Less talk, more action? My foreword to “A New Deal for Journalism”

Do we need a “New Deal” for journalism, a concerted set of policies and commitment of resources to secure an enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future independent professional news reporting need to do its important job today and tomorrow?

The Forum on Information and Democracy and its chair Christophe Deloire from Reporters without Borders say that we do, and new report from the Forum looks at policy options – I was honored to chair working group providing input to the report.

I recommend reading the whole report, written for the Forum by Sameer Padania and a team of rapporteurs, based on desk research, tons of interviews, various submissions, and input from the working group.

My foreword is pasted below in case of interest, and I have summarized key points in this Twitter thread.

TL;DR – (1) Independent journalism is facing serious challenges around sustainability (as well as media freedom), especially at the local level and in terms of historically underserved and marginalized communities. Journalists and the news industry are leading on finding ways ahead on sustainability but (2) policymakers can help create a more enabling environment, if they are willing to move beyond talk and commit real resources, (3) whether we do this is a political choice, not a policy conundrum – blue sky thinking and new ideas are always welcome, but let’s not forget we have a number of existing policy options with proof of concept. Ignoring them is a bit like trying to combat climate change solely by risky bets on, say, geoengineering while ignoring the panoply of tools we already know can make a difference if we choose to use them. We should judge policymakers on their actions more than fine declarations, nice speeches, or lavish conferences, and always remember that inaction is a choice too.

My foreword below.

Less talk, more action?

“Quality, clear, and truthful information is essential for a democratic society based on the values of honesty and respect, fairness and justice, freedom and dignity.”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on World Press Freedom day this year, thanking journalists everywhere who “give us the facts to make better sense of the world, contribute to our communities, and lead freer, richer lives.”[1]

This is more than just words. While journalism is imperfect, and sometimes problematic, years of research has documented how independent, professional journalism helps people stay informed, take part in political processes, and engage with their local communities, just as it can help hold power to account and reduce corruption and malfeasance in both the public and the private sector.

But journalism’s ability to do this is threatened on several fronts today, by powerful people all over the world waging war on journalism as media freedom erodes, and by the inexorable decline of the traditional business of news as people abandon print and broadcast in favour digital media and platforms, a challenge sometimes compounded by journalism’s unwillingness to reckon with its own shortcomings or adapt to a changing world.

If governments want to do more than talk about the value of journalism, and actually help the journalists and news media who are leading on forging new ways forward for the profession and the industry, they will need to step up and take real action.

Whether this is a priority is for the public and its elected officials to decide, but one thing is clear. Speeches alone will do little to help journalists. They need action, and the reality is that, at best, most governments have done little or nothing.

What can governments do? One place to start is with existing policies that have proof of concept, command broad-based support in the countries where they are in place, and are oriented towards the future of journalism. Blue-sky thinking is always welcome, but it should not distract us from proven tools already at hand. This report identifies a range of the most important steps governments could take – right now – to help ensure the freedom, funding, and future that journalists need to do their job. None of them are perfect, but all of them are practical, and all can be structured so they avoid simply privileging incumbents or lining the pockets of proprietors and shareholders.

They include, perhaps most importantly—

Supporting private sector news media through indirect forms of support such as tax exemptions, direct support specifically tied to investment in professional journalism and structured to prioritize local media and media serving minorities, and supporting innovation, without tying these forms of support to increasingly marginal forms of distribution like print, is one option, as demonstrated in Denmark.

Supporting public service media with a clear remit and ability to serve the public across all media, not just broadcasting, strong insulation from political pressure to ensure their editorial independence from government, sufficient funding to deliver on their mission, and a clear focus on serving those communities least well served by private sector media is a second option, as demonstrated in the United Kingdom.

Supporting the creation of non-profit news media by easing the creation of journalistic non-profit organizations, whether from scratch or by converting legacy titles, and creating incentives for both individuals and foundations to support non-profit news media, is a third option, and non-profit media are already making important contribution in some countries.

Supporting independent news media globally by committing at least some Official Development Assistance to journalism in other countries is a fourth option, whether done bilaterally or through joint vehicles. We can all benefit from stronger journalism, not just at home, but also abroad – if anyone need a reminder that our futures are tied together in an age defined by the climate emergency and intertwined economies, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided it.

None of these policies are silver bullets, but they can all make a difference for the better, as long as they are deployed within a framework of fundamental rights and respect for free expression and media freedom (otherwise they can quickly turn into instruments for state capture).

They all also come with proof of concept, and avoid the uncertainty of betting on opaque arrangements that can entrench dominant players and risk primarily benefiting a few large publishers who are often already doing relatively well.

All these policies, and more reviewed in the report, can offer inspiration for governments who are serious about supporting independent journalists and news media as they carve out a new sustainable future for themselves. They offer a chance to break with years of inaction, and an opportunity to reform inherited arrangements tied to waning media like print or broadcast.

A few countries already have some of these policies in place, many countries at least a few of them, but no country has done all it can to help ensure journalists can continue to do their indispensable work, so central to the functioning of democracy. The United States, for example, has long been an outlier among democracies in terms of how little it does to actually support independent news media, and of course also illustrate the vitriol with which some politicians attack news media who seek truth and report it. President Biden has at least changed the tone. But will he and other political leaders around the globe who recognize the real public value of journalism take more tangible steps news reporting at home and abroad?

If governments are seriously committed to creating an enabling environment for independent professional journalism, they will commit real resources. Journalists – and the public they serve – don’t need comforting speeches. They need concrete steps. This report identifies some of what can be done. Now it is up to elected officials and the public to decide if they want less talk, and more action.

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and chair of the working group on the Forum on Information and Democracy Working Group on Sustainability of Journalism.

[1] https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/statements/2021/05/03/statement-prime-minister-world-press-freedom-day


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