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Journalism experts call for government support for a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute

The establishment of a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute was recommended by a cross-industry working group, but remains stalled due to lack of start up funding.

Nick McGowan-Lowe, Rachel Hamada, Richard Walker and Joyce Macmillan discuss SPIJI and the No News is Bad News event in Edinburgh
Nick McGowan-Lowe, Rachel Hamada, Richard Walker and Joyce Macmillan discuss SPIJI and the No News is Bad News event in Edinburgh | Photo by Iain Mclellan

Journalism experts called for the Scottish Government to support the development of the Public Interest Journalism Institute at the ‘No News is Good News’ local journalism conference in Edinburgh. 

The event, hosted by the Scottish Beacon as part of Indie News Week and the ‘No News is Bad News’ campaign, platformed an array of panel discussions, talks, and workshops about the future of indepenedent local journalism in Scotland.

High on the agenda were discussions about the value of local and hyperlocal news and the threats facing independent media in Scotland.Prominent figures in Scottish media convened to explore the evolving role of journalism in society and the challenges facing the industry.

In a panel on this issue, the discussion was led by Nick McGowan-Lowe the NUJ’s national organiser for Scotland. He was joined by Rachel Hamada, Director of the Take One Action Film Festival and co-founder of The Ferret, Richard Walker, founding editor of the Sunday Herald, and Joyce McMillan theatre critic and columnist at The Scotsman. All of the speakers have been involved in discussions of an establishment of an institute to take forward this issue.

The conversation ranged from the critical functions of the media, the impact of financial constraints, and the prospects for sustaining investigative journalism.

The discussion commenced with a fundamental question posed by Nick on the purpose of the media. Drawing from historical contexts and contemporary challenges, panellists underscored the indispensable role of the media in fostering informed citizenship and facilitating democratic deliberation. 

Speaking on the importance of public service media, Joyce McMillan, critic and columnist at the Scotsman, said:

“It’s clear that the media is the lifeblood of any kind of working polity. You can’t have a political community without reasonably reliable communications.

“Media is vital as a way of holding communities together, enabling them to assess the situation that they’re in, and enabling them to make informed decisions.”

The focus of the panel discussion was the need for a functioning Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute to support the development of Scottish-based news outlets and further the impact of community journalism.

Because, amidst changing business models and economic pressures, the traditional mechanisms sustaining journalism have been strained. Joyce lamented the diminishing resources available, emphasising the detrimental effects on both local and national coverage. She noted:

“We’re seeing newsrooms shrink, investigative teams disbanded, and important stories left untold. This isn’t just a loss for journalists; it’s a loss for society as a whole.”

A public interest journalism institute was noted as the main recommendation of the Scottish Government-commissioned working group that published its report back in November 2021. 

The working group was set up responsive to covid-related pressures on Scottish media organisations and longer-term issues facing the future of local news. It brought together leading experts from across the industry for in depth discussions on what could be done.

The main recommendations contained within the report were:

  • Establish the “Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute” to develop and support public interest journalism in Scotland.
  • Enable non-profit public interest news providers to register as charities or create an alternative legal status with similar tax benefits.
  • Embed media literacy in the school curriculum and launch a voucher scheme for young people to access public interest journalism for free.
  • Examine the feasibility of allowing community groups to take over local news publications in danger of closing.
  • Conduct an annual audit of Scottish Government advertising investment and allocate at least 25% of the budget to public interest news providers.
  • Conduct an annual audit of public notices, improve their accessibility, and issue best practice guidelines for promoting them.
  • Work with the UK Government to ensure the Digital Markets Unit supports public interest news providers and encourage big tech companies to support SPIJI.
  • Engage with the UK Government to create tax incentives for businesses to advertise with public interest news providers.

Describing the origins of the idea, Joyce explained:

“We thought that in this difficult climate for journalism, we could set up the kind of institute that tasks itself with keeping an eye on public interest journalism and brings together everyone concerned about it.

“That’s how the idea for the institute was born. It was the one clear recommendation which we thought that we could take forward with some modest support.”

Despite these recommendations, a lack of funding mean that momentum for the institute’s development have fallen short of expectations. Those involved with the working group have on a voluntary basis and highlighted lack of a dedicated, paid position means that little progress has been made. 

The response from Angus Robertson MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, was positive, but no further support has been forthcoming so far.

Speaking about current funding prospects, Rachel Hamada, said:

“We pitched to the Scottish Government suggesting that they could match funding if we found a funder within the industry… For whatever reason, the government has been clear that they in principle think this is a great thing, they can’t do anything.”

All were in agreement that more support is needed to sustain quality journalism and that public money should be seen as a legitimate way to fund it.

They answered concerns that some had about whether the state should have a hand in funding media by pointing to successful examples from other countries where subsidies already exist in different forms without issues – including a £200,000 fund made available by the Welsh government to help strengthen local journalism,

Rachel Hamada emphasised how the project is currently stalled: 

“We think the institute has the potential to be a hub for all sorts of initiatives – providing training, doing research, building media literacy. But it’s quite difficult for us to reach the next steps without having some kind of seed or pipeline funding… even just a few thousand pounds to employ someone to do a piece of work looking into applying for funding could get it off the ground.”

These calls for goverment support were echoed in discussions throughout the rest of the day, including in a key note speech by Richard Leonard MSP and in a panel about the value of journalism in Scotland’s communities.

Throughout June, we are taking part in the ‘No News is Bad News’ campaign – which is founded on the belief that a well-informed community is more able to act together to shape its own future, that local news is fundamental to a healthy democratic society and invaluable in helping to create strong communities.

As part of this campaign, any money we raise for the project during June will be doubled by an Indie News Fund. If our coverage has helped you understand our community a little bit better, please consider supporting our Crowdfunder.