Public Interest Journalism Working Group minutes: January 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 21 January 2021.

Attendees and apologies


  • Stuart Birkett, Highland News and Media (SB)
  • Richard Bogie, News Scotland (RB)
  • Simon Cuthbert-Kerr, Scottish Government (SCK) (Chair) 
  • Rob Edwards, The Ferret (RE)
  • Rachel Hamada, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (RH)
  • Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director, Public Interest News Foundation (JH)
  • John McLellan, Scottish Newspaper Society (JMcL)
  • Joyce McMillan, independent journalist (JMcM)
  • Hans Marter, Shetland News (HM)
  • Emma Meese, Independent Community News Network (EM)
  • Allan Rennie, University of Stirling (AR)
  • John Toner, NUJ (JT)
  • Denise West, DC Thomson (DW)

Items and actions

Welcome and introduction

The meeting was chaired by SCK in the absence of the proposed Chair, who has moved post. A replacement Chair will be found. A list of attendees is at Annex A.

The group had provided biographies before the meeting which are set out in 2 the remit.

Defining public interest journalism

The group discussed the meaning of public interest journalism with a view to achieving an agreed definition for its purpose, using the Public Interest News Foundation’s definition as a starting point:

By ‘public interest news’, we mean information that is produced and disseminated to the public according to high standards of ethical conduct and best practice in journalism and which provides one or more of the following benefits to the public:

  • informs members of the public about matters of relevance to their role and responsibilities as citizens or
  • enables members of local communities to become aware of and understand matters of common concern to them as members of their community and which promotes their involvement and cooperation in such matters and community cohesion accordingly or
  • enables members of the public to participate in an informed manner in relevant democratic processes and, as a result, supports the legitimacy of the democratic process as a whole or
  • benefits the public by promoting charitable educational outcomes, such as improving public understanding of health and medical matters or the conservation of the environment  

The following points were made:

  • public journalism needs to be relevant and accurate; it must be trusted by readers
  • public interest journalism must have an audience, and popular journalism can still be in the public interest. Popular journalism may be a useful way to attract younger readers
  • local journalism can be in the public interest, and a subject does not necessarily need to have national importance to be in the public interest. Local-level public interest journalism can have an important role in supporting community cohesion
  • it was noted that local journalism often had to find a balance between objectivity and knowing the people they were reporting in; this was particularly the case in small communities and island communities
  • it is possible for public interest journalism to be partisan; however, it should be motivated by the public interest, not by a political agenda
  • comparisons with other countries were noted, including Norway and Australia. SG officials will provide the group with an overview of the approach in these and other countries

The group’s remit will be update to reflect the final agreed definition.

Agreement of remit

The group agreed that it needed to consider the whole ecosystem surrounding public interest journalism. Publishers of all sizes have a role to play in supporting public interest journalism.

The group agreed that the sustainability of public interest was a key concern. There are a number of ways in which this could be supported, including government support through advertising for titles of all sizes.    

The role of tech companies must also be considered, especially the use of content without payment. Australia might offer a model for this. 

It was agreed that mechanisms for communities to take ownership of existing titles were necessary. This could help maintain public interest journalism where established titles are considering closure.

The importance of building business skills in public interest journalism was noted, particularly where it was community-led. Training and development can support public interest journalism. It was suggested that the pooling of resources and sharing of information could support this approach.

A number of themes emerged that will be the focus of the group’s work:

  • funding models for public interest journalism
  • development of audience for public interest journalism

Amendment from meeting 3 March: in the agreement of the remit in meeting 2, it was decided that the foundation should be included in the discussions, therefore the theme should be revised to Development of audience for public interest journalism (including the potential for a Scottish journalism foundation).

  • enabling and supporting community-led public interest journalism

Frequency of meetings and ways of working

It was agreed that the group would conclude its work before the Scottish Parliament returns from summer recess, which is expected to be in early August.

It was agreed that in the first instance the group should meet again in February; beyond that the frequency of meetings will be determined by workstreams. Activity can also take place between meetings.

It was agreed that working groups should be established to consider discrete themes.

It was agreed that the group’s remit, membership and meeting notes will be published on the Scottish Government website.

It was agreed that the group’s membership should be more diverse.

It was agreed that future meetings should be focussed on specific topics so that the group can make recommendations across all agreed subjects.

Agreed actions

  • SG officials will provide the group with an overview of the approach to public interest journalism in Norway, Australia and other countries
  • SG officials will share the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture’s reply to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affair’s letter about public interest journalism
  • SG officials will invite new members so that the group is more diverse
  • Proposed time and date of next meeting (by MS Teams): 11.30am – 1.30pm, 26 February

Creative Industries, Screen and Media Unit
January 2021

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