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Towards a new era of public interest journalism

I’m no stranger to creating new global funds, but I’ve not been involved in one quite as timely as the International Fund for Public Interest Media.  Three months into the role as founding Executive Director, it’s worth reflecting on where we’ve got to and the next milestones we need to reach. 

In my previous roles I’ve created or helped create development funds like the Girls’ Education Challenge fund.  A global fund for girls’ education, it ended up with an annual budget of $100m, helping to get some of the world’s most marginalised girls into school.   

Unlike education, media is not traditionally a mainstream part of international development cooperation.  Outside of a very small number of donors and agencies, there aren’t clear departments to engage with.  And yet, almost everyone we talk to about the existential threat confronting independent media around the world agrees that, just like education, addressing the issue is urgent and vital and that not nearly enough is being done to support it.

In fact, I’ve not been involved in anything where the winds are blowing quite so hard in our direction. Many are realising just how vital a role independent media organisations play in the sharing of trustworthy, reliable information, countering mis- and disinformation, hosting public debate and holding power to account.

Alongside this, the international community is beginning to understand the seriousness of the economic as well as political challenges to public interest media. Media business models, long under threat, are collapsing under the strain of the pandemic’s impact on media finances, especially in low income countries. International development agencies in particular are waking up to the fact that a sector they assumed was largely self-sustaining – with all the incalculable benefits it brings to advancing democracy and development, from mitigating corruption to tackling infodemics - is unlikely to exist much longer in its current form.

For these and many more reasons we’ve covered in our feasibility study for the fund, now is a critical moment for public interest media to find its rightful place in global cooperation, as a global public good.  A new multilateral fund can help countries to forge a shared global agenda on media support, ushering in a new era of sustainable public interest journalism to help strengthen societies around the world.

Given the financial black hole facing so many independent media around the world, we urgently need to catalyse significant new funding. However, given the inherently political nature of media support, the mechanism by which we do this is critical. We believe the kinds of skills, expertise, and innovation needed to support media well and at scale are best achieved by creating an independent global vehicle.

Now is a critical moment for public interest media to find its rightful place in global cooperation, as a global public good.

Funding media presents different challenges to, say, vaccines or antiretrovirals. A funding body cannot be seen to represent a particular country or region or it could be undermined by accusations of geopolitical meddling. In order to be legitimate, it must be seen as scrupulously independent and locally administered and governed.  

With the International Fund for Public Interest Media, we have been at pains to create a truly independent multilateral body with a clear regional governance structure. Decisions on which media outlets to fund will be made transparently at the regional level under the overall governance of a highly expert board who will be accountable for the impact of donors’ investments. Communicating this crucial feature of the fund will be a key task for us in coming months.

It's exciting to see the momentum behind the fund growing day by day.  We are intensifying our engagements with governments and technology companies and have a lengthening and diverse list of respected backers and advisers, not least the supportive words from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

With a founding secretariat in place, a clear and detailed feasibility study, and sufficient funding from our core donor champions – Luminate, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the US National Endowment for Democracy – we aim to secure at least $100 million by early 2022. 

This first phase will be about testing the demand and impact of grant funding to assess whether it’s an effective, legitimate and efficient way of increasing support to independent media. We hope many others will join us on this journey to establish public interest media as a valued and resourced global good.