In an age overwhelmed with clickbait stories, where clicks mean money, is mainstream journalism losing its relevance? And are there any alternative sustainable business models, which allow professional journalists the freedom to produce meaningful and balanced journalism?
These were some of the questions put to a panel of TV and radio directors from across the globe at the UNESCO’s Journalism Under Fire Colloquium, recently held in Paris.
Vicente Jimenez, director-general of the Spanish radio network Cadena SER, kicked off the discussion by citing some of the most-read stories in Spain last year:
We are often looking for stupid or irrelevant stories for large amount of clicks to increase our income.
Compulsory military service for unemployed people! Workers forbidden from attending university! A ban on Halloween processions to avoid offending Muslims!
They were all “fake news”.
Jimenez argued that the click business model was poisoning media.
“We are often looking for stupid or irrelevant stories for large amount of clicks to increase our income,” he said. “Look right now at the top newspaper websites and you’ll find many stories about cats, about the different ways of cooking some meal, or whether Lady Diana was taller than her husband.”
Giles Trendle, Al Jazeera’s acting managing director, agreed that the media was challenged by the proliferation of new platforms and mediums.
But, he said, engaging with new technologies should not necessarily mean losing one’s soul.
“Hold firm to your editorial principles, which is a valid business model in itself. We have to champion what we do as quality, credible, balanced journalism that is factual and comprehensive, and cherish our editorial integrity,” Trendle said.
The fundamentals of “quality journalism” will eventually prevail over the low-grade “yellow journalism”, he added.
‘Everybody told us we would fail’
With less than 1 percent of El Salvador’s population able to access the internet, the business reasons for setting up an online investigative news site in the 90s may not have been obvious.
But without resources to set up a print newspaper, Carlos Dada and his colleagues launched El Faro online in 1998.
El Faro specialised in long investigative stories and Dada, editor-in-chief, explained: “Everybody told us we would fail because the internet, this new media, was there for breaking news, short stories”.
El Faro did survive and became “platform agnostic”, using a mix of media platforms to reach out to as many people as possible.
Dada said that holding firm to their social mission of educating their readership to become informed citizens, and in doing so strengthening democratic institutions, has been key to their business success.
According to Andrius Tapinas, the founder and chief executive of Liberty TV in Lithuania, crowd-funded journalism could be a way forward in an environment starved of state subsidies, especially for small media outlets.
Although Lithuanian television stations are freely accessible online, Tapinas – with a group of journalists – took a gamble to set up an online television channel that viewers could access through a monthly subscription.
Six months after its launch, Liberty TV competes with state television in terms of audience numbers, Tapianas said. With a stable subscriber base, the channel avoids the tyranny of the click business model.
Tapinas also emphasised the need for innovation.
“Our TV channel is the biggest Lithuanian broadcaster on YouTube but we get four times less subscribers than a 17-year-old guy who is doing some fun stories from his mother’s basement,” Tapinas said. “So do we cry, or do we adapt by maybe hiring this guy?”
Crowd-funded journalism has also been implemented successfully by other media outlets, notably by the French online investigative and opinion journal Mediapart, which is entirely funded by its 130,000 subscribers, and which has over the past few years broken important corruption stories such as the Cahuzac affair.
That scandal led in 2013 to the resignation of Francois Holland’s former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac.