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John McKinnon, McKinnon Family Foundation

Australian Associated Press (AAP) buyout

Tagged in: Communications and awareness, National

In March this year, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) announced that the 85 year-old independent newswire would have to close. The prospect of Australia losing more media diversity, at a time when regional newspapers were closing and ABC funding was under attack, was met with dismay from many quarters. That initial dismay was felt by AEGN member John McKinnon, who together with wife Sue McKinnon run the McKinnon Family Foundation. But thanks to the quick action of John and a consortium of over 30 AEGN members and other philanthropists, this month the AAP newswire was purchased, saving it from closure. We asked John about how this extraordinary purchase came about, what lessons he’s learned from it about the role of philanthropy, and why this purchase is important for taking on climate change.  

In March it was announced that the AAP newswire would close. How did you get involved in purchasing it?  

The first thing to say is that it didn’t start in March, it started more than a year ago. Independent fact-based journalism is vital to a thriving democracy. For example, climate change is our foundation’s focus, and I’ve been frustrated by the role the Australian media plays in pushing climate change denialism and thereby frustrating a proper public debate about addressing it. The solution is more diverse and independent media. The role of the media has been in my mind for at least a year, and I’d already discussed buying some distressed (media) assets in order to increase the diversity in the media in Australia. I’d known (key driver of the AAP purchase) Nick Harrington for 5-6 years and last year we got talking about the media, and how impact investors and philanthropists should get involved in it if we care about democracy. This year, the closure was announced, someone suggested to him he should have a crack at AAP, he called me and said: Is this a good thing to do? Is the impact worth it? And I said yes. If AAP closed, it meant significant reduction in media diversity and more loss of critical democratic infrastructure. I pulled together the finance and he basically put together the deal.   

Can you tell us more about how the deal came together?  

What was important to us was the newswire: the fact that it provided news on a range of subjects. Initially we were looking at buying the whole company. (Explainer: AAP had six divisions: The Newswire – breaking news; Pagemasters – production services; AAP Studio – creative services; Medianet – distributing press releases; Mediaverse – media analysis; MegaForm – supplying racing data and guides) Buying the whole company would have involved raising a considerable amount of money and as a purely financial investment, it wasn’t a great prospect. It was too expensive and time was too tight. We changed tack and said let’s just buy the newswire. The impact part – the part that had a positive social impact – was the newswire, which is non-profitable. The non-impact parts (Medianet, Mediaverse, MegaForm etc.) are profitable. It became about philanthropy subsidising the impact part. 

How did you define and measure the impact of the purchase?

Saving the newswire is the impact, but we are also going to provide a range of regular reports to the donors and other stakeholders.

What was the role of AEGN members in the purchase?  

My idea was to come to the AEGN. I sent an email out through the AEGN list, to all the members. And in the end about half of the final 30-35 members of the consortium who purchased APP came from the AEGN. It showed the benefit of the network. The primary benefit of the AEGN is the network. It provides a confidential, trusted, networking mechanism so that when these opportunities arise, we can get in touch with each other.  

Can you tell us about the respective roles of impact investment and philanthropy in the deal?

It ended up being a combination of impact investment and philanthropy. The basic distinction is impact investors who give loans expect to get them paid back, whereas those who give donations (philanthropy) don’t expect to get it back. The majority of the money raised was donations (philanthropy) with a bit of impact investing. In terms of the returns on the investment, we expect it to be long term, greater than 5 years.

Are there any lessons this experience has taught you?  

Yes. It says: This is what can be done, and we should do more of it. Everyone who’s a philanthropist should look at this as an example of what can be done and have their ambition lifted.  

A lot of people might think that climate and environment action means dealing directly with emissions and trees, for example. With this purchase, you’ve taken a step back and looked at what institutions are influencing climate action. How did that approach come about? 

It comes from my work in the international development space: We think about power. The reason we have a climate problem, is because of who is in power and what those in power are doing. So in addressing climate change, we need to work out who has the power. It’s an inherently political question. Media plays a big role in checking power and holding it to account. That’s why we need more diverse and independent media – media without the mogul that doesn’t push the line of a proprietor or special interests.  The consortium that bought AAP is a diverse group of people unite by a common goal to contribute to the media not to control it. The very fact of a diverse, independent media starts to shift power in a democracy.

A lot of our philanthropy is from that perspective: what are we doing to shift power? I wish people would be more strategic!

Do you think that pulling together groups of people who have overlapping interests with climate change is a promising approach going forward? 

I think we need to find other allies. Just talking about climate change and emissions and coal mines has not won the battle. We need other allies in the fight. We need to broaden. But I do think there’s a problem with saying we have to deal with all these other issues and values before we do anything about climate change. Personally I don’t think we have time to solve all these other problems before we deal with climate change. But the lesson is, if we work together we can help achieve each others’ aims.  Working together to preserve independent, unbiased media is a great start.