Investigating a sustainable future for public interest journalism


Five birthday wishes from Croakey Health Media

October 11, 2023

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Dr Melissa Sweet, Editor-in-Chief of not for profit public interest journalism outlet Croakey Health Media, shares her view on how to help Australia’s not for profit journalism sector grow.

Croakey Health Media recently celebrated our fifth birthday as a not for profit public interest journalism organisation, after evolving since 2007 as an independent journalism project.

Our first five years have been something of a roller coaster ride – we’ve celebrated many “ups”, including the growing reach and impact of our unique journalistic endeavour.

We are unique because of our focus on health equity, investigating health in all policies and amplifying the health issues of under-served communities. We also report on public interest journalism as an important determinant of health, and advocate for the sector through submissions.

But we’ve also experienced plenty of “dips” – mainly due to the challenges of trying to remain financially sustainable in an operating and policy environment that is generally unsupportive of independent media, especially of the not-for-profit variety.

As we celebrate this auspicious birthday, below are five wishes to help ensure we celebrate many more. But our wish-list is about much more than just our sustainability – it is about ensuring a diverse, sustainable public interest journalism sector that is better equipped to meet communities’ needs in the challenging decades that lie ahead.

1. Pathways for not for profit journalism
We are registered as a health charity because there is currently no pathway to register as a public interest journalism charity. As a result, the not-for-profit public interest journalism sector is under-developed in Australia despite its potential to address many policy and public interest concerns.

We have urged the Federal Government to support innovation and growth in our sector by developing a comprehensive policy framework for NFP journalism, and funding an implementation strategy over the next five years. The framework could include a clear, transparent, equitable pathway for appropriate entities to set up as a NFP public interest journalism organisation with Deductible Gift Recipient status. We currently have been unable to obtain DGR status.

2. Philanthropic support for not for profit journalism
In the United States, a nonpartisan group of 22 foundations recently announced the launch of Press Forward, a coalition committing more than $US 500 million over five years to help reinvigorate local news in America. Philanthropists could make a real difference to the Australian news and media landscape through such a collective effort here.

3. Support innovation driven by and with communities
Greater government support – for example, through dedicating a percentage of governments’ advertising spend to NFP models of public interest journalism – would be a catalyst for innovation that is driven by communities’ needs. Communities may be geographic or issues-based.

4. Whole-of-government responses
Our news and information system is broken at a time when escalating crises – including extreme weather events and other consequences of climate change – mean communities’ needs for reliable, relevant news and information are only going to grow. The issues extend well beyond the Communications Minister’s portfolio. A whole-of-government response is required, also addressing issues such as misinformation and disinformation.

5. The right to a safe, reliable and relevant news and information environment
We need to safeguard our news and information environment, and ensure it is driven by the needs of communities rather than corporations. We have developed some draft principles for developing a safer digital communications infrastructure, and are keen to hear your thoughts on their implications for public interest journalism.

As we told the Australian Treasury earlier this year, policies that contribute to greater media diversity and innovation that is focused on communities’ needs will have many wider benefits. These include:

  • Developing more diverse economies
  • Supporting a more informed public and policy debate
  • Counteracting misinformation and disinformation
  • Helping to address the dominant market power of digital platforms
  • Supporting engaged, participatory communities.

A stronger and more sustainable not for profit public interest journalism sector would thus help to strengthen Australian democracy at a time when democracies globally face significant challenges. At a time of escalating crises, including climate disruption, equitable access to reliable news and the accountability roles of public interest journalism will become ever-more important.

Dr Melissa Sweet is Editor-in-Chief and a founding director and member of Croakey Health Media.

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