The publication of the Cairncross Review into a sustainable future for journalism brings together some difficult truths about the economic impact of the internet on traditional news media.
Much of the narrative is well-worn.
Within 15 years, the way in which news is consumed has changed radically. The internet has given us access to multiple sources of information, often for free; and the dominance of major search engines and social media platforms has created a filter through which most people view journalism.
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Just as readers of newspapers have drifted away from print, so has advertising money – whether to websites dedicated to specific sectors (house sales, for instance), or to those same monoliths – Google, Facebook et al – that have transformed the way we access editorial content.
The consequences for traditional journalism have been, shall we say, challenging. In the past decade alone, print advertising revenue has fallen by 69 per cent. In Britain today there are 17,000 journalists, compared with 23,000 in 2007.
When it comes to the media though, Dame Frances Cairncross wisely avoids blaming every difficulty on the internet. As she recognises, there are still highly profitable media groups in this country (whose main income is from newspaper advertising). And where there has been contraction, it is often a result of historic debt problems or pension liabilities: these difficulties became uncontrollable not because of the web per se but because newspaper executives made wildly erroneous assumptions about its potential impact.
From these challenges stem three questions. The first is whether the apparent deficit is real or imagined.
After all, just because fewer people are reading newspapers, we cannot automatically conclude that they are less-well informed. In the days when nobody read more than one paper – and happily believed what they read – what passed for knowledge might in fact have been blissful ignorance. Now, we have the ability immediately to scrutinise claims we once took for granted.
Still, it is also very obvious that investigative journalism and reporting on civic institutions (council meetings, court hearings and the like) have been particularly badly hit by the declining fortunes of print media, especially locally. We may be better informed about a great many things: but few would dispute that most people know now less about what is going on in the local mags or council chamber than they were 20 years ago.
The second question is whether this matters.
That might appear straightforward, but as Cairncross points out, trust in established media brands has been creaking in recent years, and the emergence of alternative online outlets – some providing news at a hyper-local level – offers a partial rebuttal to the notion that effective journalism only counts if it is being done at scale, probably by the titles which have been dominated for decades.
What’s more, if we happen not to know that Joe Bloggs has been banged up for swindling his old dad out of the family firm’s profits – or that the local council is having to pay twice as much for bin collections because a new supplier has upped its charges – will the world stop turning?
Perhaps not, but fundamentally democracy and the rule of law can only operate effectively when there is proper accountability. Journalism provides the necessary scrutiny.
Moreover, if, instead of reading about the proceedings of town hall meetings, we are reading (and believing) a lot of old tosh on a conspiracy site, then we have a serious problem indeed. And as Cairncross notes, a quarter of people in the UK don’t feel equipped to verify information they see online.
So we arrive at the final question, which is what should be done about it all?
The truth is – inevitably – that there is no easy answer. Let’s not forget that the question of media regulation has arisen every decade or two since the 1950s and has never been satisfactorily resolved, even without the added complications of Facebook, Google, fake news farms and Twitter bots. It’s now eight years since the Leveson Inquiry was launched and arguments continue to rumble about whether its recommendations have been fully enacted – or indeed should be.
Cairncross’s report makes some sound suggestions, which are intended perhaps to be a first shot at squaring an economic-political-media-civic circle. Tax relief for high-quality online news sites would be helpful. A re-emphasising of the importance of media literacy is also eminently sensible – we should be teaching children about the perils of fake news, just as they are taught about the dangers of fake Facebook friends.
Greater transparency when it comes to online advertising revenues would potentially benefit news publishers too. And there is much to commend about the Local Democracy Reporting Service which deploys BBC funding to the benefit of local newspapers and websites.
Yet this may only be tinkering with the edges. The challenges identified in the report are not confined to the UK (although the media landscape here is arguably unique) and yet there is now obvious mechanism for tackling them beyond national borders, at least not all of them.
One of the more novel ideas proposed in the report is the establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News – a kind of Arts Council for news. Early indications suggest the government is lukewarm about the proposal. Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, went so far as to suggest his hope that solutions could be found that do not involve the creation of a new organisation.
His doubts are understandable – more quangos do not always equal more effectiveness.
But maybe then we should take Collins’ scepticism and ask whether what we need is not more regulators, convenors and codes – but fewer.
In a world where content is king, there is something anachronistic about the way in which various branches of the media are currently overseen: when it comes to regulation, the UK broadcast media have Ofcom, except its jurisdiction doesn’t extend to websites; newspapers have Ipso or Impress, depending on which system they’ve signed up to; online news outlets can also sign up to Ipso or Impress, or might (like The Independent operate their own in-house system); foreign media play by different rules again; search engines and social media sites don’t even accept that they are publishers.
We are where we are because of the peculiar way in which media develops in line with technology, with oversight and regulation always lagging behind. But for the public, no wonder there is so much confusion. As a consumer, you can see the same news story on eight different websites and find that each one is accountable to a different set of standards, and to a different regulatory structure.
That is anachronistic madness.
So here’s an idea. What we need isn’t more regulation but less: or at least fewer organisations and fewer sub-divisions of the broader media sector.
Only once we recognise that news and journalism amount to the same thing whether online, in print, or on TV, can we work out how best to nurture the best on offer, and weed out the worst.
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