judith neilson

Details around Sydney billionaire Judith Neilson’s newly-announced $100 million philanthropic journalism donation are still scarce, but philanthropy is increasingly funding public-interest journalism around the world, and experts say we’re likely to see more in Australia too.

Neilson, the ex-wife of investment manager Kerr Neilson and director of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, announced her new journalism institute last week, saying its mission would be: “to celebrate and encourage quality journalism in Australia and the world through education and grants and by hosting lively events on the big issues of the day”.

And today she has written in The Australian that she wants the institute to “sit in the middle of the public square”:

The so-called public square has been rapidly transformed. Debates are conducted in ‘echo chambers’ which have no space for alternative points of view or calm and rational debate. Anyone with a Twitter account can derail an otherwise sensible discussion. The very concept of ‘truth’ is now routinely challenged. I hope the institute I am establishing can do something to push back against this trend.

Neilson’s announcement comes days after the Canadian government announced a $621 million package that included charitable status for non-profit news outlets, which has also been flagged as an option by an Australian Senate committee looking at the future of public interest journalism earlier this year.

In the US, philanthropically-funded journalism has increased rapidly over the past decade. Monash University adjunct senior lecturer Bill Birnbauer, whose book, The Rise of Nonprofit Investigative Journalism in the United States, will be released next month, estimated that over the past seven or eight years, about a billion dollars had been donated to non-profit media in the US. The number of non-profit media organisations has increased from 27 to 200 in the past 10 years, Birnbauer said.

“There’s a culture of giving that we don’t have in Australia,” Birnbauer told Crikey. “There are significant cultural, financial, economic differences between the US and Australia. The Judith Neilson initiative is really exciting and I’m staggered by the amount she’s committing, especially considering the climate’s without tax deductibility or any clear agenda or what the institution will be funding.”

Birnbauer said there were still a lot of questions about the Neilson initiative to be answered, including how much investigative journalism it would fund, or whether there would be a particular areas it would follow.

“I’ve always believed there are enough civically minded wealthy people and foundations in Australia who are concerned about what’s happening in democracy and the domination of legacy media, of job losses, of thinner, smaller newspapers, the growth of celebrity. There are sufficient numbers of those people for the funding of serious journalism,” he said.

But Birnbauer said the institute’s success relied on it finding a sustainable model. “You need professional journalists, not activists — independent journalists interested in producing news of public benefits, and you need a business model,” he said.

There would be ethical issues too, he said. “Foundations and founders generally want something,” he said. “What they want is not always to direct stories, but putting an issue on the agenda is enough — in the market of news stories, normal news judgement will be put aside.”

He said one of the trends for non-profit journalism in the US was for centres dedicated to particular areas, such as environment, criminal justice, education and other civic matters. 

Philanthropy Australia CEO Sarah Davies said she wasn’t surprised that journalism was the subject of Neilson’s gift. “There is more and more general concern and discussion around the critical nature of the fourth estate,” she told Crikey. “In the last 18 months to two years, there’s been a growing concern over the state of independent journalism. There have been a group of philanthropists who have been mulling this question over. This is a major first move.”

Davies said that philanthropically-funded journalism was a good thing for independent journalism. “Philanthropy is part of a democracy, and it can take risks and it can fail with success, which for-profit businesses can’t,” she said. “When we think of the fourth estate, we need to build new business models.”