At the heart of great journalism are great stories, and storytelling has forever been at the centre of the human experience.
The way stories are told and how they’re distributed and received has changed down the ages, never more so than in the past 20 years.
But our enduring appetite for stories that inform our lives, that entertain us as well as challenge us, and connect us to a wider world, has only grown.
This is the landscape into which the Judith Neilson Institute was born. Our patron’s goal is ambitious — to create a lasting institution that can support and encourage quality journalism and the contest of ideas, two key pillars that sustain free and democratic societies around the world.
How to do this now, let alone in the future as technology and other changes continue to impact on the media industry, is no easy task.
This is why JNI was established as a nimble, responsive institute, capable of moving with developments in technology and the market and open to collaborations with all kinds of media — legacy, emerging and those we can’t yet imagine.
A critical founding principle for JNI was that it be a distinctively Australian institution, but one with global reach and ambition and with a special interest in Asia and the Pacific.
Already, JNI has partnered with several international news organisations and journalism centres and provided opportunities for Australian journalists to engage with these projects.
It is essential for JNI to be connected to, and contribute to, the global media marketplace.
It is also important for JNI to help Australian journalism maintain its tradition of being open to the world.
The contest of ideas is central to the Institute’s ambition.
If journalism is going through dramatic change, so too is our traditional notion of the public square.
The old forums for debate — the opinion pages, our parliaments and council chambers, even family debates around a kitchen table — have been supplemented and in some respects supplanted by social media and the internet.
The public square was never a perfect place for rational debate, but the speed and scale at which ideas are now contested has trashed any old rules of engagement that once existed.
Rational argument, facts and truth, must now compete with personal invective, disinformation and loud grandstanding, all amplified through technology.
JNI wants to do what it can to help redress the balance in favour of rationality, civility and genuine diversity of ideas.
As an independent and non-partisan institution JNI itself has no ideological position.
Instead, it aims to provide a forum where ideas can be debated — fiercely debated — so long as arguments are grounded in facts.
JNI wants to be a place where ideas and words can be given full expression, but also challenged, and where room is made for nuance and context.
The Institute hopes to do these things through its three core programs: Grants, Education and Ideas.
The goal of the Grants Program is to produce quality journalism and engaging storytelling that is accurate, independent and objective, but also original, revealing, consequential and innovative.
The Education Program will provide working journalists with the skills and knowledge they need to produce great work.
The Ideas Program will promote the creation, discussion and rational debate of ideas, and connect thinkers and ideas with journalists and the wider community.
Finally, JNI wants to be a forum and a facilitator of debate and discussion about the purpose and practice of journalism.
There was never a golden era in which journalism was practiced flawlessly; or where resources were unlimited.
There is much about traditional approaches to journalism that should be questioned and, where necessary, altered if it leads to more accurate, informed reporting and ultimately to greater trust in journalism by the public.
But there are some enduring values that should not be lost, including tolerance for competing ideas and views.
These things are worth preserving, especially by those who seek to serve a broad and diverse audience.
Ultimately, JNI takes an optimistic view of the future of journalism, tempered by a recognition of the many challenges it faces.
For all the talk about declining trust in media and the growing appeal of misinformation, one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined is that the demand for quality journalism and information is as enduring as it is vital.
Mark Ryan undertook the initial study that resulted in the establishment of the Judith Neilson Institute and serves as its Executive Director. He is a former journalist and was senior political adviser to Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. He played a key role in the establishment of the Lowy Institute and has served on its board since 2002. For 25 years he was a senior executive at Westfield Corporation. He is an Ambassador of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and a member of the National Selection Panel which assesses post graduate candidates for the Sir John Monash Scholarship awards. He consults to the Judith Neilson Family Office, the Lowy Family Group and major public companies.