I have a crazy idea about how to fund journalism

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Image via Cimexus on Flickr.

This week billionaire mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest donated $65 million to Western Australian universities for research scholarships in science and technology and for a new residential college.

My first thought was, gosh, that is a lot of money, how very generous. My second thought was, imagine if he had given that to some newspapers, they could do with some philanthropic donations. And my third thought was, actually that would probably not be great for journalistic independence.

I wish that journalism could be funded by philanthropy. And in some cases it can – millionaire founder of accommodation and travel website Wotif.com Graeme Wood has given grants to The Global Mail, The Guardian Australia and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. But due to commercial reality etc, moves in the direction of paywalls appear more common than grants from kindly squillionaires.

I get the argument that online journalism should go behind a paywall because it’s expensive to produce and charging readers for the product is one way to pay the journalists that create it. This makes sense. I am a journalist, I like getting paid for my work, paywalls help make that happen. But sometimes paywalls are spoken about as a way of going back to a golden age when people paid for the news, of correcting the mistake of offering content online for free. This makes me uneasy because readers only ever paid a token amount for print newspapers. Sales revenue wasn’t what paid journalists’ wages. It was classified advertising revenue, referred to as rivers of gold.

So if journalism was traditionally funded by things other than the sale of journalism, perhaps it could be again.

And here is my crazy idea:

Instead of asking philanthropic businesspeople to fund journalism, we should teach journalists to be philanthropic businesspeople.

Because journalists are words people, sometimes we are wary of numbers. We find tax returns and invoices and calculating hourly rates a bit foreign. I’ve seen young journalists get so used to doing freelance work for free or for peanuts that when someone does pay them fairly it feels shocking, undeserved, almost guilt-inducing. I’ve seen whip-smart writers’ eyes glaze over when I try to explain that the US is basically printing money to try to stimulate its economy.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our job is that we learn about all kinds of complex issues and explain them to our readers. There’s no reason why we can’t also learn about how to be philanthropic businesspeople.

There could even be a masters course in how to be a philanthropic businessperson journalist. Experts would come and teach a class of journalists who are passionate about the future of journalism and open to learning something new how to make lots of money, starting from beginner’s level. The bulk of the course would cover whatever people do to make lots of money, like trading shares, trading currency, investing in property, starting tech businesses, starting labour hire businesses, buying paintings from artists collected by advertising guru Charles Saatchi and then selling them for a profit, and whatever else it is that philanthropic businesspeople do to make lots of money. There would also be a component where students look at different historical and contemporary models of funding journalism around the world and study the impact of big scoops (in a more sophisticated way than “Hands up if you know who Woodward and Bernstein are”).

Graduates cajole their way into a job at a medium-to-large established news organisation, do a Kickstarter campaign to raise start-up capital from readers, and spend their work hours making money by trading shares or buying paintings or investing in property or whatever. Their job is just to make lots of money, not to write news. They make a five-year plan showing managers that in that time, they can create enough money to fund their own position and hire one extra investigative reporter. (I am conscious that the rate of return required to do so makes this a particularly ambitious part of a plan that is fairly crazy anyway, but I did warn you it was a crazy idea.) They hire an investigative reporter who gets awesome scoops. Then the philanthropic businessperson journalist continues making money. Over the long term, the philanthropic businessperson journalist makes enough money to hire some more reporters and some more philanthropic businesspeople, who as a team make even more money and hire even more reporters. Everyone lives happily ever after.

I know it sounds crazy. I know there are holes in the plan. But I wonder if the general idea of teaching journalists to be philanthropic businesspeople, and of news organisations hiring people to make money to fund journalism in ways other than through selling journalism, just might have legs.

What do you think?

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