WikiLeaks has recently announced the creation of a new organisation called the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The following excerpt from the press release gives a quick description of the new initiative:
“The Freedom of the Press Foundation, an initiative of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) co-founder John Perry Barlow, former Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, the actor John Cusack and others, will crowd-source fundraising and support for organisations or individuals under attack for publishing the truth. It aims to promote “aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption and law-breaking in government. (…)
The Foundation’s first ‘bundle’ will crowd-source funds for WikiLeaks, the National Security Archive, The UpTake and MuckRock News. Donors will be able to use a slider to set how much of their donation they wish each organisation to receive and can donate to WikiLeaks using their credit cards. The Foundation holds 501(c) charitable status, so donations are tax-deductible in the US. Other courageous press organisations will be added as time goes by. It will not be possible to see by banking records what portion of a donor’s contribution, if any, goes to WikiLeaks.”
This newborn institution, I think, has the potential to consolidate deep transformations in the way global journalism operates, transformations that have been slowly cooking since the early days of the World Wide Web. This is why I think that it is necessary to elaborate on how journalism has been shaken and transformed over the past decades.
By understanding the greater context of the crisis of journalism, and the crisis of newspapers in particular, it will be possible to understand this new entity, its role in global affairs and our relationship with it as global citizens. This story, I must warn, takes a necessary detour that might initially seem strange, a detour into the economics of classified ads. It will pay off though, so please bear with me.
The decline of newspapers in the West has been the topic of extensive academic research and public debate since the late 90s, when the internet boomed in mass adoption. The generally accepted version is that this crisis of newspapers is simply that advertising budgets were diluted in the vast waters of the internet. However, newspapers continue to attract large corporate advertising deals and generate cash flow that is at least sufficient enough to produce print and online versions of most major newspapers at a profit.
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While changes in media consumption meant less time spent reading newspapers, marginal declines in corporate advertising were met with proportional budget (that is, staff) cuts. All things being equal, this would mean an equally marginal decline in coverage and overall content quality, but not a fundamental crisis of the journalism profession.
The real upset brought by the new communication technology of the internet was the disruption it brought to the dynamics of classified advertising.
The intrinsic characteristics of the internet as a medium, its ability to instantly distribute highly searchable information, without space restrictions and at near-zero cost, made it so superior to print for this purpose that the migration of classifieds to the web was inevitable. It was a good thing too, because the newspaper was really a costly middleman somehow profiting from exchanges between individuals.
The manager of the classifieds section in a US newspaper once remarked, were “news which we are fortunate to be paid to print”. Indeed, each classified ad is a microscopic bit of journalism in the sense that it reports on an event of the life of the city: there is a two bedroom apartment for sale, an accounting position is available, there is a mature woman looking for a serious relationship.
What allowed the newspaper to charge these unsuspecting reporters was the high cost of the printing presses and the logistics of distribution, an insurmountable economic barrier that made potential encounters for exchange between citizens only possible through the newspaper. To find each other, they had to pay.
The web made this cost unnecessary and the barrier irrelevant. Craigslist was born spontaneously and grew effortlessly with the web since its early days:
“Craig Newmark began the service in 1995 as an email distribution list of friends, featuring local events in the San Francisco Bay Area, before becoming a web-based service in 1996 and expanding into other classified categories. It started expanding to other US cities in 2000, and currently covers 50 countries.“
Dry me a river
Rupert Murdoch once famously described classified ads as “rivers of gold”, only to gloomily acknowledge in a 2005 interview that “Sometimes rivers dry up”. He went on:
“I don’t know anybody under 30 who has ever looked at a classified advertisement in a newspaper. With broadband they do more and more transactions and job-seeking online.”
What transpires under the recriminatory undertone of his words is an unlimited sense of entitlement formed through a lifetime of newspaper-based monopolistic control of access to information, an entitlement to profit from the very existence of the rest.
The drought of classified advertising gave existential crises not only to Murdoch, but to publishers, editors and journalists across the West. Another Australian newspaper veteran, Michael Gawenda, former editor of Melbourne’s The Age further elaborated about the classified ads affair in a 2008 talk:
“Many of the world’s most profitable newspapers, including The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, basically ran two businesses. The classifieds business was highly profitable in part because these papers had a monopoly on this form of advertising and so could jack up the price regularly knowing that there was nowhere else for the advertisers to go.
The classified sections of papers like The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald ran to hundreds of pages. Go back three decades and have a look at Saturday editions of these papers. They were huge while the editorial space, the space for journalism, was miniscule. These papers sold close to 100,000 extra copies on Saturday and I can tell you it wasn’t because of the journalism!
So the classified business was a gold mine. What about the journalism business? How did that stack up in terms of profitability? Well the fact is that the weekday papers that carried few classified sections were never particularly profitable. They certainly were nowhere near profitable enough to sustain a staff of hundreds of journalists and continue to deliver the sort of results that had made newspaper companies with classified monopolies among the most profitable businesses in the world.”
The full quote is important because it portrays the depth of the relationship between classified ads and the practice of journalism. The internet broke the lucrative monopoly of distribution of information. By doing so, it broke the very platform that made possible, every now and then, the existence of somewhat independent journalism.
Some years later, Goggle changed the game further by pushing sellers into the eyeballs of buyers even before the delivery of actual “content”, making this already weakening source of income definitively unreachable of news organisations. In any case, at that point the more damaging blow had already been delivered.
Classified ads, classified documents
Is there a connection between classified ads and classified documents? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once described journalism as a field characterised by “weak autonomy”. He meant that its actual practice was largely dominated not by the internal logic of journalism itself, the investigation of truth for the public good, but by the logic of external factors, like the interests of governments and corporations. The autonomy of journalism, already weak in practice, was in large part sustained as described above by Gawenda: through the revenues resulting from classified advertising.
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What made classified advertising so crucial was that, regardless of its obsolete and arguably questionable model, it was a source of revenue that came with no strings attached. While corporations buy advertising in bulk at discount prices, classifieds are paid for one by one by regular people.
These minimal messages gave the individual classified-ad customer/reporter no power whatsoever over the content of the newspaper. The grassroots nature of the classified-ad revenue stream made it healthy. It was vital for the survival of independent journalism. It kept the newspaper from having to choose between being completely dominated by external interests, or completely broke.
There is an abyss between the New York Times that publishes the Pentagon Papers in 1971 regardless of whether doing so means it has to face the courts, and the New York Times of today that does not even bother to send a reporter to Bradley Manning’s trial. What has changed is the forces that shape newspapers and therefore the game they are playing within society.
Without the margin of independence granted by strong classified advertising revenue coming from the multitude, costly media mammoths are no longer excited about the idea of actually upsetting powerful governments or corporations. There is no room for the risks of true investigation anymore.
Even the weak autonomy of journalism Bourdieu spoke about is largely gone now. The newspaper can no longer afford to fund real investigative journalism (which, incidentally, nowadays requires the kind of technological expertise of people like Julian Assange). Worse than that, it cannot even afford to want to do it.
Newspapers, though, still exist and will continue to exist for at least a few decades in print and digital form. They can still provide timely information about daily events, discuss interesting topics and entertain long enough to deliver large audiences to corporate advertisers. Countless newspaper brands remain deeply rooted in the imaginary of the world’s capitals.
But whether they can be trusted to be the watchdogs of power society needs is another thing. The decline in classified advertising revenue has tied the hands of the traditional press, most notably in the West, where it can now be more accurately referred to as the “corporate media”.
A global commons of truth
This is, finally, where I reach the point I want to make. It was through the aggregation of millions of contributions given by the public, over the years, in the form of classified ad payments to newspapers that independent investigative journalism evolved through the past century.
It was us who afforded society journalism all along, and as corporate media divorces itself further from the meaning of the word “journalism”, it is now up to us to decide whether those who search for the truth survive or fade. It will not take care of itself like it used to.
Academics, newsmen and pundits have been speculating for years about what the model for the future of newspapers will look like. A better version of this question is, of course, to ask about the model for the future of journalism as a service for the people and for global justice.
Well, an organisation like the Freedom of the Press Foundation is what it looks like. This is it: We, The People, must from now on fund journalism directly so that it can rise again and pursue the truth, without chains, in these critical times of global transition. Public funding has failed too: it is time for funding by the public.
This is why the Freedom of the Press Foundation is so important, and why it is in the best interest of each of us to support it, by donating at least a fraction of what we used to pay during a year for newspaper subscriptions and classified ads.
The worldwide importance of WikiLeaks as an agent of government and corporate transparency is undeniable. WikiLeaks and other equally committed journalistic organisations are the core of a new model: a strongly autonomous global commons of truth that must be protected and nurtured by citizens themselves, by news organisations and journalists around the world, and by all other groups and institutions seeking to pursue true change at a global scale.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicolasmendo