A fight for democracy

Last week, while the Trump blimp flew lazily over the London skyline, I was in Glasgow with global chief editors, publishers and CEOs who care about media freedom and survival. The World News Media Congress attracted executives from The New York Times and the BBC, as well as Twitter and the US Local Media Association. Alongside them this year, online platform providers touted solutions to “help your audience become paying members” and researchers opined on the global state of reader engagement.

The future of high-quality journalism and the ideal business model for print-based news organisations was the overriding theme. As if channelling the anti-Trump protests, the language was warlike, with newsrooms increasingly facing a “battle for social relevance” and press freedom challenged by “murder, intimidation and harassment”.

In the UK, national and local newspaper sales roughly halved between 2007-2017. Advertising revenues also shrank, while Google and Facebook increasingly dominated access to both news and advertising. Against this backdrop, the keynote speaker was Dame Frances Cairncross, a respected journalist, academic and economist who has led a major investigation into the sustainability of quality journalism in the UK. The Cairncross review asked whether government intervention was required. Released in February, it is considered a blueprint for the economic development of the industry.

The review found there were two important functions which the press deliver that the market doesn’t support, but which are still vital to the wellbeing of society. The first is the maintenance of a healthy democracy ensured by the checks and balances the fourth estate provide. The second is the pursuit of investigative journalism, an expensive endeavour, which rarely garners the readership it costs to produce. Dame Frances recommended intervention on both counts. 

Online, it’s possible to see that fewer people read local democracy reporting. It is often removed based on lack of eyeballs, but it’s increasingly clear that its presence is an important control on local politicians. Without press coverage there’s evidence people are less likely to vote, reducing their connection to government. US experience shows local and state finances are less tightly run without the scrutiny of local journalists. 

Here in New Zealand, Stuff has joined the industry, Radio New Zealand and NZ on Air in a $1 million pilot scheme to ensure the survival of local reporting. The Local Democracy Reporter pilot will pay for eight regional journalists to fill gaps in the reporting on local bodies, courts and other publicly-funded organisations. They will deliver shared content to fill the gaps in coverage which have occurred with the decline in local media. 

Ben Rose at the World News Media Congress. 

The second key function of the press is investigative journalism, and especially inquiry into abuses of power in the public and the private sphere. Such journalism is particularly high-cost and high-risk. In some cases editors have spent tens of thousands on months of reporting, only to spike (withhold) a story because it failed to meet the standards of evidence needed for publication.

State intervention here would blur the lines of independence, yet if its future relies purely on advertiser funding, investigative and campaigning journalism is at serious risk. This is where Stuff’s innovative strategy was of interest to overseas colleagues, ensuring compelling high-value print and online products for advertising, while building additional subscriber businesses.

Stuff invests heavily in market research to understand our readers, their barriers and triggers. We’re investing in our print products, too. Our content strategy recognises the need for breaking news online, paired with more extensive print coverage — and we’re constantly scoping the evolution of our print products to attract new audiences (and therefore advertisers). At the same time we’ve successfully launched additional subscriber businesses such as Stuff Fibre, Energyclubnz and Stuff Pix. 

Clearly, we can’t force people to read news, but through new funding models in partnership with our readers and others, we can ensure the facts are published and available to them. If these are not readily available, we put democracy at risk. As an industry, we have a responsibility to talk openly about what this means for our country. In the future, serious public journalism may need serious support and for a truly free press, that must come from the people, not just the state.

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