Tag Archives: media policy

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

Frozen media policies during a time of media change—new paper out

This year, we mark the twentieth anniverary after the Mosaic browser and affordable dial-up connections began to make the internet accessible for ordinary people, disrupting almost every aspect of the media business along the way as much of the population in high-income democracies started going online, moved from modems to broadband, from desk tops to lap tops, went from phones to mobile phones to smart phones, and as their TV was digitized and later connected.

And yet, despite all these changes in the media—and close to twenty years of media analysts arguing that they in turn necessitate changes in how media are regulated and underpinned—many areas of media policy remain essentially unchanged, especially when it comes to the forms of direct and indirect public support for media, including news media.

Across otherwise quite different countries including Finland, Germany and the United States, countries with different media systems and political systems, we have generally seen little reform of media policies, in particular those policies more important to democracy than to commerce (broadband policy and transition to digital television has been high on the agenda in many countries). The media industries are in upheaval. Media policies are being tweaked.

In a paper just published in Global Media and Communication (abstract below, full article here), I try to explain why many media policies seem “frozen” during a time of media change, looking at six high income democracies (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US) and drawing on interviews with media managers, media regulators, and media policymakers in each country.

I point to three factors that cut across all six countries and are likely relevant in many other places too.

I call them “the devil that don’t care”, “the devil you know”, and “the devil you don’t know.”

  1. “The devil that don’t care.”—a relative lack of interest in media policy from many leading politicians. The top people have a lot on their plate during a time of economic crisis, war, and all the rest, and changes in the media business has mostly not been put on their agenda.a
  2. “The devil you know.” The role of industry incumbents who are, whether in public service media or in the private sector, (predictably and understandably) keen to protect their existing privileges and who fear that any reform will leave them worse off. In some cases, this is close to “regulatory capture”, but in every case, incumbents can at least oppose reform proposals that hurt their interests.
  3. “The devil you don’t know.” Real, substantial uncertainty about what reform would look like and how it could be made both effective and governable. Anyone who talks to media regulators and serious media policy scholars recognize this. It is a lot easier to call for reform than to specify which reforms are simultaneously politically legitimate, cost-effective (especially during a time of austerity and budget-cuts), and ensure accountability.

The lack of high-level interest, the incumbents protecting their own interests, and the lack of clear blueprints and best practices for what could be done all help explain why media policies remain “frozen” in many respects in many countries.

Of course, the absence of major reform combined with major changes in the media industry means that many media policies are increasingly subject to what political scientists call “policy drift”, a process by which the operations and effectiveness of policies change not because of deliberate reform, but because of changing conditions on the ground.

The changes in our media are not going away. They are in fact likely to accelerate. And while we can understand why our media policies do not always change at the same pace, that does not mean change is not necessary. We need 21st century media policies for 21st century media. (See? I told you it was easier to call for reform that to specify what reform should look like more concretely.)

a) With regards to the first factor: France under Sarkozy was a partial exception to this (and has seen some changes in media support arrangements during his presidency) and Italy, because of Berlusconi, has been an obvious exception to this (though changes there have mostly taken the form of cuts). The period I examine ends before the Leveson Inquiry began in the UK, but keep in mind that despite the best attempts of the Media Reform Coalition and others, that has been more about press regulation than about the framework conditions of media.

Abstract etc below.

Continue reading

What’s happening to our media?

I’m in the process of writing up a report that presents the main findings from the research project on the changing business of journalism and its implications for democracy that I’ve been involved in over the last two years.

In the project, we try to identify the key “big trends” in the media in a range of different democracies (Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States) over the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Given such a spread of countries, widely different in too many ways to mention, there is obviously not one thing, or even a few things, that have happened to media and democracy in all of them.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to summarize the main points—below is a condensed passage from the concluding part of the draft report. Any and all comments on its most welcome, here or by email.

Most fundamentally, the last decade has involved a continued expansion of the number of options available to audiences and advertisers. This expansion originates in political, economic, and technological developments that gathered pace in the 1980s and 1990s with deregulation of the media sector in many countries, the growth of multi-channel television, the launch of an increasing number of free newspapers in many countries, and the spread of first-generation internet access via dial-up modems. It has been vastly accelerated by the spread of digital television and broadband internet in the 2000s.

The expansion of options has lead to an erosion of the everyday audience of most individual media outlets across most platforms, pressuring sales and advertising revenues for commercial providers, especially in mature markets with limited growth—in some cases to an extent that has jeopardized sustainability or forced severe cost-cutting. Few significant newspapers or broadcasters have actually closed, but most are under pressure. One the one hand, media companies have responded by adding more and more outlets to their expanding portfolios—at the very least adding a website and mobile services to whatever print title or broadcast channel they have historically been based around. On the other hand, this move towards more and more integrated and convergent media companies has been accompanied by layoffs, demands for increased productivity, and internal restructurings. (The booming Indian media market, where industry revenues are growing at double-digit rates annually, has seen much more of the former than the latter, though a recession will almost certainly result in retrenchment and consolidation.)

While a handful of infrastructural intermediaries in the telecommunications, pay television, search engine, and social media sectors have built positions that allow them to exercise market power and generate considerable profits, most content-based media companies face increased competition. In their attempts to remain distinct and relevant to audiences they are under external pressure from a growing number of alternatives appealing to the same users and under internal pressure in cases where cost-cutting threatens investments in quality content.

National newspapers that in the 1990s primarily competed with each other today face competition from both freesheets, broadcasters, and online services. The terrestrial television channels that ruled the airwaves twenty years ago are now up against a growing number of digitally transmitted free-to-air channels as well as premium pay channels and audiovisual services streamed over the internet. Legacy media websites and internet portals that dominated online news provision ten years ago are under increasing pressure from a growing number of aggregators and other new alternatives. As when radio disrupted the media sector in the 1920s and 1930s and television did the same in the 1950s and 1960s, the introduction and spread of a new media platform and the emergence of a multitude of new entrants all catering to the same finite number of audiences and advertisers have had knock-on consequences for legacy media, forcing incumbents to adjust their existing operations and take a stance on how to position themselves vis-à-vis the new medium.

This fundamental strategic challenge is the same across the world, but differences in conditions on the ground means that the tactics and outcomes vary in significant ways.

Amongst affluent democracies, the development is most dramatic in the United States, where all major news providers, with the partial exception of local television stations and a few cable channels, have lost revenues, seen their profit margin shrink or disappear, and have cut their investment in journalism. In much of Europe, public service providers face strategic challenges associated with the expansion of choice and the intensified competition for audiences, but their revenue models remain fundamentally solid. In Northern Europe, including Finland and Germany, commercial legacy media companies coming out of both print and broadcasting have so far managed to hold their own despite the spread of multi-channel digital television and high levels of broadband penetration. In Southern Europe, broadcasters have also held their own while many newspaper companies are struggling as challenges associated with the rise of the internet threaten their already weak commercial foundations, forcing some to rely on cross-subsidies from non-media businesses or financial support from their owners. In Brazil and India, large parts of the media sector are booming, but the revenues are not necessarily invested in quality content.

In the absence of dramatic change in media use, media markets, or media policy, and assuming no new game-changing technologies are waiting in the wings, media systems in affluent democracies are likely to see (a) a continued erosion of most media audiences and an increasing number of only partially overlapping niche audiences, (b) the continued decline of a newspaper industry that has in some cases enjoyed a few decades of monopoly-powered profitability but has been on the retreat overall in many countries for longer (as newspapers, for all their trouble, has been the main underwriters of professionally produced news journalism this has direct consequences for the number of reporters employed), (c) a continually growing gulf, driven in part by people’s preferences, in part by niche-oriented marketing logics, and in part by competition between outlets keen to differentiate their products from the competition, between the few who will in all likelihood be more informed than ever before, and the many who will receive, seek out, and find less and less news produced for them, especially if they belong to groups not considered attractive by advertisers. We are still at the beginning of the shake-out that will follow.

The full report will be published in October–stay peeled.

The best media in the world?

Together with my near-namesake, Rasmus Helles, I’ve written an op-ed in Berlingske on media trends and media policy in Denmark, arguing we need to support not only content production and diverse provision, but also broad reach in the population if we are to continue to have some of the best media in the world.

Uanset om du læser denne kronik i avisen, på nettet, eller fordi nogen har delt den med dig via Facebook, så tilhører du sandsynligvis den mest overforkælede mediemålgruppe i verdenshistorien. Selv om avisoplagene falder, TV- og radiokanalerne presses af konkurrencen om vores opmærksomhed, redaktionelle satsninger på internettet har svært ved at løbe rundt, og internationale giganter som Google sluger store dele af annoncemarkedet, så har de veluddannede, velhavende byboere over 30 stadig flere medieprodukter at vælge imellem. Men medierne producerer ikke kun indhold til os som individuelle forbrugere. De spiller også en bred demokratisk rolle, der vedrører os alle som medborgere – og selv om Danmark stadig har nogle af verdens bedste medier, er den rolle i dag truet.

The whole thing is here.

Supporting the past, ignoring the future? Public sector support for the media

Though Western media systems are going through a rapid and often painful transformation today with the rise of the internet and mobile platforms, the decline of paid print newspaper circulation, and the erosion of the largest free-to-air broadcast audiences, the ways in which governments provide direct and indirect support for the media have remained largely unchanged for decades.

The bulk of the often quite considerable direct and indirect subsidies provided continue to go to industry incumbents coming out of broadcast and print, while innovative efforts and new entrants primarily based on new media receive little or no support. In central ways, public support for the media remains stuck in the twentieth century, and some parts of these support systems are in need of real reform to be brought into the twenty-first we live in.

That is the thrust of a report called ‘Public Support for the Media’ that I’ve written with help from Geert Linnebank, former Editor-in-Chief of Reuters. In it, we review the various forms of subsidy in place in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In all these countries, the main forms of support relevant today have been put in place in the 1970s and in many cases long before. None of these countries have carried out major reforms of their subsidy systems to take into account the changes the media industry has undergone over the last twenty years. The bulk of the public support provided continues to go—

  • First, especially in Europe, directly to public service broadcasters with varying commitments to the online and mobile services people increasingly desire, and
  • Secondly, in all the countries covered including the United States, indirectly through various forms of tax relief to paid printed newspapers that remain of central importance in terms of generating original general interest news content on a regular basis, but are suffering from declining readership and stagnant revenues.

It is well-known that most European countries remain committed to public service broadcasting, but it is less well known that private sector print publishers in most countries benefit from very substantial forms of indirect support. The British press, for example, benefits from VAT relief worth an estimated £594 million (€748 million) every year.

The large table below (click to enlarge) provides an overview over the main forms of support in place in the six countries, and their estimated total value. As is clear, the sums involved are considerable, even if they pale by comparison to how much revenue some parts of the industry has lost in recent years (US newspapers have seen their total revenue decline by more than $20 billion since 2000).

A lot of money thus goes to supporting broadcast and print media in various ways, media that continue to be important for how people keep informed about public affairs, but also media that are increasingly being supplemented by online and mobile media of various sorts. Despite the well known and rapid spread of internet access and increasingly smart mobile phones, today, of all the six countries covered in the report, only France offers any meaningful support aimed directly at online media—and that to the tune of about €20 million a year after reforms in 2009, less than 0.5% of all the support provided. (The ‘Other support’ available in Italy goes to private sector broadcasting.)

Our aim with the report has been to collect in one place information on various forms of public sector intervention meant to encourage and foster vibrant and diverse media systems. Rather than discuss each kind of policy—broadcast, press, online, etc—separately and on its own terms, we have wanted to provide a more general overview over forms of intervention in increasingly convergent media markets and help shed some light on an otherwise all too opaque policy area attracting increased interest as some commercial media companies continue to struggle and newsrooms in many countries are cut. In several countries, detailed reports on the national support systems have been published in recent years (see for example this one from the US, this one from France, or this one from Finland), but we are not aware of any comparative overviews bringing together different forms of media support the way we have done.

This kind of cross-country comparison can help identify overlaps—like the absence of change and the bias in favor of legacy media common to all the countries considered here—but also map out differences. Different developed democracies support the media to different degrees and in different ways—of the countries we looked at, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom offer the most support in per capita terms, based on robust public service funding and VAT relief for historically strong newspaper industries. France and Italy has more extensive support systems in place, but their total value is actually lower in per capita terms partially because of their lower license fees, partially because tax relief is worth less for their much smaller press. The US is the clear outlier amongst developed democraces, with minimal public support, mainly for public service broadcasting (through federal and state appropriations) and for print publishers (through various forms of tax relief).

The figure below breaks down the absolute sums in terms of support per capita to make them more directly comparable than absolute figures (listing 5.5m population Finland and 300+m population US side-by-side may invite misunderstandings).

As is clear, there are important variations in how these six different countries support the media. But in all of them, direct and indirect subsidies runs to billions of Euros per year and overwhelmingly go to legacy media organizations coming out of broadcasting and print, while new media initiatives—whether pursued by these or by new entrants and entrepreneurs—get basically no support.

As our media systems change and people’s media use switches towards new media platforms, the effectiveness of the inherited forms of intervention will decline. Especially indirect support for the press—support still considered “essential” by industry associations—is and has been far more significant than most people realise. But support systems built around legacy platforms of relatively diminishing importance will lose their effectiveness as current trends in the advertising business and in people’s media habit continues. As newspaper circulation and revenues from print sales and advertising thus decline, the value of the indirect subsidies meant to help the industry thrive will diminish—and they do nothing to help it address the more fundamental challenge of structural adjustment that it faces.

Those who favour a renewed commitment to public support for the media will therefore have to rethink the role of public policy, of public service media organizations, and reconsider how governments can support those private sector media companies that provide public goods like the kinds of accessible accountability journalism and diverse public debate that democracies benefit from. Media scholars have long called for such reform, and yet little has been done to bring our twentieth century media policies into the twenty-first century. The basis for indirect support for the press in the United Kingdom, for example, continues to be the definition of a newspaper as publications that “consist of several large sheets folded rather than bound together, and contain information about current events of local, national or international interest.”

Whether one wants public support for the media or not is a political question (and one all developed democracies have answered in the affirmative in the twentieth century), but as people’s media habits and the economics of the industry change, effective intervention probably ought to be built around the “information” part of the sentence quoted above rather than the “several large sheets” part (just as “public service broadcasters” have in many countries sought to redefine themselves as “public service media organizations” to emphasize their cross-platform ambitions).

It will not be easy to develop new forms of public support for the media. New policies intervening in a sensitive area crucial for the functioning of our democracies will have to command wide political support, navigate industry and professional concerns, and at the same time try to meet the multiple ideals of being platform neutral (not biased in favour of any one distribution system), of being viewpoint neutral (not affording politicians or others too many opportunities to meddle), of being targeted enough to make a difference (one can’t support everything), of being governable and transparent (so that recipients can be held accountable in the public interest), of not distorting competition unnecessarily, and of being able to pass muster under various anti state-aid provisions in for example the European Union.

Developing new policies in this area is not a question of simply shouting “out with the old, in with the new” and switching support wholesale to new media—most news, for examples, is still accessed via linear broadcast and print newspapers, even though other platforms are of growing importance. Reform is a more difficult issue of deciding what it is one wants to support—what kind of public interests public support should serve, what kinds of public goods one wants delivered—and developing forms of direct and indirect support that effectively encourage that without too many malign side effects.

Developing such policies will be hard, difficult work, and call for renewed intellectual and political leadership—but it is also much needed work. Reform is necessary if we want to move beyond supporting our media past while ignoring the future.

Note: We decided to look at these six countries because they represent distinct approaches to media policy and have different media market structures. (For more on this, see for example the chapters on each (bar Italy) in the book I edited with David Levy last year). I should add that our review is not completely comprehensive in that we leave out public notice laws, regulatory relief in competition and labour law, and many other potentially important but smaller forms of support for certain media, and that it is not absolutely up to data as the last year on which the necessary information was available on all six countries was 2008. We have focused on support for the main kinds of content-producing media companies with at least a partial interest in news journalism, and thus left out both telecommunications and support for, for example, movie production and various kinds of art and culture.

Cross-posted on politicsinspires