Judith Neilson Institute to return in 2024 with a hands-on approach

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Billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson’s bid to save journalism is ready to be revived after a year of turmoil, which cast doubt over the future of her $100 million pledge to fund new media projects.

Board members of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas (JNI) will meet next week to approve a strategy proposal and paper outlining the organisation’s revival. If approved, the institute will return early next year, with Neilson still committed to spending the remaining $70 million of her original promise to give journalism “a shot in the arm”, according to the chief executive of her foundation.

After a lengthy review, billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson’s journalism institute is set to return with a new direction in 2024.Credit: James Brickwood

Simon Freeman, chief executive the Judith Neilson Foundation and Family Office, said the not-for-profit organisation will do things differently this time around. Neilson and the new board will take a more practical and hands-on approach to how her money is spent after its structure, led by former Paul Keating advisor Mark Ryan, was ripped up after just four years.

“In terms of allocating funding to organisations, I think it’s more about JNI being more hands on in its approach rather than necessarily the sort of granting type strategy that was there before,” Freeman said.

Neilson committed $100 million to create the institute in 2018. It was established as an independent and non-partisan body to encourage quality journalism through education, grants, and by hosting events on topical issues. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age received funding for a range of projects.

Intended to be an impartial, independent, and expert-led organisation, the institute ran into turbulence last year. Four independent directors resigned from their posts in mid-2022 after Neilson notified them of her plans to remove Ryan, and scupper plans for a new international award.

Former Judith Neilson Institute director Kate Torney.Credit: Jason South

The directors, editor-at-large of The Australian, Paul Kelly, Free TV CEO Bridget Fair, former chief executive of the State Library of Victoria Kate Torney, and its chair, former NSW chief justice and ABC chair, James Spigelman resigned in protest. They were replaced by Neilson’s daughter, Beau Neilson, who is also the creative director of Phoenix Central Park, and lawyer Daniel Appleby, who is a director on the Judith Neilson Head Trust.

The institute’s current board has five members: Neilson, her daughter, Freeman, Appleby, and Edward Jewell-Tait, a banker also involved with the Neilson Family Office and is the director at Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery.

Once the strategic plan gets the tick of approval next week, the board will appoint a new executive director and a new team, whose role will be to ensure the institute sticks to its course and upholds its values, Freeman said.

Previously, the system for awarding grants was “hands off”, Freeman said, funding a number of positions external to the institute, including Indigenous reporter roles across various publications, partially funding a trip to Ukraine for journalists from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, an Indonesia bureau for The Australian Financial Review, and various projects with The Australian, Al-Jazeera and Guardian Australia.

Beau Neilson is now one of five board directors.Credit: James Alcock

According to Freeman, the institute will no longer just award funding and walk away.

“JNI will be facilitating collaboration and being more hands on with those being supported by the fund.”

The Australian media sector has changed significantly since 2018, partly thanks to the funding siphoned from tech giants Meta and Google through the News Media Bargaining Code. “I’m not an industry expert, but it’s certainly a different environment to a few years ago,” Freeman said.

The institute’s funding will focus on local and community storytelling, independent freelance reporting, investigative and collaborative type projects, he added.

“Things have obviously changed a little over the last few years, but I think there’s very much a space for greater diversity of representation in the media.

There’s certainly space for underserved areas geographically and underserved groups of people who are really not represented well in the media today.”

Freeman declined to set a time limit on when the institute will fully return to action and fulfil its funding pledge.

“Assuming JNI restarts in some capacity next year, you can probably expect it to be a sort of trial period and a slower ramp up, rather than it coming out all guns blazing. I think it would be a very measured approach.”

So far, the institute’s expenses have totalled just above $30 million. That figure includes the development and implementation of projects, running conferences and events, grants and staff and operating costs.

The institute’s home in Sydney’s Chippendale has sat empty all year. Credit: AFR

Almost $75 million has been funnelled into the institute by Nielson since 2018, with its property assets totalling $37.5 million and almost $10 million held in cash.

”I think it’s fair to say that there were a number of funding relationships, particularly with established media players that wasn’t necessarily the direction that Judith felt that JNI should be going in.

“Judith’s excited and keen to see JNI get back to action next year.”

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