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Interview with Mark Ryan, Director of Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas

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”.  

NewsMediaWorks spoke to Institute Director Mark Ryan to find out what JNI has on its agenda.  

How did the idea for JNI come about? 

The genesis of the idea came from our patron Judith Neilson. She did not have at that stage a precise plan, but she certainly had a very strong feeling that a lot could be done to support and encourage quality journalism at this moment in time. There are obvious challenges now that are being presented in the way journalism is created and disseminated.  

That was really her starting pointA very early fork in the road that we arrived at was whether we should create a new platform for news to try and respond to these issues, or to try something different. What we’ve done is to create a centre that can do a number of things to support the existing platformsor new and emerging platforms as they arrive. 

The mission of the institute is very deliberately broad in the sense that we exist to support and celebrate quality journalism. And it’s deliberately broad because of the volatility that we are living through. It’s difficult to predict where things will be in 12 months, let alone five years’ time. And so, the institute, while having fairly clear objectives, wants to be as open and as flexible as it can be, and nimble enough to move with the times and move with the technologies and move with the marketplace generally.  

We want to help the production and dissemination of quality journalism and to do that across all platforms, all ownerships. We want to support large and established players as well as smaller and emerging ones, doing so in a way that has an impact, not just here but around the world.  


How will Judith Neilson herself be involved?

Judith has very deliberately decided to be the patron of the institute and not be involved in the Institute. That’s why she is not chairing the board of the Institute, nor having any role in the ongoing operations or decision-making about what the institute does. 


What kind of projects are you hoping to fund?  

Our first round of grants was put together in a way to signal to the marketplace the kinds of activities we’d hope to undertake, and to demonstrate that we want to work across a very broad spectrum of media. In the first round we have some internationally-focused programs as well as regional and local programs. We also have different formats: podcasts, legacy media, even emerging media and a media literacy program. It’s very broad and diverse.  

It’s the beginning of what we hope to do; not everything we hope to doWe have some projects that might be extended year to year and others might come out of that portfolio of activities to be replaced by new ones. We see that being the kind of routine, ongoing work of the Institute in the funding area.  

We also are exploring what we might be able to do in the education area. The emphasis will be on finding ways to come up with very intensive practical programs for working journalists. We see a real need to develop an ongoing professional development culture in journalism. A lot of the very best of this kind of work is happening offshore and it’s very expensive for Australians to access. We think we can potentially play a role in making that quality more accessible to Australian journalists.  


What kind of activities will the Institute be hosting?  

We’re building a new permanent home in Sydney and we’re hoping that will become a very lively hub of activity of all kinds. We hope an interesting mix of very serious and weighty matters, but also things that are a bit more fun and interesting, things that can appeal to different people at different stages of their career. Things that appeal to the students as well as more established senior reporters. 

We’re also very keen to develop a lively events program. But like our grants program, we want to have large and small and some big-ticket items like our upcoming Sydney Opera House event, and also smaller events of different kinds, bringing interesting people from overseas to Australia to participate in various events to create a forum for interesting discussions. 


You were instrumental in setting up the Lowy Institute. Did this influence your selection as director of JNI?  

Perhaps in part. In a sense the principles are the same: with the benefit of a sustained contribution by a generous patron, establishing a very strong institution and then over time attracting more and more third-party support, which can then help broaden the ownership and also to help defray costs and help grow programs. 

I had been working at Westfield and the business was sold, which meant a change in my career. Around that time I was introduced to Judith by somebody that knew her, and in talking to her, the topic of supporting journalism emerged. It was a happy accident.  


You started life as a copy boy at a newspaper. How does that shape your perspective on journalism?  

A huge and obvious gap in the industry at the moment is the sort of informal learning environments that people of my generation came up in. Our newsrooms were populated with old hands – some had been war correspondents in WW2. We didn’t perhaps appreciate it fully at the time, but that was just gold for young cadets and young journos to soak up, and that kind of experience and wisdom is in short supply in newsrooms now. Where it does exist it usually resides with editors and others who have a multitude of daily challenges to overcome of which nurturing young journalists is just one. 

My perspective is also shaped by the blend of experience I’ve had. I’ve worked in the newsroom, I’ve run a government media service, I’ve been a press secretary at the most senior level seeing how government works on the inside, and then I’ve had a couple of decades in the corporate sector in a global 

corporate environment. There will be elements of each of those experiences that will be brought to bear as we set up the Institute. Other staff will of course bring their own unique experiences to bear as well.


What does success look like for JNI? What do you hope to achieve?  

I think of it as measuring two things. One will be very quantitative measures. Over time we will be able to develop a set of measures: how many people come to our events, how many website visitors etc. Those kinds of boring KPIs. I regard that measure as being somewhat useful and it can be a bit of a guide for certain things, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Equally, or perhaps more important, are the harder-to-measure intangibles. For example, how are we viewed by the industry, not just here but around the world? What kind of individuals and organisations are prepared to partner with us on projects? 

In 5-10 years, I’m certain we will be able to produce a catalogue that shows that we helped to generate X number of stories that otherwise could not have been done. We will be able to show that we helped create X number of journalism positions. Equally important will be the extent to which people, the industry and the community more broadly, will say that we’ve made a genuine, meaningful impact and contribution to civil society at large. 


How does JNI hope to connect people and ideas within the news media industry?  

In this volatile market, ideas that we will draw from our friends and colleagues overseas that might not be easily accessible by Australian journalists, things we’re learning about what worked overseas might work here. The two groups would never know of each other, but we might be in the middle making that connection.  

Even though we are not in the business of trying to come up with a solution for the new business model of journalism, I’m confident that over time we’ll become a source of knowledge, and a resource that those who are trying to grapple with the business issues can tap into.  

In five years’ time I hope we can be seen as being able to connect with just about anybody in the media world, people will see us as serious players, and a force for good. 


How will the grant programs and funding of ideas work in a practical sense?  

When we think about our grant program, it will be quite different to what a lot of people are used to in the sense that we won’t have an annual grant round. It won’t be that kind of passive, formal application process.  

We will play a more assertive role. Projects that we get involved in might be initiated by JNI, other times they will come from unsolicited ideas. Sometimes we’ll meet in the middle on ideas. In every case I expect that the institute will play a role in helping to shape the initial idea in ways that both sides think can make it better.  

I would like to stress that even though JNI is incredibly well-resourced and there is a very solid long-term commitment to it – we expect this institute to be here in 50 years’ time, we will be incredibly disciplined in how we deploy those resources. I say to everybody I speak to, please do not see this institute as a pot of gold that will be there in perpetuity to fund projects as they come through the door. 


How did you go about selecting the projects that received grants in the first round? 

Our starting point was knowing that we wanted to fund a broad spectrum of projects. It was a matter of initiating a lot of informal discussions with editors and senior journalists and issuing a kind of challenge saying: “What journalism do you think should be done, but is not being done? How can we help make it happen?” And out of those conversations came some of the ideas. 

For example, the projects that we have with The Guardian or with the Financial Review, these projects were on a wish list, or a “would like to do list”. These ideas were in their minds, but we provided the impetus to bring them to life and then to sit around the table and talk about how we would make this happen in an effective way. We would like to think that we were able to make meaningful contributions to making those initial ideas even better.  

That’s the kind of philosophy or approach that we’re going to take. We won’t be a passive receiver of submissions or applications. People will make those and I’m certain that among those there will be great ideas that we will support, but equally we’ll be coming up with our own ideas and identifying opportunities.  


What will JNI connection with government be?  

Media obviously has a role to play in terms of soft power and projecting Australia’s interests globally. On a practical level, I think that a lot could be done to better coordinate good things that are going on within government and supported by government, and what’s going on in the industry. For example, the project that we’ve started with The Guardian in the Pacific would benefit enormously from existing government programs to do with media and training of journalists in that region. 

Domestically, there will be a big focusI think, in the next one to three years on this question of local news, regional news, and the role of news media generally in a democracy. I think that there is a lot that we could do better to coordinate efforts.  


What is the future of news media and journalism, do you think?  

When Judith first committed to establishing the Institute, I spent four months travelling the world visiting every newsroom I could, every journalism school I could. The message coming through loud and clear everywhere I went was: “We’re all in the same lifeboat now.” 

Everybody is much more open to collaboration. Newsrooms that would never have spoken with each other even five years ago are talking and trying to say, “How can we share resources? How can we do things better in ways that still preserves a competitive spirit?” And that’s also happening between tertiary institutions and newsrooms, philanthropy and newsrooms. That will be the way of the future.  

While acknowledging the difficulties we’re living through at the moment, there are also a lot of positive things happening. The future of journalism, I think, will be a hybrid. It will be a commercial enterprise, it will be philanthropy, some community-based, potentially even government-supported initiatives. It will be a blend of those things.  

I think there are some people still who look at philanthropy as a kind of short-term flash in the pan. I don’t subscribe to that. I think that it will be a blend of all of the above in the future and it’s been proven and there are multiple examples where you can run substantial news organisations through philanthropic or community-based activities of different kinds and at different scales.  

I think we’re at very near peak volatility right now in the media revolution. People seem to pinpoint 2005 or 2006 as the moment in time the established media on mass woke up to the fact that the world was changing rapidly. We’ve had a decade or so of living through this very scary volatile period, but I just sense that we’re probably at the peak of it, and that the way forward might start to emerge over the next five to 10 years. We hope the Institute will find a place in that way forward. 




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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