Continuing the conversation

You won’t read too much in the mainstream media about the online news magazine, The Conversation. In case you didn’t know about The Conversation (research-based articles by academics), the Federal Labor Government gave the not-for-profit news organisation seed money of $1.5 million in 2011 and an extra $2 million over two years in the 2013 budget. But Education Minister Christopher Pyne has cut the funding, so The Conversation has to replace 25% of its operational budget.
An article in Pro Bono Australia quoted editor Andrew Jaspan (pictured) as saying the aim was to be fully self-sufficient by 2017 through contributions from its global network.
“We must now take stock,” he said.

In the 10 days since the Federal Budget revealed the cuts, this stock-taking has resulted in more than 1,000 readers donating $190,000 via a direct plea for donations on the home page of the website. Meanwhile, The Conversation continues daily with the support of a majority of Australian universities and the CSIRO.
I feel a little bad about this as I get The Conversation in my mailbox every day and to my shame do not always read it extensively. This could well be the syndrome my son’s generation refers to as TMTR (too much to read). But the gems I have mined from this rich body of intellectual discourse have been nuggets of precious information I would not have found elsewhere. For example, on Wednesday, there was an insightful article about people with bipolar disorder and why they struggle to interact with others.
One of my readers donated $200 on hearing news of The Conversation’s fiscal plight. He says it is the only daily news he reads, the why of that probably best explained by Andrew Jaspan.
“We believe healthy democracies need access to high quality, non-partisan, evidence-based information,” Jaspan told Pro Bono Australia. “That has struck a chord with our two and a half million readers.”
Jaspan said yesterday the donations would buy some time while other initiatives are investigated. The funding target is $300,000 and on the response so far, that seems achievable. Crowd-funding platforms like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, both of which work with not-for-profits, extract a commission for their work. At least $60,000 of a successful $1 million campaign would go in commissions and processing fees.
So we can see why The Conversation decided to make a direct plea to its readers. One hopes they discover a wealthy benefactor out there.

If you delve into the detail of any government’s budget you will find funding cuts that one could hypothesise were made on partisan grounds, to shut down criticism of the government. It is easier to single out when, like The Conversation’s financial support, the sum involved is pocket change on the scale of a Federal Budget.
Art for art’s sake?
Meanwhile, this year the Abbott government got a bit tricky with arts funding too. Instead of cutting funds to the Arts, a new entity was created to distribute the funds. The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts takes $105 million from the Australia Council and puts it in Arts Minister Senator George Brandis’s top drawer for re-distribution to arts organisations. There has been much discourse on this move, with the easy conclusion that the top end of town arts initiatives (opera, ballet, light classical), will be generously endowed, while there will be less money available for writers, experimental art and theatre. Of course, the same sort of criticism could be levelled at the Australia Council, which has developed a reputation for favouring the arts in Sydney and Melbourne. So at best, Senator Brandis could just be trying to revitalise regional arts. Radio National’s Michael Cathcart asked him what kinds of excellence was the Australia Council not supporting.
Senator Brandis, after dancing around the question for a few minutes, said it was about “contestability” – that it was not an ideal situation that all arts funding be administered by the Australia Council. He said he wants to give artists and performers who miss out on funding “a second go”. In many ways, this could be a response to what is a widespread perception that the Australia Council is a “closed shop”.
But as Cathcart pointed out, the Australia Council, which has a remaining budget of $185 million, is also being directed to trim $7.2 million from its own budget over four years through “efficiencies”. The Budget papers says these savings would be met by cuts to artists in residence and the ArtStart programme, which means small companies and start-ups would be disadvantaged. Cathcart’s telling question was when he asked Senator Brandis whether some sections of the arts community were anxious that this would amount to “State-sanctioned art”.
“That’s a nonsense criticism. The money comes from the government and ultimately the taxpayer. If you take that argument to its logical conclusion you wouldn’t have any support for culture or the arts for fear that it is, to use your words, State-sanctioned.”
Nevertheless, purveyors of fringe arts see their funding, peripatetic at best, wafting away on the autumn zephyr. There will be no “Abbott the Musical” in the foreseeable future.

Crowded market?

As we have discussed in this forum before today, online crowd-funding platforms are fast taking the place of government and council-operated grant systems. But can crowd-funding be “scaled-up” to raise serious amounts of cash? Business magazine BRW listed the top ones last year, mostly computer games, toys, IT gadgets and other inventions. The stars of Bondi Rescue, Jesse Polock and Maxi Maxwell, raised $105,380 through Pozible to complete a Jet Ski ride from Sydney to Cairns, to raise awareness of mental health charity headspace and make a documentary. So anything is possible.
The financial securities industry has hopped on to crowd-funding in the US, where 534 companies successfully hit their online equity target in year one (2,824 did not), raising on average $407,685 per company. Forbes Magazine says the next step will be to allow ordinary investors to participate in crowd funding equity start-ups. In Canberra, Treasury issued a discussion paper on this subject in December. Our corporate regulator ASIC has already had its say about risk management; it would limit the maximum amount raised and cap annual investments by individuals. (ASIC doesn’t regulate crowd-funding activities unless they involve investment schemes).
So The Conversation continues apace, its future a little hazier without that guaranteed money from the Feds. But it has an established track record and an international growth trajectory, so there’s no good reason why a direct-action crowd-funding campaign wouldn’t work.
It just takes people to move beyond pressing “Like” on their Facebook page. I gave The Conversation $50 and if they’re still around in May 2016, I’ll do it again.
Hopefully some of you will too.
…and in closing, we have joined Soundcloud, a music streaming website where you can go and listen to a song from each of our four albums. Be sure to “like” us, if indeed you do!

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John Wightman
John Wightman
May 23, 2015 2:33 am

Agree with your comments about ‘The Conversation’ Bob, in term of the quality of its content, the ever deepening pit of the gummints bogoneque defunding policies – and the TMTR syndrome.

June 1, 2015 12:39 am

If you just think of it as subscribing to the paper, it’s cheap and you get news and information, rather than rhetoric. I’ve subscribed (read donated)