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Chris Jose, Victorian Country Press Association Conference, 2018

Good morning.

I’d like to thank the Victorian Country Press Association for your invitation to talk today. It is a pleasure to be able to speak to you about the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund. I see the Fund as a wonderful boost for small and regional publishers not just in country Victoria, but the rest of Australia.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

I want to start telling you a little bit about the aim of the Regional and Small Publishers Innovations fund, and then:

  • the response to the fund, and finally, to talk about,
  • the next round of funding

In June this year, the Commonwealth Government opened applications for up to $16 million in grants to support the continuation, development, growth and innovation of Australian civic and public interest journalism in Australia. Over its three-year lifetime, the Fund will make $48 million available for grants.

The Fund has specific aims with a regional news focus. In short, the Fund aims to help and encourage news businesses—to transition and compete more successfully in the evolving media environment and the digital world.

This focus on regional and small publishers and on public interest journalism is clear when you look at the eligibility criteria for the Fund, which I will take you to shortly.

With innovative business improvements underpinning the desired outcomes, it is important to remember that the Fund is not intended to support ‘business as usual’ operations for news businesses, or to fund the production of public interest journalism directly.

Rather, it is hoped that with the support of the Fund, news businesses will be better able to sustain themselves, and importantly to continue providing the public interest journalism relevant to their community.

Given the focus on public interest journalism, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief explanation of what this means to the purposes of the Innovation Fund.

Having the primary purpose of producing public interest journalism, means that the majority of the applicant’s cost base is attributable to the production of public interest journalism, and the majority of the media content published by the applicant constitutes public interest journalism.

To our knowledge, the Innovations Fund is the first business grant of its kind made available for producers of public interest journalism.

This has meant that from the moment it was announced by the Minister in September 2017 there was considerable interest expressed in the Fund from your sector.

This interest translated into applications. When applications closed on 10 August this year, we had received 186 applications from 135 applicants. I assume that many of those 135 may be here today, as Victoria was well represented in the field, with 50 applicants making 89 applications—48% of the total. Overall 63.3% of the applications we received were in metropolitan areas, 36.7% were regional applications.

Some of the credit of the extent of this interest goes to VCPA, which we know was very active in spreading the word amongst its members. We hope this will continue in future rounds.

I should also emphasise how important is the role of organisations such as VPCA play on advising and assisting applicants who may not be used to this type of process. Again, we encourage this invaluable support.

Considering that this was the first round of a new grant program, we felt that 186 applications was a strong start. However, we know that this industry has a strong interest in the Fund and so we hope that this will continue to translate into many applications in the following rounds, making it even more competitive.

We are well progressed in our assessment of the first round and will be making an announcement soon. We expect to build more interest in round two with new proposals that are clearly relevant to market needs and align with the objectives of the Fund. For future rounds the ACMA is also looking at how it can replicate Victoria’s level of engagement in other States.

Although we are yet to announce the results of round one of the Fund, I wanted to take a moment to outline a few high-level observations about the application process and how the assessment has progressed.

We assessed applications in a two-stage process:

  • As previously mentioned, first we assessed applicant eligibility against the nine eligibility criteria. These are designed to ensure that only small, Australian public interest journalism publishers will be given the funding.
  • Then, of those eligible applicants we assessed each proposed project against the five merit criteria. The merit criteria ensure that grants are only given to projects that will further the objectives and desired outcomes of the Fund.

In assessing grant applications, the ACMA was assisted by an advisory committee of expert advisors appointed by the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Mitch Fifield. The Advisory Committee consisted of members who collectively have extensive publishing and news media experience.

The Advisory Committee was Chaired by Megan Brownlow from PwC, and included an appointee nominated by the CPA—John Angilley, formerly with Fairfax.

As mentioned, the eligibility criteria represent the initial gateway through which all applications must pass. These criteria seek to ensure that applicants are small, Australian-owned and operated, have a focus on public interest journalism, and high editorial standards, which includes a robust complaints process.

We have been quite rigorous in assessing applicants against these criteria—before we considered proposed projects. We recommend applicants follow the Grants opportunities guidelines, which will help to highlight what we need to identify an application as being eligible for consideration.

Our assessment of the round one applications suggests that there are easy steps for applicants in future rounds to improve their likelihood of meeting the criteria.

The first observation I would make is that if you are eligible, make sure you give us the evidence to demonstrate it.

For example, one criterion relates to turnover. To prove that companies had the required turnover, we asked for turnover evidence for so much of the previous three financial years, that an applicant has been in business. This could be financial statements, either audited or signed-off by an accountant. However, some applicants let themselves down by only providing statements for one year or providing statements that had not been duly authenticated.

Another example relates to editorial standards and the complaints process. The rules of the Fund state that you automatically pass these two criteria if you hold, or have applied for, Press Council membership. Applicants in this room would have all met these criteria, but it was surprising how many applicants were not able to demonstrate compliance.

Turning to the merit criteria, here are some broad insights about how we looked at assessments when applying the merit criteria.

Overall, we received an impressive range of proposed projects, which were all assessed under these criteria.

  • Proposals tied to a business strategy, which responded innovatively to a market need and built on areas of expertise were highly regarded.
  • We looked favourably on applicants seeking to innovate their business model and demonstrating a willingness to co-fund projects.
  • Similarly, applicants who provided supporting evidence, such as cost quotes and detailed explanation about their budget expenditure were also viewed favourably.
  • On the other hand, applicants seeking funding for ‘business as usual’ proposals unrelated to innovation or digitalisation or for expenditure excluded from funding, such as the purchase of buildings or staff costs, were not favoured. For example, proposals for the purchase of standard office equipment were generally considered ‘business as usual’ requests.
  • We noticed some common traits in applications that were not ranked as highly against the merit criteria. These included applicants whose applications showed that they lacked experience in addressing the purpose of the Fund in their applications or in developing compelling business cases.

This is not to say that these applicants aren’t worthy of support. Rather, that it is important for applicants to really focus on the quality of their applications to ensure that the proposed projects align with the objectives of the Fund.

As I mentioned, the announcement of round one results will be published shortly.

The second round of the Fund will also be announced shortly.

We have reviewed the first round to determine where enhancements can be made in the application process. Applicants will have a longer period to complete and submit their applications. This will give applicants to spend more time planning and refining their proposal.

We are also expanding our education campaign to assist future applicants improve the overall quality of their applications.

Once again, we will be publishing guidelines for applicants. If you are planning to apply in the second round I strongly recommend that you read the guidelines carefully and make sure that your proposed project is in line with the objectives of the Innovation Fund.

Finally, if your application was unsuccessful in round one, we recommend that you review the feedback received, look at improvements that could be made, and reapply in the next round.

For more information, make sure you sign up to our alert service via the URL on the screen.

I hope that you enjoy the rest of the conference, and again thank the VCPA for the invitation to speak with you today.

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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