12 Jun 2019

2019 Reuters Digital News Report Commentary

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, and to some of the findings in this year’s report, journalism is in rude health. People’s appetite for and access to quality news and commentary has never been stronger. Getting them to pay for it remains a challenge but there are signs that solutions to the ‘broken business model’ are emerging. It’s messy, to be sure. And job losses, news deserts and the relentless drift to online consumption of news will no doubt be a feature of the landscape for the foreseeable future.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. At the big end of town The New York Times and The Guardian are proving that people will pay for reliable, quality news. Smaller scale local operators are finding ways to make news pay. Some of it is happening through philanthropy; some communities are banding together to fund a local news platform.

And new, interesting ideas are being floated. Just one is the suggestion that local, publicly-funded libraries develop a news-gathering service. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review encouraged us to think about a funding mechanism that can enshrine journalism as a public service. It says the US currently hosts more than 30,000 special service districts which fund everything from fire departments and sanitation services to hospitals. They are paid for by annual fees assessed in a geographic area and in turn deliver services to the communities that fund them. Maybe they can also fund local news platforms?

Before howls of protest erupt about government-funded, and government-influenced, news let’s agree ways and means can be found to safeguard the editorial independence and integrity of news services of this type. In the end, local taxpayers will determine whether the product is worth supporting.

One trend that seems to be with us to stay is the role of philanthropy in supporting journalism. This is especially evident in the United States where dozens of initiatives have sprung up over the past few years to replace failed commercial operations. And in the UK the emergency measure of the BBC redirecting some of its licence fee income to support regional journalism is being closely studied.

Formerly hyper competitive newsrooms have learned to collaborate where it makes sense to, sharing staff and costs and providing access to wider audiences that otherwise might have been beyond reach.

These developments suggest those of us interested in the future of journalism should be open to the many options available to support quality journalism.

Sticklers for the purist “commercial only” model risk looking a gift horse in the mouth. They underestimate the potential for high wealth individuals to step up to support what they see as an indispensable pillar of democracy. If wealthy philanthropists will support cancer research, the arts and scientific research in perpetuity why not the fourth estate?

The most likely prospect is that journalism will in future be underpinned by a combination of commercial operators, local communities and philanthropists. It seems for now, at this moment of peak volatility in the media marketplace, to be the most likely way forward.

Obviously, there are still challenges. In many ways the biggest of these is how journalists will do their jobs in future, rather than how (and whether) they are paid for them. As much as journalism needs new business models it also needs new model journalists.

We have been talking about this for a while now, especially about the way that digital is changing the profession. For one thing the opportunities provided by new digital tools and the economic pressures that have resulted in thinner newsrooms means that multi-skilling is king. As one journalist I spoke to said, these days you need to be a writer, an editor, a photographer, a videographer and a social media manager all at once.

Just as media organisations are adjusting their business models they are also changing the ways they train their staff (including in many cases after years of under-investment). Most are starting to design and provide digital skills training for their staff, with a particular focus on technical topics such as social media and search optimisation.

The risk is, of course, that in adapting to new realities we forget old virtues. Even as they acquire new digital skills, journalists can’t lose sight of the old analogue competencies, especially how to tell a good story and engage their readers.

This annual report does a great service. It provides a contemporary snapshot of the state of the industry but its lasting value will accrue over time as it accumulates a growing body of evidence about how people access information and make sense of the world around them.