7 media policy options for enabling independent professional journalism

Today I gave a short presentation to the Irish Future of Media Commission. I had 6 minutes to speak about policy options for public interest content, and given what I do, I naturally focused on news – independent professional journalism.

There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around, and given the constraints the below is obviously not comprehensive or exhaustive, the ideas aren’t always appropriate in every context (in countries where the government does not respect free expression and/or try to capture the media public policy often does more harm than good to independent professional journalism), and they don’t speak to some of the wider issues, including competition, that I have written about elsewhere – but perhaps still interesting and useful in summarizing some specific, concrete options.

I think there sometimes is a risk that actually existing policies with proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect get lost in the scrum or the tendency to always chase novelties. Just as we don’t always need to chase the latest shiny thing in digital journalism (Blockchain! Chatbots! VR!) or futuristic speculation about hyperloops, passenger drones or self-driving cars if sorting out existing public transport and bike lanes could get the job done, we don’t always need moon-shots for terrestrial shortcomings in media policy.

There are things that we know we can do and that we know can make a difference. It makes no sense to throw up our collective arms and cry ‘what-oh-what-can-we-do’ when there are clear options, and while interesting and sometimes promising, it is not always necessary to start from scratch and develop entirely new policies that in any case will face uncertain politics ahead and sometimes risk negative or unintended consequences.

I’m all for blue sky thinking, but that should not distract us from the actually existing options we have. They have limitations, of course, they may not have the public and political support they need to work, and they are not free, few things are. But let’s be clear. In Denmark, 0.03% of expected 2021 government expenditure will go to direct financial support for independent news media (DKK 358m). In New Zealand, the new Journalism Fund will receive about 0.01% of government expenditure in 2020/2021 (NZ$10m). Other governments could make a similar commitment. If the US committed 0.01% of total government expenditure to direct financial support for independent news media, that would amount to billions of dollars. It’s a choice, not an conundrum.

It is up to the public and to elected politicians who represent them to decide whether such arrangements or other options are appropriate and desirable, and strike the balance between doing something and doing something that can command broad enough backing to provide legitimate and reliable support for independent professional journalism. But the main issue right now in my view is not lack of options. It is the lack of action.

Anyways – my manuscript below, with links added for underlying evidence.

Remarks at the Irish Future of Media Commission dialogue Friday 19 March on media funding and regulation. 

My name is Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, I am Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

I have been asked to address the question of what an Irish regulatory framework could seek to achieve in terms of plurality, competition, innovation, quality, and public service in the media market.

I will speak to news, as that is my area of expertise, an important part of what the Commission in your work have defined as public interest content.

When it comes to news, I think one key question is the sustainability of independent, professional journalism, especially at the local level and for disadvantaged and underserved communities.

The problem is not distribution. News is easily accessible online for everyone with internet access.

The problem is not journalism for privileged affluent, highly-educated news lovers in urban centres. They are often better served than ever before.

The core problem, I think, is the sustainable, ongoing provision of a relatively diverse range of news offers for everyone, and everywhere.

***

In every country we have data on, throughout most of the last century or more, the vast majority of independent professional journalism has been provided by private, for-profit businesses. I expect that to be the case in the future too.

Policymakers can take a number of steps to make such businesses more likely to invest in independent professional journalism.

They can also take a number of steps to supplement what private businesses do.

I will point to seven options.

***

In terms of increasing private businesses’ investment in news, the four main options that have proof of concept and/or are likely to have limited negative or unintended consequences I think are

First, direct subsidies for private news media, as deployed in for example Denmark with a system designed to prioritize supporting local publishers and smaller publishers to enhance diversity and ensure geographic spread, without creating any openings for politicians or bureaucrats to meddle with editorial. The sums involved are big enough to make a difference, but small enough to avoid over-reliance on public funds. (The scheme has also been praised by the European Commission as fully compliant with State Aid rules.)

Second, indirect subsidies for private news media, deployed in many countries, such as VAT reductions and where most generous, exemptions. Where rationally designed, these are equally applicable to offline and online news. They are increasingly important as subscriptions are more and more central to the business of digital news, and again, represent a form of support without any openings for political meddling in editorial.

Third, systemic support, as suggested in the UK Cairncross Review, to underwrite the costs of things that are relevant across the profession of journalism and for the news industry as a whole, without being tied to individual private publishers, such as funds made available for training of editorial staff who need new skills, or industry-relevant applied research.

Fourth, competitive grants for editorial projects, building off existing arts council and research council models, such as New Zealand’s recently announced Journalism Fund to support public interest journalism.

These four options are all primarily focused on independent professional journalism done by private publishers.

***

Looking beyond these, there are additional ways for policymakers to supplement independent professional journalism from private publishes. These are the next options on my list of seven.

Fifth, by far the most important is the creation and public funding of independent public service media, ideally with a remit to operate across platforms, and with secure public funding and little or no reliance on commercial revenues (to minimize the conflict that will necessarily exist between private sector and public service providers). Increasingly, in for example Finland, these are no longer funded by an often socially regressive licence fee tied to increasingly outmoded devices and waning forms of consumption, but by an earmarked media tax tied to income, structured and collected to maintain full independence. As long as the remit is clear, in the countries where I have seen independent research, there is little or no convincing evidence of the crowding out effect that private sector publishers often say they fear come with public service provision.

Sixth, easing the creation of non-profit news organizations – or the conversion of existing ones into non-profits – and the creation of relevant deductions and other incentives for supporting non-profit news media. So far much less important in terms of overall volume of investment, but significant and in many cases enabling very impressive forms of journalism, non-profit news plays an important role in the United States both through long-standing legacy media like NPR, PBS, and their local affiliates and new entrants like the Texas Tribune, with its local focus, or The 19th with its focus on gender, politics and policy.

***

Finally, policy makers can enable all sorts of independent professional journalism, whether for-profit, public service, or non-profit, by

Seventh, lowering the costs of doing investigative reporting, through ease of freedom of information access, more public data, the use of machine readable formats in place of cumbersome PDFs when public data is released and similar initiatives.

***

What these options have in common is that they are focused on enabling independent professional journalists to produce public interest content, not on propping up specific companies.

They all avoid reliance on hypothecated taxes with their many known drawbacks and problems.

They also avoid increasing news publishers’ reliance on large technology companies that they may have reservations about being too reliant on.

They often require funding, and I suspect citizens would be glad to see a greater tax contribution from large technology companies who in many cases generate vast amounts of revenue while paying little tax in individual jurisdictions.

However the funds are generated, it is important to recognize that, as a share of public expenditure, they are tiny even where these arrangements are most generous – we often spend far less public funds on supporting independent professional journalism than we do on supporting, say, agriculture or fossil fuels.

It is up to elected officials and the public to decide whether these options are appropriate and desirable, but it is important to recognize that, while not without limitations, these are actually existing policies that have proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect.

It is a choice to implement them, just as it is a choice to not implement them.

Despite the scale and scope of change in media use and the media business the last few decades, for a long time the political norm has been to choose inaction, which is why in many countries we still have 20th century media policies for a 21st century media environment.

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