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Interview with international journalist Prue Clarke, Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas 

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Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas (JNI) was launched in November 2018 with the goal of contributing to the sustainable future of quality journalism in Australia. 

Australian philanthropist Judith Neilson pledged a commitment of at least $100 million to fund the creation and development of the Institute.  

JNI will provide grants for projects encouraging quality journalism and media literacy, as well as hosting “lively events on the big issues of the day”.  

JNI’s first senior hire is Senior Executive Officer Prue Clarke.

  

You’ve had a varied career that’s taken you around the world, but how did you get your start in journalism?  

I was very lucky to win a cadetship in the ABC Sydney TV newsroom, in 1997. I was at the ABC for a few years reporting in Canberra and Alice Springs, before I took a year off to do a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York.  

I finished at Columbia and started working at the Financial Times in New York where Australian Robert Thomson, was the head of the US edition. And then, 9/11 happened. The ABC didn’t have anyone there, so Max Uechtritz, then head of news, called me up and asked, “Can you report for us?”  

I was there as people were jumping out of the buildings. I find it impossible to describe my feelings witnessing that. And then, the buildings came down. No one had any clue that was going to happen. I was with Michael Cameron, who was reporting for the Australian, and we were trying to get to the front of the towers, police trying to stop us getting through. We were just trying to do our job – get to the scene as we always do – when suddenly this rumbling started, people were screaming and we looked up to see the building starting to collapse. I was about two blocks away. It seemed to happen in slow motion. I didn’t know if I was going to survive the next 20 minutes.  

I reported around the clock for the ABC and the FT. It was a harrowing, searing experience for a 27-year-old, as I was then, that changed me as a journalist and as a human being. 

 

How did you end up starting a journalism non-profit in West Africa?  

After 9/11 the thought of covering every day news stories really lost its appeal. A lot of my colleagues were heading to Afghanistan and Iraq to freelance. My new husband asked me not to go. That was probably fair enough! 

I took a short-term job in Ghana in 2004 with an NGO working in newsrooms and I was able to build up a group of editors that would take my reporting in radio and print at The Times, CBC and NPR in the U.S., Newsweek, and later Foreign Policy, The Guardian and The Washington Post. For the last 15 years I’ve been based in New York or London and doing journalism and commentary primarily from Africa and also from Asia, Middle East, Europe and the U.S. for those media houses.  

I was also doing a lot of media training with big media development NGOs like the Thomson Reuters Foundation and others. I had big problems with how media development was being done. Journalists in Africa know how to do good, independent reporting. They don’t need more training. They just need the resources to do it. I had this incredibly crazy idea that I could do better. Some dear friends were equally crazy and gave me $US230,000 to start an NGO.  

I started New Narratives in 2010 in Liberia. I had a great partner on the ground there in Rodney Sieh of the newspaper Front Page Africa. Over the last nine years we’ve slowly built it up and it’s now in Sierra Leone and looking to other countries. It’s similar to the ProPublica model in the U.S. where we give grants and editorial support to major media that can drive change.  

Photo: New Narratives activities in West Africa

We have funding from a range of governments, including the Australian government, for which we’re very grateful, as well as some big American donors. We’ve put to work about 3 million AUD over that time to fund good, honest reporting. It’s hard for people in developed democracies to imagine a place where there is no reliable, truthful information. But, if you inject good reporting, on the issues that really matter to people, you can lift the standard of journalism and give people the tools to demand change. We’ve seen it happen repeatedly.  

 

You also worked for the BBC during the Ebola crisis.  

My husband’s job took the family from New York to London in 2012. We had our second child, Aurelia, in 2013 and I was working for the BBC when the Ebola crisis hit in 2014. I knew the region well, so my team created radio programming to go out on BBC partner stations in the region to give people facts about Ebola. Airing the voices of survivors was incredibly important. Through them people learned Ebola was real and that you could survive it and how to avoid it. It was also really important to air religious leaders who could tell people it was ok not to give their loved ones traditional burial ceremonies where Ebola spread easily through touching of the body.  

Photo: Prue speaks on BBC television about the special radio program

It was a scary time. I was constantly afraid my friends in West Africa would be infected. My family and I also had some problems too with me going in and out of the affected countries. People at my children’s schools and inside the BBC had a reasonable but unfounded fear that I would bring the disease back.  

In 2015 I was offered the job of director of the International Reporting Program at what is now the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York so we moved back to New York. That role allowed me to bring in the best international reporters in the world to teach and I interacted and learned from the leaders at American media houses where our students were employed. We sent students on internships to 40 countries and took them on an international reporting trip each year. At the same time, I was going back and forward to West Africa with New Narratives and for my own reporting. 

I hadn’t really thought about coming back to Australia but when I saw news of the Judith Neilson Institute it just seemed such an amazing opportunity for Australia and the region. But my experiences over the last 25 years have instilled a deep understanding of the importance of quality journalism to good governance, equality and progress, and I wanted to be part of JNI, especially at the start-up phase. 

I reached out to Mark Ryan and said, “Can I come and join you?”  

I’m so grateful to Judith for this extraordinary commitment, and to Mark for this opportunity. I’m thrilled to have the chance to play a role in supporting fantastic journalism and engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.  
 

You’ve worked with philanthropists in many different countries. What have you learned from these experiences?   

One of the things that we want to do at the Institute is spread the word that philanthropy, done well, can be an important part of journalism in Australia in the face of massive blows to the media business in the last 20 years. It’s not ideal, it comes with its own ethical challenges of course, as does the advertising model. But a staggering $AUD2.5bn in philanthropy went to media in the U.S. between 2010-2015. Many of the biggest media houses – the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio – partner with the Pulitzer Center or ProPublica or many other non-profit organisations to fund their reporting now, especially foreign reporting.  

There’s been a surge in non-profit media houses in the U.S. too which are providing real alternatives to the traditional media business model. The biggest is the Texas Tribune and we and a lot of other media leaders (including Australian ones) are learning from all of these developments.  

Much of the most important, game changing reporting that has come out of America in the last 5 years was funded by philanthropy. The same is happening in Europe now too.  

 

Will philanthropic funding for journalism work in Australia?  

Australians are already supportive of the idea of media as a public service that needs support. There’s almost no government support for media in the U.S. unlike here at the ABC and SBS. So there’s not going to be the dramatic culture shift that was required in the U.S. for media here to get their head around it.  

As Bill Birnbauer wrote recently, foundation funding won’t replace lost staff and other cuts but it can boost the quality of stories by mainstream media. And that’s very much what JNI hopes to be able to do.  

But there are some other factors at play. Wealthy Americans have big tax incentives to give their money away to philanthropy and they have increasingly seen the importance of funding media that defends, what looks to many right now, like a very fragile democracy. We would like to see that happen here too. We were very pleased to see the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry report recommended changes to the tax law to support philanthropy to media. We hope that happens soon. 

 

Do you think that Australians value a free and independent press? 

I confess that I was surprised by the muted reactions of Australians to the AFP raids on media houses. Even Trump hasn’t raided journalists’ homes. And I have been surprised by the difficulty journalists have getting access to information from governments. It’s much worse than the U.S. or Europe. We have been such a stable democracy for so long I think people forget what is lost if leaders at all levels aren’t kept accountable. I would like to see Australians have more regard for the journalism that underpins that robust democracy and the journalists who do it.  

We were very pleased to see Australia’s media leaders stand together against the AFP raids, and JNI wants to support the defence of our industry’s ability to do quality journalism.

 

*** 

JNI’s director, Mark Ryan, will be speaking at NewsMediaWorks’ INFORM 2019 Conference on September 24 at the Ivy Ballroom in Sydney. Tickets and more information available here. 

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