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Journalism’s Digital Difficulties

The internet age has precipitated a crisis in journalism. But the solution isn’t paywalls or more advertising: it’s public funding.

Journalism is dying, and it seems that Facebook and Google’s stranglehold on advertising is the culprit. The tech giants are flourishing, reporting billions in advertising revenue that might otherwise have gone to publishers. Local newspapers have been hit especially hard, but revenue has been declining across the board, leading to mass layoffs. Newsrooms are understaffed, or being cut entirely; smaller publications are shutting down or being absorbed by larger ones, resulting in a more concentrated and less diverse media landscape.

It’s a crisis of enormous proportions, another carriage in the train wreck that is print journalism meeting the internet. The response from publishers has consisted of panicked attempts to innovate, with varying degrees of success. Established publications like the New York Times and the Financial Times have managed to weather the storm by implementing paywalls in the hopes of increasing digital subscription revenue, but this hasn’t worked for everyone; the two-century-old Guardian is still making a loss. Newer digital-first media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice Media pioneered the art of ‘native advertising’, working directly with brands to craft advertising that’s meant to be indistinguishable from regular content; but both have had trouble meeting revenue targets recently, leading them to cut costs through layoffs.

It’s tempting to blame it all on the tech upstarts whose dominance, journalist Sarah Jeong wrote, appears to be the equivalent of the paperboy taking all the newspaper revenue. But as Leo Watkins explains in a recent piece for New Socialist, the problems predate the internet — ownership concentration and layoffs have been occurring for decades due to market pressures. Google and Facebook may have exacerbated the crisis, but the problems did not originate with them. We need to look beyond them if we want to find sustainable solutions.

It’s time to reconsider the premise that journalism should be the preserve of private enterprise. In this view, journalism is a consumer good that has to pay for itself, either directly through subscriptions, indirectly through advertising, or by combination of the two. But what if we saw journalism in a different way, recognising that a healthy media ecosystem has a positive impact on society at large, through building an informed citizenry and holding the powerful to account? What if we saw it as infrastructure, a public service to be funded the same way as roads, hospitals or schools? Could we then radically reconfigure its funding model, away from ads and paywalls, in order to better serve journalists, citizens, and society as a whole?

The Limits of Advertising

Imagine we treated other infrastructure the way we treat journalism: schools would be decorated with the logos of corporate sponsors, patients would be forced to sit through advertisements hawking wellness products, and sitting on a public bench would require filling out a consumer survey about your brand preferences. This wouldn’t be innovation — it would be a travesty.

Sure, advertising might be better than other means of balancing the books — like charging at the point of use — but defending it presupposes that fiscal neutrality is necessary in the first place. What if it wasn’t? And what is being lost in the never-ending pursuit of monetisation through any means possible? Advertising isn’t some trick that generates revenue out of thin air — users do pay, just indirectly, with their time rather than their wallet. They become the product, eyeballs offered up to whoever’s willing to buy their attention.

When this is applied to journalism the result is, often, a perversion what the system is for. When people seek out journalism, their hope is to consume factual information and analysis that might improve their understanding of, if not the world, then at least a particular topic. Subjecting them to barrages of advertising, usually related to the topic they are hoping to be informed about, but using financial weight to circumvent the editorial process that should decide whether it is included in that article, dilutes the entire basis of journalism.

But this is exactly what we see in journalism today. Want to read an article on the New York Times’ website? Get ready for ads cajoling you to enroll in a for-profit university. Catching up on BBC news stories but located outside the UK? Prepare to be bombarded with massive banner ads from investment banks. Trying to read my colleague Grace Blakeley’s latest column on financialisation in the New Statesman? Look out for multiple advertisements entreating you to take out a low-interest credit card. A minority of internet users evade this ad-fueled dystopia through the use of an ad-blocker but that’s an individual solution, not a collective one, and it cannot be deployed at scale as long as publishers continue to rely on advertising for revenue.

This is why solutions like banning targeted advertising aren’t enough. This might prevent Google and Facebook from using their personal data as a source of monopoly power, but it wouldn’t necessarily be better for consumers, who would simply see generic ads instead of targeted ones. There’s a much bolder vision that the left should be pushing for, and it starts from the realisation that we don’t have to fund journalism with advertising. Neither do we have to fund it with access-restricting methods like paywalls, nor regressive taxes like the BBC’s license fee. In fact, we can untether the funding from the service altogether, by funding it the same way we fund the NHS, or education, or roads: through progressive taxation.

A Public Alternative

There are obvious historical reasons for advertising being the revenue backbone of journalism. Many media outlets started with limited capital when costs of distribution were high; advertising is an attractive business model in that scenario because it generates steady revenue that grows with circulation. In the era of print journalism, it may have been the best option. Now, though, the internet has dramatically lowered costs of distribution, and given the crisis engulfing ad-supported journalism, we should be looking to other options.

After all, advertising always created an uneasy alliance between publishers and corporations. Many outlets claimed to have erected a ‘Chinese wall’ separating editorial and advertising arms to keep out undue corporate influence, but in today’s landscape of advertising ubiquity, where corporate power has reached new heights, the limits of this framework have been exposed. We should see it as an antiquated model, one that may have been responsible for great achievements in the past, but that has outlived its usefulness. After all, the ability to sell ads rarely has much to do with the actual quality of the journalism, in the sense of providing a service for the readers and upholding democratic values. There is a gap between the financially incentivised outcome and the desired outcome.

What would the media landscape look like if more public funding were available? It would be a far cry from today, when most media is commercially owned and operated. Some of the most innovative moments in the history of British media came when regional operations of the BBC got funding boosts in the 1960s and 1970s, and Channel 4 was launched as a public service broadcaster in the 1980s. In more recent times, the BBC has been undermined by funding cuts, which have been used to instill an atmosphere of conservatism in the organisation. But the BBC still stands out on the landscape — most of which is taken up by for-profit corporations, often part of a media empire like Rupert Murdoch’s, or owned by multinational capital (the Financial Times, for instance, was bought by a Japanese corporation for £844 million). There may appear to be a variety of choices, but these rarely offer alternatives.

Journalism as a public service doesn’t have to mean a monolithic, top-heavy system. It doesn’t have to mean simply directing all money toward the BBC. Instead it could foster a diverse, flourishing, sustainable media ecosystem, with room for regional and topic-level specialisation. The key is to recognise that journalism is important for a flourishing democratic society, and that profit is a bad metric for its quality, leading to misaligned incentives. Removing financial pressures will give outlets more freedom to do their important work.

There has been a recent surge of proposals exploring what decentralised, publicly funded journalism could look like, led largely by progressive organisations like the Media Fund and Media Reform Coalition. The Labour Party has revived interest in the idea of democratic public ownership, first through its ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ report and furthered in its consultation for democratising public ownership. Media reform theorists Tom Mills and Dan Hind have suggested creating a network of ‘regional media cooperatives responsible for publishing public interest journalism’, funded through a mechanism similar to the BBC.

In a slightly different vein, Leo Watkins of the Media Reform Coalition suggests a voucher system, paid for through progressive taxation, where members of the public would get to ‘vote’ on the news outlets they wish to support. Crucially, these outlets would have to eschew all advertising, and would have to make their work freely available online. As Watkins explains, this method would force journalists to build long-term relationships with the relevant communities to ensure that they directly serve the public, rather than having their impact measured by engagement numbers tied to advertising dollars.

What’s most compelling about the idea of a voucher system is that we don’t need to wait for a Labour government to implement it. As Watkins suggested at a panel on media reform at The World Transformed last year, this could be done right now: the Labour Party could coordinate a system whereby individual members chose outlets to fund. This would go some way toward solving the funding woes of existing left media outlets, while also lowering the barrier to entry for new ones. If it works, it could prefigure a larger-scale rollout when Labour does take power.

An Overdue Response

Of course, the road ahead won’t be easy, and there are lots of open questions. What would we do about existing for-profit media giants, some of which exercise their power in nefarious ways? And what about the structural power of Facebook and Google, not merely as advertising platforms but as information gatekeepers? These are important questions, but the discussion around each of them would improve if we started from the perspective that journalism is a public good rather than a commodity which needs to be funded privately.

If there’s any silver lining to the crisis precipitated by the digital age, it’s that it has so accelerated the problems underpinning journalism’s business model that they can no longer be ignored. We have an opportunity, now, to reinvent journalism by taking it out of the capital accumulation process. A democratised, publicly-funded media ecosystem would be better for journalists, who would be under less threat of layoffs, and who would be able to spend more time writing what they think the public needs to know; it would be better for consumers, who would be able to access news for free without a paywall, from a diverse range of media outlets, and who wouldn’t be subject to bombardment by advertising; and it would be better for society as a whole, for which it would cultivate a healthy, well-funded media ecosystem able to speak truth to power in the service of the people.

Of course, not everyone would benefit. The Rupert Murdochs of the world have profited handsomely from privatised media, and who have used this position to exert undue political influence, would lose out. So too would Google and Facebook, who would see their advertising revenues decline. Advertisers too would be unhappy — though maybe some of them could use their resources to invest in better or more socially beneficial products, rather than leaning on their brands to sell themselves. Each has been profiting from a broken status quo, where media outlets have been degraded for those who work in them and those who rely on their journalism. Their misfortune would be of great benefit to the public at large.