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Charitable and Trust Ownership of News Organisations

Nicholas Chan writes:

Newspapers in the red, teetering on the brink – has the future for news organisations ever seemed so uncertain? A one-day symposium on charitable and trust ownership of news organisations, held on 13 September at the Reuters Institute, sought to explore how the challenges faced by the traditional business model may be better addressed through charitable structures of news ownership, and the further challenges that may lie therein.

Robert Picard, visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute, began the symposium by outlining three main types of alternative ownership: charitable ownership, charitably-supported media and trust ownership. Andrew Phillips, a specialist in charity law and founder of law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, spoke about the opportunities provided by English charity law for local newspapers to be owned instead by a charity, enabling it to continue providing public benefit to its locality, without necessarily having to compromise on local political debate.

Seven presentations offered examples of successful forms of charitable ownership in the UK and around the world. Maleiha Malik, a director at the Scott Trust, spoke about the Trust's commitment to liberal journalism, expressed in its responsibility for The Guardian newspaper. Len Berkowitz, director at the Thomson Reuters Share Company recounted how Reuters' five founding principles, while not without conflict, were essential when it came to considering the 2007 merger with Thomson. Neil Fowler, currently Guardian research fellow at Oxford's Nuffield College, presented findings from his ongoing study of change in the structure of regional newspapers in the UK, including the presence of independently-owned newspapers.

Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute (owner of the St. Petersburg Times, Florida) addressed how trust ownership enabled the Times to embark on ventures that other organisations may be more apprehensive about in the short-run. John Honderich, chair of the board at the Torstar Corporation (owner of the Toronto Star) outlined the board's governance, led by the "five families" and the role of the 'Atkinson principles' in guiding contemporary decisionmaking. Jeanne Gapsys-Hutin, from Ouest-France, described the change to a non-profit structure for the newspaper as a way of preserving independence and protection from financial speculation. Chuck Lewis, Professor of Investigative Reporting at the American University and founder of the Center for Political Integrity, spoke of the challenges in establishing an independent center for quality journalism, such as financial security and legal protection.

A panel session, including some of the presenters, brought proceedings to a close by drawing out significant themes from earlier sessions. One constant throughout the day's discussion focused on the importance of values and principles to the news organisation, particularly as a balancing influence to the narrow, short-term pursuit of the profit motive. All the news organisations concerned had profitability as a core aim and to be run as a money-making business – but in ways guided by the values embodied in their organisations that enabled a long-term view. Charitable ownership, for instance, was viewed as a means to providing some degree of financial protection for these values. How governance structures protected and fufilled their responsibility towards these values was a key issue – such as the relationship and interplay between the commercial and trust boards, and the editorial independence achieved by such structures.

Participants also discussed both the different opportunities available in using forms of charitable ownership to turn around established news organisations, as well as starting new ones up from scratch, as was the case with Chuck Lewis' Center for Political Integrity. In both cases, however, organisations need to confront the long-term challenge of financial sustainability. For start-ups, this meant ensuring a diversity of funding sources and the depth of revenue-earning opportunities. For existing organisations, this meant considering seriously whether charitable ownership could make a difference for commercial success. Other points of debate included the role that grant-giving charitable foundations could play; the social importance of news organisations in a democratic polity; issues of transparency and accountability; the opportunities and challenges of family ownership over generations; and differences in tax and legal systems across countries.

The issues raised throughout the symposium will be the starting point for a future publication by the Reuters Institute, seeking to document the place and significance of charitable forms of ownership in the broader landscape of news organisations, as well as offer considerations for policymakers, news organisation owners, and charitable foundations interested in the media industry.