“Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-covid World”
Dozens of plans to help save journalism have emerged since the covid-19 pandemic decimated media outlets globally. Many of these initiatives involve increased support from foundations and discussion about how media business models can adapt to the current crisis. But desperate times require flexibility and innovation, and we are seeing a surprising number of proposals that break from past practices. Most promising are Australia’s efforts to get Google and Facebook to pay for news and legislative proposals in the US to pass laws and get investment that would support local news.
We examined initiatives from around the world, for our report “Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-covid World.”
The proposals that surfaced in 2020 fell into four categories: public subsidies, tech platforms taxes, new business models, and private funding.
1) Public support of journalism
As part of their broader covid-relief efforts, governments provided emergency funding that helped media outlets and freelance journalists. Norway, Singapore, Australia, and Canada, among others, all expanded government support for quality news.
In the US, we saw renewed interest in support for government funding of journalism and efforts to shift government policy and develop legislation to help fund local news. “The collapse in local commercial media that has accelerated during the pandemic has created an appetite for public policy solutions that were not on the table even nine months ago,” says Tom Glaisyer, managing director of programs at the Democracy Fund, which spends more than $10 million a year supporting efforts to remake local news. He added that Black Lives Matter has also given new urgency to donors to address racism in the news media.
Free Press has long championed using taxes to fund journalism and in 2019 convinced New Jersey to allocate $2 million to local news. Robert McChesney, cofounder of Free Press, is working with others to draft a local journalism initiative that would help save local news by establishing a budget of $100 per person to support local nonprofit journalism, then let people vote to determine which media outlets get the money in their communities.
Report for America cofounder Steve Waldman is promoting a media voucher system (similar to what France did after 2008 when it gave newspaper subscriptions to eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds) and assisted with the design of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which gives federal tax credits to local media outlets. The idea is similar to policies that have already been implemented in France and Canada.
Glaisyer says that it’s crucial to “get support for journalism written into any new economic recovery bills that may be introduced in the Biden presidency.” Waldman has been proposing an ambitious replanting strategy that outlines a way to rescue 6,700 local newspapers that are owned by hedge funds. Waldman notes that a future bill could “provide incentives for chains to donate newspapers to the communities they serve instead of closing them, while tightening antitrust law to discourage excessive consolidation.”
2) Making tech companies pay for quality journalism
Among the most ambitious journalism rescue projects is Australia’s proposed new legal framework to diminish the power imbalance between media outlets and Google and Facebook. Europe’s attempts to use copyright laws have failed as Google has refused to pay, so Australia is using competition law. Australia’s competition authority, headed by economist Rod Sims, has drafted a code that would require Google and Facebook to pay for the news they carry. If the two sides cannot agree on a price, it would then be set by binding arbitration. Parliament will vote on the plan in coming months.
Regulators and organizations in Africa are looking for ways to adapt and implement Australia’s proposed code within their own countries. The EU and the US, similarly, are monitoring events as they consider Big Tech regulation. Google has fought hard against the code; its efforts include promoting an open “letter” to all Australian users on Google’s homepage threatening to make their services “dramatically worse.”
3) New business models
Vast amounts of time and effort have been put into the problem of “fixing the business model.” For instance, the Digital Transitions Project put forth by Botswanan journalist Ntibinyane Ntibinyane and Zimbabwean reporter and editor Dumisani Muleya propose funding that could help twenty southern African newspapers transition to digital. This innovation is particularly urgent in southern Africa, as some countries only have a handful of print alternatives to government sources. “If these newspapers close, that’s the end of independent newspapers. If the outlets are not saved, what will then happen to independent media? To freedom of expression? The government could be the only print player left,” Ntibinyane said in an interview.
Similarly, in Kenya, investigative economic journalist Mark Kapchanga argues that some Kenyan media outlets should receive financial assistance from the government but that the funds must be delivered in such a way that the outlets can safely maintain their independence, for instance, through the Media Council of Kenya.
In the US, several projects are disrupting traditional business models by uplifting traditionally marginalized voices. These include journalist and novelist Farai Chideya’s 2020 report “Reconstructing American News,” which promotes making the grant application process more accessible and encourages investment in US news organizations led by people who are Black, Indigenous, or of color. Additionally, Media 2070 is a project that seeks to “radically transform who has the capital to tell their own stories by 2070.”
4) Philanthropic Funding
Many foundations and journalism organizations set up emergency funds during 2020, and many of these were overwhelmed with applications. In Australia, the AAP newswire—which had been in danger of closing—was purchased by a consortium of philanthropists and impact investors in the middle of the covid crisis. According to economist Richard Denniss, the support for AAP is one of the most strategic acts of philanthropy in Australian history—the alternative would be a significant boost in News Corp market dominance. News Corp has since threatened to set up a for-profit newswire.
Philanthropic support has enabled hundreds of media outlets around the world to survive, but it’s increasingly clear that more systemic support is needed. That’s why we’re far more excited about increasing donor coordination, new laws, and government support aimed at shoring up existing outlets that need it. We believe there is a lot to learn from France and from the Nordic and Canadian governments about how governments can support a diverse and pluralistic media ecosystem.
This article is adapted from “Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-covid World.” commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. We used a taxonomy suggested by Nishant Lalwani, managing director of Luminate, a venture of the Omidyar Network that spends about $20 million annually supporting journalism.
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).
EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)
Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world, by Lauren Harris:
- “VOICES OF THE DISPATCHED”: The Center for Journalism and Liberty interviewed ten journalists who lost their jobs amid the pandemic. “Doubting media critics aside, a dwindling number of journalists and media workers toil as watchdogs or as analysts for our society. With the new year underway, our nation needs trained professionals to tell stories that matter,” Ray Garcia writes.
- AIMING TO EXPAND LOCAL REPORTING: The Tiny News Collective aims to launch five hundred local news organizations over the next three years, Nieman Lab reported yesterday. The venture plans to share and distribute resources among startups while recruiting support from outside the industry. “The Collective isn’t trying to ‘save’ local journalism as we know it,” they wrote in their announcement. “We are empowering people to build something new and better: a true, ground-up ecosystem of diverse, locally focused newsrooms that are from and for local communities.” Elsewhere, education reporting nonprofit Chalkbeat has announced intentions to expand its localized election reporting initiative, Votebeat, Axios reported.
- OHIO PAPER PUSHES REPORTERS TO ALTER THE STORY: Writers at the Toledo Blade reported pressure from the paper’s management to alter reporting on last Wednesday’s pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, the Washington Post reported. Management told writers to avoid calling the rioters “Trump supporters” in their reporting on the event, and one of the members of the family owning the paper published a Facebook post in support of the mob a few days later. Reporters announced a byline strike, telling the Post that “some people were calling for boycotts of the paper, and it’s already a really tough time in journalism. We wanted to send the message that we’re on the same side. Do not give up on us.”
- EDITORS FACE 2021: For the PressGazette, a series of editors spoke about the challenges facing journalism in the coming year and how the industry might confront them. Roula Khalaf, editor at the Financial Times, talked about the importance of sustaining the work of remote newsrooms, anticipating more lockdowns and restrictions in 2021. Greg Williams, editor at Wired UK, said, “while it’s important to engage with as large an audience as possible—particularly on digital channels—the opportunities for growth depend on a core audience of loyal readers who are so invested in the brand that they will buy tickets to events, beauty boxes or access to members programmes.” And David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach, says it’s important to help readers understand the value of paying for journalism.
- UK GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATES GOOGLE INITIATIVE: The United Kingdom’s market competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, has recently opened an investigation into Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, which plans to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome browser, the PressGazette reported. Google’s plan would mean that personalized advertising on Chrome would be reserved for Google alone. A group of tech companies and publishers reached out to the CMA with concerns that the move would further damage struggling publishers, particularly small news outlets. “It is moving the supply, the buy and the tracking and analytics to the same organisation. I don’t think anyone’s really sure how that’s going to play out,” Matt Rhodes, an ad-buyer, told Freddy Mahew. (Google argued that plans for the initiative are still in progress and that neither Firefox nor Safari allows third-party cookies either.)
- WEST VIRGINIA PAPER INCREASES MARGINS: In 2018, in McDowell County, West Virginia, the Welch News was on the brink of closure before publisher Missy Welch purchased it. With help from investors and local residents, the paper developed a new business plan, the Newstart Alliance newsletter reported. Most recently, the addition of an online paywall—in partnership with the Paywall Project—has given the paper small boosts in their margins. “Any time you can add just $500 a month to a newspaper’s bottom line, that could mean fixing a roof or hiring an additional stringer, or whatever the case may be. It’s a lot,” Tyler Channell, Paywell Project director, said.
- BUSTLE EYES GOING PUBLIC: Bustle Digital Media, a company owning publications like Bustle, Mic, and W, is exploring a deal to go public, Reuters reported last week. “The company is aiming for a valuation of at least $600 million, including debt,” Joshua Franklin writes.
- BOSTON LOCAL NEWS BUILDS COMMUNITY WITH COCKTAILS: Boston.com, a news website owned by the Boston Globe, has aimed to support struggling local restaurants and bars by hosting the Boston Cocktail Club, a series of online events where local bartenders teach viewers how to make their signature cocktails. Five hundred viewers signed up for the first event, NiemanLab reported, each receiving the option to purchase cocktail kits and tip the bartenders’ Venmo accounts for their work. “Local media is in a unique position to bring everyone to the table because we have scale, expertise, and community,” Matt Karolian, the publication’s general manager, told NiemanLab.
- SHIFTS IN LOCAL MEDIA: Michael Cohen, an opinion columnist at the Boston Globe, announced his intentions to leave the Globe and begin an independent newsletter on Substack. “It is difficult to leave the Globe,” Cohen wrote on Twitter. “But the opportunity to create a new venture—and to do something different and fresh with the tools that Substack provides—was simply too tempting.” Elsewhere, the Austin American-Statesman hired Manny García to serve as executive editor, following the retirement of John Bridges. García currently oversees ProPublica’s Austin-based investigative partnership with the Texas Tribune, which he helped launch one year ago.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.