there are dozens of ventures relying on individual- and foundation-based philanthropy, and they are at the forefront of investigative reporting, often supplying copy or working in partnerships with mainstream outlets. But they are nearly all under pressure to diversity their sources of funding.
The trend in the US includes centres being established at universities, where they can draw support from an association with teaching and research programs as well as philanthropy. Philanthropic foundations want to seed new things, and respond to crises. They do not usually want to be the funding source for enterprises in the long term.
I don’t think this means that charity has no place in the future of journalism. People are likely to continue to fund particular journalism projects when they have an interest in the outcome. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation‘s nascent channel on the crowdfunding site Pozible intends to explore this idea. Already, many artists and writers are getting significant amounts of money from Pozible, but the potential of crowdfunding journalism is relatively unexplored.
As Wood’s continued engagement in the sector shows, it is likely that people such as him — concerned about civic society — will continue to fund particular projects and organisations when they can see a clear impact and return. All this will be part of the mix as society works out new ways of keeping itself informed, but it is unlikely to be the whole answer all of the time.
The philanthropic dollar must be used to seed the future, not used as a permanent prop.
*Declaration: Margaret Simons is director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is also a co-supervisor of Bill Birnbauer’s Phd research, which is referred to in this article. She was a founder and remains a board member of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation.