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Government-backed pilot fund launched for public interest news

11 November 2019

Innovation charity Nesta has opened the Future News Fund to pilot new approaches to public interest news so communities in England can have access to reliable and accurate news about the issues that matter most to them.

The fund is a response to the severe challenges in public interest news detailed in the Cairncross Review and will provide grants to prototype, including grant funding to prototype new solutions and an accelerator to support early-stage businesses.            

  • The announcement coincides with new analysis from Nesta that has found that already disadvantaged areas are more likely to have lower levels of journalistic activity
  • The Prototyping Sprint part of the fund will provide up to £100,000 and support to projects that will test new ideas for sustainable public interest news
  • The Accelerator track will provide structured business-building support and up to £100,000 funding for start-up businesses using technology to support the ecosystem of generation and delivery of public interest news.

Already disadvantaged communities that tend to have older populations, higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of education are particularly affected by a decline in journalistic activity, according to Nesta analysis of official figures. These communities are losing a vital way to hold those in power to account, to participate in democracy and to feel part of a shared community.

Existing analysis shows that there has been a steep decline in the number of journalists and public interest news outlets at a local and regional level, and there are few sources of revenue or funding available to spark innovative responses. This is worrying, not just for the industry itself but for communities who are losing a vital way to hold those in power to account, to participate in democracy and to feel part of a shared community, particularly at a time when trust in politicians and institutions is falling.

The Cairncross Review found that print sales of local newspapers had more than halved in the decade to 2017. The review recommended an innovation fund to support public interest news and Nesta was appointed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to run a pilot fund to explore new ways of providing public interest news. Nesta’s analysis suggests that almost half of local authorities in the UK have less than 10 people working in newspaper publishing.

The Future News Fund, which is now open for applications, will pilot new approaches to public interest news so communities across England can have access to reliable and accurate news about the issues that matter most to them.

The fund is divided into two tracks and each track will offer grant funding of £20,000 to £100,000 for each project depending on its scope.

In addition to funding the Prototyping Sprint will provide:

  • Targeted support to build and test a specific idea for any organisation, either alone or in partnership
  • Grant funding to prototype/deploy and understand the potential impact of proposed solution
  • Support for shortlisted organisations to understand the impact desired and plan for it
  • Bespoke and masterclass support from news, journalism, public engagement and digital experts
  • London-based and regional workshops across the country
  • Support from sector and business experts.

The Accelerator track which will be delivered by Bethnal Green Ventures, Europe’s leading early-stage investor in tech for good running their flagship tech for good programme in London since 2012. It will provide:

  • A structured business-building programme for early stage for-profit businesses using technology to support the ecosystem of generation and delivery of public interest news with this funding
  • Grant funding to be deployed over the course of the accelerator programme against pre-agreed milestones which progress the business
  • Support from sector experts and mentors and fellow entrepreneurs
  • Three months London office space for up to two members of each team.

This pilot fund will particularly focus on innovations that reimagine engagement of communities in and could improve financial sustainability of public interest news, in particular at local level and for underserved communities.

Valerie Mocker, Future News Fund Lead, said:

"Public interest news is part of the immune system that keeps our democracy healthy. Everyone should be able to connect quickly to information as a way to hold public institutions such as politicians, councils, courts or school boards to account. Everyone  should have access to a platform for the issues and campaigns that matter to you most locally. The Cairncross Review confirmed the already common understanding that public interest news, especially at local level, has collapsed. Ensuring everyone has access to reliable, accurate and high-quality public interest news is a key part of a functioning society. The solution is not to simply put more money into existing journalism, as high quality as much of it is, but to completely transform the way that public interest news is created, distributed and sustained for future generations. The best ideas to address this urgent challenge will not just come from inside the established industry and we want to support a wide variety of organisations to take part. Any organisation that has an idea to support sustainable public interest news, should visit the Nesta website and get their application in by 8 December."

Nigel Adams, minister for sport, media and the creative Industries, said: 

"Journalists hold the powerful to account and shine a light on important issues the public need to know about. We are determined to support those doing this vital work and have established the Future News Fund to act as a catalyst for new ideas. It's great that the scheme is opening for bids and I look forward to seeing a raft of new approaches to help create innovative ways to share public interest news."

The NUJ's general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, is on the advisory board for the project.

Tags: , cairncross review, local new matters, democracy, local journalism, funding