The state, publications and readers all have a role to play if vital journalism is to remain a viable enterprise
The Beaver has a proud history of fostering future journalists, and many of the words you’ll read in this special anniversary edition will be those of writers, reporters and editors who will form a new generation of journalism at some of the most respected publications in the world. They’ll set about making it as journalists out of a passion for explaining the world’s complexities and a commitment to speaking truth to power. More strikingly, they’ll do so in spite of some dire warnings.
At LSE we have the privilege of accessing various careers events, but the journalism panels often come across like interventions for prospective graduates foolhardy enough to pursue the profession. The ungenerous interpretation of this is established journalists pulling the ladder up behind them, but to be fairer, it’s simple pragmatism about the challenging reality of an industry with shrinking revenue and scarce resources.
This year started with a slate of staff layoffs at high profile media outlets. Losses at BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost were particularly dismaying, as sites once considered models for successful digital ad-funded media now need to cut back newsroom staff by as much as 15 percent.
Local press makes for an even grimmer picture, with US conglomerates like Gannet, GateHouse Media and The McClatchy Company known for acquiring local newspapers and then immediately merging or slashing their newsrooms. It’s no better in the UK, where 300 local papers have closed in the last decade, leaving an estimated 58 percent of the country without coverage or scrutiny of local government including the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea where the Grenfell Tower tragedy occurred.
Discouragingly, the industry’s commercial travails come when hard-hitting journalism itself is enjoying a renewed golden age. The election of Donald Trump, with his outward hostility to the free press which he regards as the “enemy of the people”, was seen as a challenge to journalism, one which it has more than risen to.
Since before he was even inaugurated, The New York Times and The Washington Post have been competing to break news on a seemingly daily basis around Russian election interference and the vagaries of Trump’s inner circle. Beyond the president, Ronan Farrow’s reporting for The New Yorker sparked a worldwide reckoning over sexual harassment, while Carole Cadwalladr’s work for The Guardian/Observer on the Cambridge Analytica scandal blew wide open the question of data privacy and online platforms.
In the case of these world-leading publications, journalistic achievements have translated into business success, with the Times, Post and New Yorker all consistently profitable, and The Guardian on track in its three-year plan to join them. Unfortunately these are the exception, not the rule, to which the job losses — an estimated total of 5,000 newspaper employees between 2014 and 2017 — are testament.
Herein lies the warning for would-be journalists: is it worth the risk? Far more lucrative jobs are abundant in the financial and technology sectors, while law and accountancy offer more security, and academia provides greater insulation from market caprice. Despite the uncertainty, whether it’s to seek the prestige of the fourth estate, or just the minor fame of a Twitter blue tick, many will still attempt to make journalism their professional home.
And we’d better be grateful for it — in these times of rising populism and nationalism, and an unprecedented agglomeration of corporate power, fearless journalism is as essential as ever to maintaining the fundamental precepts of liberal democracy: an informed electorate and accountable authority. As the industry’s fragility should illustrate, none of this is guaranteed.
In honour of The Beaver’s 70 years of prepping the journalists of tomorrow, here follow some suggestions on how to ensure vital journalism has a future. Not one is a silver bullet — suffice to say, if I knew the single answer to saving quality journalism, I wouldn’t be writing it in an op-ed — but taken together they would cultivate a more robust media ecosystem in which journalism can thrive.
Firstly, the state needs to take a more active role in the promotion and protection of a free press. The same Reithian principles that led to the establishment of the BBC in order to provide broadcast content in the public interest are as applicable today as they were almost a century ago. The difference is the modern media environment is exponentially more complex and diverse. We’re therefore long overdue a reappraisal of the form of public service media, to move from singular entities like the BBC to networks that include nonprofits, charitable organisations and grant-funded individuals. We need to reaffirm journalism as a public good which the market alone is not sufficient for promoting, particularly at the local level.
Good ideas are out there: Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has proposed journalism fellows and a local journalism fund, the BBC recently announced a charity to fund local reporting, while Labour’s media reform package — which would tax tech platforms to subsidise public service journalism — is arguably its most fully formed progressive policy proposal. Regulation has a role to play too, with prominence rules to be expanded to ensure public interest content is easily discoverable across the array of new platforms where media is consumed, and antitrust measures must seriously be considered for addressing the digital advertising duopoly that’s the proximate cause for lost journalism revenue.
Which leads to the second suggestion: publications need to overhaul a business model that has been completely captured by Google and Facebook. Digital ad-supported media is now a difficult proposition because the online platforms have been able to disaggregate content from publications, and re-aggregate it for their own purposes. By pairing this with their huge user bases and sophisticated algorithms, they’ve been able to achieve immense scale, such that advertising value lies with the platform holder, not the content producer.
In effect, online publications are in an abusive relationship with big tech that they must get out of. Many already know this and are erecting paywalls. This will work for the most prestigious publications able to attract subscribers, however users will only make a monthly commitment to so many and smaller outlets will struggle. Independent islands of content still cede a scale and variety advantage to Google and Facebook. The 2016 rebrand of Tribune Publishing to tronc came under justifiable ridicule because of its roots in vapid marketing consultancy and a launch video laden with meaningless buzzwords. While cringe-inducing, the ill-fated project was grounded in the reasonable aim of leveraging engagement data and the aggregation of multiple content sources to level the playing field with big tech.
Publications could achieve this if they collaborated, not as a merger or conglomerate, but by creating a cooperative platform that would give users access, through a single login, to a large network of outlets. It would form an open but regulated marketplace for journalism, with subscription fees awarded to publications in proportion to the time users spend with their content, making the model less ‘Netflix of news’ and more ‘Spotify for the press’. Similar ideas are already being tried, with the BBC and ITV’s partnership on the BritBox streaming service, while the magazine industry has taken a similar approach — the problem is the leading service is owned by Amazon, and its next competitor has been acquired by Apple, with the Cupertino giant announcing a major push into news just yesterday. Publications cannot afford to again relinquish control of their content to Silicon Valley — this service needs to be collectively owned and operated by publications, so the valuable usage data it generates can benefit journalists.
The third suggestion is a simple corollary of the second: readers need to pay. Whitelisting your favourite sites on your ad blockers is a start, but if you believe that journalism is paramount, you need to value it accordingly; with your wallet. The industry’s survival depends on it.