The Cairncross Review admits what America won’t about journalism

The tech world’s influence on journalism is finally receiving policy pushback—at least, outside the United States. Governments are busy drawing up plans to directly intervene with tax support and even direct subsidies for journalism. In the past year, a hail of European bills aimed at taxing and curbing platform growth have been introduced. At the end of 2018, Canada announced that it would draw up a media salvage package worth $600 million in Canadian dollars. Now it is Britain’s turn to kick the tires on the idea of directly funding more public interest journalism, to protect it from the ravages of the digital marketplace. An inquiry ordered by the British government into the state of quality journalism released its findings in a report this week, recommending that publishers and platforms receive subsidies and tax breaks and that they be subject to codes and regulations.

Led by Dame Frances Cairncross, a journalist and academic, The Cairncross Review, as the report is called, is squarely critical of the market created by Google and Facebook, one that fails to incentivize or support robust journalism, particularly at the local level. Its findings seem may seem uncontroversial: public interest journalism is in crisis because the financial incentives of digital publishing platforms neither encourage or bankroll the costs of reporting.

The Cairncross Review made nine recommendations. They range from the soft—better digital literacy, a code of conduct for platforms and media, commitments by platforms to quality news, a new institute dedicated to public interest journalism—to the hard, including investigations and more regulation.

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In particular, the report calls for investigations into the online advertising market, dominated by the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook, and the BBC, for its possible encroachment into the market of online commercial news suppliers. The government, the report says, should also provide both tax incentives and direct support for public interest news.

There are two parts of the Cairncross Review that, for different reasons, are potentially more consequential than they appear. The first is an acknowledgment that Facebook, Google, and the shift of distribution and advertising revenues to large technology platforms have damaged some parts of journalism to a point where the market cannot repair them. This might seem obvious, but in America in particular we will be waiting a very long time before a government policy paper talks about market failure in such bald terms.

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The assumption in the US that news will eventually find a market model that does work has been one of the most consistent and damaging misconceptions advanced over the past twenty years. Chasing such a market—one that gatekeepers have rendered structurally impossible—has distracted resources, policies, and attention from finding a non-market solution to mitigating the worst of our local news failures.

Journalism owes the Cairncross Review at least a thank you for naming the disease. All governments—and journalists—must understand how to arbitrate between the necessity of reporters and the intolerant super structure of alien social platforms. And soon.

The second recommendation that stands out is the suggestion that the BBC should be under special scrutiny for the role it plays in the digital news ecosystem. Joshua Benton, the director of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, pointed out that an investigation of the BBC might end up having more lasting effect than anything else that might be implemented from the report. The BBC gets $5 billion in funding every year from the public “Licence Fee”—an arrangement that has long been a source of commercial jealousy, and occasionally outright animosity from the incumbent Conservative government, which has always felt the BBC is biased in favor of the left.

Local news chains in the United Kingdom have suffered the same bad fortune as those in the US: plummeting revenues made worse by poor governance from boards asleep at the wheel, salaries to top executives that are far too high, and consolidation that leaves remaining reporting resources thin. With such a large funding reservoir, the BBC could, if it wished, reform public media and its own role in a dynamic landscape. But its managers seem reluctant or unable to do so and, as a result, the BBC’s resources may end up being the main casualty of a report that intended to limit the overwhelming power of tech companies.

The solution is not to set  the BBC on a level field in commercial competition. A far better aspiration ought to be that the BBC be properly incentivized by the government to do its job. Much as one might not like an interventionist approach to journalism, the alternative has been worse. Ethical and reporting-focused owners of commercial news organisations have often failed in the print market because they were not profitable enough, only to be replaced by a generation of truly terrible owners—from vultures like Alden Global Capital to vested interest billionaires like Sheldon Adelson. When news organizations are in no position to turn down money from wealthy—and largely opaque—patrons, we are in a deep crisis.

In the US, commentators tend to find the arguments for public subsidy of journalism difficult to rationalize, yet they seem perfectly at peace with the idea that Google and Facebook should, by default, take over the role of supporting journalism. Indeed, those companies have started: in March 2018, Google announced its News Initiative, to help bust fake news and support journalistic organizations; in January, Facebook committed $300 million to come to the aid of local news.

The Cairncross Review is a very British type of white paper, clear in its language and interventionist in its scope. Is ultimate effect, however, is likely to be determined by how much the British government wants to take on the BBC and its many allies—or the intimidating might of Silicon Valley.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.