Reincarnating the newspaper industry

Newspapers have been reluctant to discuss the political economy of the media, however time for introspection is now.

Most readers "will be unaware of the public subsidies" newspapers already enjoy [EPA]

Last week the Guardian gave David Leigh, one of its journalists, an opportunity to propose a new way of funding journalism. Revenues from print sales are in steep decline, he said, and paywalls won’t work in the UK, because of the BBC. But something has to be done, he explained, because: 

“… when the day comes that the newspapers are forced to stop printing altogether, it will be a disaster for democracy. The lean pickings from web advertising on a free newspaper site will only pay for a fraction of the high-quality investigative journalism that commercial newspapers generate. We’ll just get the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other.” 

Faced with this disaster, David Leigh set out what he called a “perfectly easy way to rescue newspapers, ensure media plurality and monetise the web” – add a £2 ($3.2) monthly levy on broadband fees and thereby raise around £500 million ($807 million) a year. The money would then be distributed to news operations “according to their share of UK online readership”.

The Telegraph, the Guardian and Associated (i.e., Daily Mail) groups would be the big winners in this arrangement, each taking around £100 million ($161 million) a year. The Sun would pick up half that, about £50 million ($80 million) and the Independent group £40 million ($64 million). 

Newspapers are reluctant to discuss the political economy of the media in normal times. The appearance of Leigh’s article suggests that these are not normal times. The losses caused by the move online are mounting now at a rate that is breaking down the old social silences. Most readers will be unaware of the public subsidies newspapers already enjoy, but Leigh’s article mentions them, albeit briefly. It will be interesting to see if the Guardian or any of its competitors start publishing those whose proposals don’t mesh quite so exquisitely with their own interests. 

Investigative journalism

Leaving that to one side, here’s what I see as the main problem with Leigh’s suggestion. The distribution mechanism he proposes will not serve the stated aim. It is a spectacularly inefficient way to spend public money to fund “high-quality investigative journalism”. Far from averting a disaster for democracy it will prolong the disaster we already have. 


 Inside Story Americas – The death of the newspaper?

While some good investigative journalism does appear in British newspapers, it accounts for only a tiny fraction of content as a whole. Much more space is given to celebrity gossip, chitchat from Westminster, lifestyle features, sports coverage, scare stories about immigrants, half-baked nonsense about the economy and similar “superficial junk”. This kind of stuff used to make for lurid headlines that drove newsstand sales. It still attracts browsers online looking for a quick glimpse of the well-known half-dressed, or a jolt of moral opprobrium. But it doesn’t make money the way it used to. 

Leigh’s levy would go to those news operations with large online readerships, regardless of the amount of “high-quality investigative journalism” they commissioned and published. This will tend to reward, and preserve, incumbency.

It will also encourage publishers to focus on sensation and scandal, much as they do now. The Daily Mail‘s website would receive lavish funding. The publisher of now defunct The News of the World would have tens of millions of pounds of new money to spend on private investigators and other, more or less sinister, expenses.

Leigh even suggests that only sites that attract more than 100,000 readers will receive funds, which seems like an odd way to promote plurality. Public life would trundle on, with the same kind of people in charge, playing by the same rules. 

Up until recently, influential voices defended both the content and the conduct of Britain’s newspapers on the grounds that they were necessary to attract audiences, generate revenues and sustain plurality. Here’s Baroness Hale, one of Britain’s most senior judges: 

“It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.” 

This seems to me to be a despicable doctrine. Those willing and able to rummage around in scandal and gossip can then subject the large audiences they attract to their, very particular, version of public life. Effectually public speech belongs disproportionately to those willing to overturn every principle of common decency and restraint. It is also a Magna Carta for blackmailers. In the course of trawling for commercially valuable gossip, newspapers can assemble huge amounts of damaging material about politicians and others, which can be either published or buried at the discretion of editors and owners. 

Broadband tax

Now that these “intrusions into private grief” are no longer quite so lucrative, Leigh proposes a tax to subsidise them! 

One could make the case for raising new funds for investigative journalism from a broadband tax, perhaps. But a broadband tax to subsidise existing newspaper publishers? The money would flow to those best able to attract eyeballs. The editors of some newspapers sites might spend some of the subsidy they receive on high quality investigative journalism, it would be entirely up to them. They would be free, as now, to commission investigations and not publish the results, as they do now. 

“Up until recently, influential voices defended both the content and the conduct of Britain’s newspapers on the grounds that they were necessary to attract audiences, generate revenues and sustain plurality.”

Public subsidies to support investigative journalism are highly desirable. Indeed they are necessary if we are to figure out how to solve the bewildering array of problems we now face. But they can only be justified if the public controls them. 

A levy from broadband fees – or from some other source – could be used to give each of us a sum of money to spend as we see fit. In the interests of equity we could choose to claim the money back, if we had no interest in supporting any kind of journalism at all. As for the rest of us, some might support a range of specific research projects and investigations, some might hand it over to an organisation a little bit like a newspaper, and leave it to them to work out the details. 

In this way we could all decide what we want to know more about. If we want scandal, then we can give our money to the Sun and the Daily Mail. (Mind you, the internet does not lack sites that offer easy distraction, let’s be honest.) If we want to know what is happening in the world, then we can give a little money to those who convince us that they are trustworthy. Crucially, we can talk to one another about the proposals and the results. 

Individuals and small groups would have an opportunity to secure funding directly from quite small fractions of the public. Imagine the difference a few thousand properly funded and publicly accountable investigative journalists would make to our stock of commonly held knowledge. Currently our media are riddled with superstition and wishful thinking. What fun we could have, shedding light on what is currently kept obscure. 

In a well-designed system, reports that significant numbers of citizens found valuable would be given greater publicity and, of course, scrutiny. Commissioning investigations and assessing their public significance would become part of everyday life, as routine as buying a newspaper used to be.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.