"We Think About Journalism Like We Did 50 Years Ago"

May 16, 2018

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) is a British charity focused on supporting people who address the root causes of conflict and injustice.  It was founded in1904 by Joseph Rowntree, an English Quaker philanthropist and businessman from York.

Although focused on the U.K., the charity sometimes funds projects elsewhere in the European Union. Some of its funding goes into media and journalism.

Nick Perks, who leads on the Power and Accountability programme at the JRCT , believes that the economic issue is the biggest challenge journalism is facing these days. JRCT doesn’t have the financial power to influence media markets (and thus it doesn’t fund content production), but it wants to play a bigger role in influencing the debates about the future of journalism. That is a niche yet to be filled, in Perks’ opinion.

“There aren’t that many independent civil society organizations that are consciously thinking about the future of the media, or involved in the future of the media,” Perks said in an interview with the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS).

Building constructive debates around new media is something that the JRCT is planning to do in the future.

CMDS: What is your view about the biggest changes in independent journalism today?

Nick Perks: First of all, I have to say that our foundation’s main focus is on the U.K. although we also fund on the pan-European level a bit.

I think the biggest challenge for journalism at the moment is really an economic one. For a long time, we had an economic model that has been based on print publications, and has been supported through advertising and sales, and that model is really struggling in the U.K., but I guess more widely as well.

So the shift to digital presents lots of challenges and some opportunities but I think the key question is how the economics of it will work out.

Certainly in the U.K. we’ve seen a real hollowing out of any kind of independent local media. It's not all gone but there have been far fewer journalistic resources than in the past. Some owners have tried to pursue profits. [In some cases], it is really about basic viability. That leads, of course, to all sorts of other challenges and while there are challenges to press freedom and so forth, the economic one seems like the tidal wave to me.

The way people are getting information is very different now. Broadcasters still play a significant role but particularly among the younger generations even broadcasters have considerably less impact as more and more people are getting information via search engines or social media. This has a lot of implications in terms of credibility and accuracy.

There are also legacy issues in the U.K. about the behavior of the traditional media and, again, in terms of accuracy and the potential role in fostering hateful attitudes. So there are multiple issues but the economic challenge tends to drive the others, paired with technology.

CMDS: How many of these challenges does the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust strategically address?

Nick Perks: I don't think we can address the economic challenge, and one thing that we clearly don't do is to fund directly journalism. There are of course a lot of gray areas and while we’ve occasionally supported independent investigative journalism projects, which are closely aligned to our work in other fields such as peace and security, we can’t fill the gap directly in terms of our media stream of work.

We nevertheless try to provide some kind of support to new emerging models of community journalism, through funding organizations that provide training to emerging community newspapers or community websites, and we also supported Internews to help community radio in the U.K. We do support organizations that work with current mainstream media about their way of approaching things so we fund a project called Constructive Journalism and we also fund a media program with the End Violence Against Women coalition to engage with journalists about how they report on violence against women.

What we’re also thinking of doing more in the future is to engage with debates about the future of the media, particularly the gatekeepers, regulation and responsibilities on new forms of media.

CMDS: Have any of the changes and developments in media mentioned before prompted you to change your funding strategy?

Nick Perks: I think we’re in the process of thinking about that. We’ve been realizing over the last year or so that social media is the mainstream now and we've seen all the potential impacts on democratic processes, how these companies play a key role within the economic system and so forth.

The difficulty is that there are a lot of interconnected issues and it's very easy to quickly get lost in this world, or to have very interesting but also very theoretical, rather abstract conversations on, for example, the nature of truth, or the nature of intelligence going forward.

I think our struggle at the moment is to find out what would be the appropriate ways for us to enter some of those debates without becoming another echo chamber and to actually find something that we can address.

As we are interested in democratic and corporate accountability, one of the ways in for us would be around recognizing that these large companies […] potentially have the same responsibility and are accountable as other large companies. All transnational companies can be resistant to national regulations, but these companies particularly so. Often there’s very little shareholder or consumer influence, partly because Google and Twitter are efficient and reliable tools so people use them.

But now we are seeing the downsides, and how these companies shouldn’t have entirely been given a free hand.

CMDS: What is your long-term view on the future of journalism?

Nick Perks: I think the only thing I’m confident about is that there are further changes to come. It's very difficult to predict the future but going back to the economic model, I think there’s an open question whether people are willing to pay for quality content and clearly they are as we can see, for example, with Netflix.

I think there will be further changes in terms of how journalism is funded.  I don't know what those changes will actually be, but I don’t think it’s realistic to hope that things will stay the same as they are now. We might end up with a thriving local journalism sector that deals with a certain set of news or with a Guardian-style membership model, or paywalls. I’m sure we’ll have new innovations in terms of how people subscribe.

We obviously have one model with broadcasters, a very different model with traditional media websites, and we also have free-of-charge models.

I also think that the way we think about journalism will also change. [How we think about journalism] is still very much rooted in a model that was true 50 years ago, even though journalists don't work that way anymore. I don’t know if the profession will find new ways of redefining what being a journalist means, which used to be implicit but now it may need to be made more explicit.

It should be clearer that journalists who contribute to the public benefit have certain kinds of protections and freedoms that go with journalism but that doesn’t just apply to anybody wanting to be employed by a media organization. Actually, that shouldn’t be the test anymore. It should be something about what they do as a profession in the same way as we think about other professions.

CMDS: Through our research we found that philanthropy plays a very small part when it comes to funding journalism. Compared to how much money the government and big companies spend on media, philanthropy is minuscule, nearly incomparable. At the same time, when we analyzed some of the initiatives funded by philanthropies, we found that many of them have a lot of impact, in spite of their limited means for funding. This is, of course, very much because they identify the right niche for their support. So what is the niche that you’ve identified for your organization in this area?

Nick Perks: We’re doing a little bit of fostering community journalism, we support organizations that engage with traditional journalism on how they report on certain subjects and, thirdly, we also help – and we’re planning to do more so in the future – build constructive debates around new media.

What we can also see, at least when it comes to the U.K., is that there is no big civil society sector around the [future of journalism] issue. There aren’t that many independent civil society organizations that are consciously thinking about the future of the media, or involved in the future of the media, although there are obviously hundreds that use media as a tool.

At the moment we are still spreading the net quite wide because there isn’t a lot going on but if those sectors grow more in the future, we might need to select between those options. Other than saying that we’re not going to fund content production, I think at the moment we’ve got quite an open mind on what the civil society’s contributions might be.

Nick Perks has been Trust Secretary since August 2012, having previously worked for JRCT as Assistant Trust Secretary between 2001 and 2008.  He has previously been a trustee of the Friends Provident Charitable Foundation and holds post-graduate qualifications in management and consultancy. Nick leads on the Power and Accountability programme.

Donor profile

Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Year of foundation: 1904
Legal status: charitable trust
Countries covered by grants in journalism: U.K. (and in theory, also pan-EU, but no current grants)
Source of funding: independent endowment
Total yearly budget: €7.5m
Average spending in media and journalism programs: €150,000 per year
Yearly spend (2017): €150,000
Grantees in the media and journalism field (current):

  • Internews
  • Centre for Investigative Journalism
  • Bureau for Investigative Journalism
  • End Violence Against Women coalition
  • Full Fact
  • NCVO (Constructive Journalism)


Academic Area: