Ian Burrell: Hail the philanthropists who have offered a future for serious journalism

Viewpoint: James Murdoch's idea of a news organisation is that "the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit"

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The Independent Online

Some good news at last for the future of serious journalism. Signs are emerging that a new form of philanthropy-funded investigative reporting in the public interest is going to have a viable future.

On New Year's Eve, the New York-based ProPublica organisation sent out a message to its 94,000 Twitter followers appealing for tax-deductible donations to help it fund its investigations. This was no desperate appeal. Two years ago this non-profit independent newsroom was supported by 100 donors; now it has 1,300. And for the past two years it has been able to put Pulitzer prizes on its shelf to show its value.

The model has helped inspire an Australian initiative called The Global Mail, which will launch next month in Sydney as an online news organisation with 17 staff and an annual budget of nearly £2m. For the first five years of its existence, The Global Mail will be underwritten by Graeme Wood, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. The team are promising not only investigations but analytical reporting and colour writing. They intend to update their website daily.

In Britain we already have The Journalism Foundation, which promotes free and independent journalism. One of its trustees is Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of the company that owns The Independent. TJF's chief executive officer is the former editor of The Independent, Simon Kelner. There is also the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is based at City University and was established in 2010 by software entrepreneur David Potter and his wife Elaine, herself a former investigative journalist for the Sunday Times. The bureau recently distinguished itself with its reporting into the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger, published in The Independent.

This is not James Murdoch's idea of a news organisation. Murdoch junior delivered a lecture in Edinburgh three years ago at which he provocatively argued that "the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit". His speech was largely an attack on the BBC's licence fee-based funding model but was also a swipe at some of News International's loss-making newspaper rivals, such as The Guardian and The Independent (the Murdoch-owned Times, incidentally, is reckoned to lose more than either of these titles).

When the family of the former Guardian editor CP Scott set up the Scott Trust in 1936 as an act of philanthropy to support the newspaper financially and editorially "in perpetuity" they fostered an idea that is gaining currency 75 years on, even if recent management policy has resulted in a perilous reduction in the Trust's coffers.

ProPublica began in 2008 amid a crisis in the American newspaper industry created by the loss of readers and advertisers to the internet. It was set up by the philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler, who made their money from banking and who underwrite ProPublica to the tune of $10m (£6.44m) a year. Its editor-in-chief, Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, sifted through 850 job applications to hire the initial 28 staff, which has since grown to 34. The Sandlers have extended their initial three-year grant but separate donations have grown to $5m (£3.22m) a year.

More importantly, ProPublica has exposed the role of Wall Street in the American housing bubble and the threat to the American water supply caused by dangerous "fracking" natural gas drilling methods. In the past 12 months it has uncovered racial bias in the granting of presidential pardons and investigated the risks of cancer caused by airport security scanners.

The editor-in-chief of The Global Mail, Monica Attard, is confident the site will have full editorial independence from its wealthy benefactor. "I have employed a bunch of fearlessly independent journalists," she told the Sydney Morning Herald last Friday. "Most people who know them know that they won't stand to be told what to do and what to write."