It’s Time for ‘A New Deal for Journalism’​

Over the past six months, I have had the great privilege of serving as Lead Rapporteur for the Forum on Information and Democracy’s Working Group on the Sustainability of Journalism, working with the Steering Committee, my co-rapporteurs, and the Forum team* to produce a new global report on a sustainable future for journalism. (Here are the Working Group’s principles set out by Prof Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, chair of the Steering Committee, at the beginning of the process.) On the occasion of its publication, I wanted to share ten personal observations on where this report has come from, how it has evolved, and where it might help us get to. (Unusually for me, I’m keeping the links here to a minimum – they’re only linked here if they are not in the report…)

1. Independent journalism is an essential part of democracy and open societies, but for far too long, it has got a raw deal. In the face of the growing economic, political, physical & online attacks on journalists (especially women and minorities) and journalism, we often hear warm words from those with power and resources about press freedom and democratic values, but when it comes to unlocking those resources, there’s largely cold comfort.

With the release of this report, the Forum on Information and Democracy is calling for a New Deal for Journalism. Inspired by the vision of Roosevelt’s New Deal – a multi-layered, multi-faceted, multi-pronged effort over many years, underpinned by substantial, sustained funding, collaboration and creativity – the recommendations set out in the report are what we believe is needed to secure the journalism our societies need.

I hope the report is infused with that spirit of collective purpose, by drawing on the collective inputs & insights of the Steering Committee, the Forum team, our dozens of interviewees and online contributors, a number of consultations across Africa, & literally hundreds of reports, papers, datasets, articles and so on. As we say, the focus of the report is to highlight what the Working Group decided were the “most promising and feasible steps that can help to unlock substantial and transformative resources for independent professional journalism…” No single report can cover it all, but we hope this provides a solid platform for action both in itself, and to others dealing with local, related or adjacent issues affecting journalism.

2. At the beginning of the pandemic, in recognition of the pivotal role that journalism plays in society, for the public interest, and for public health, some governments designated journalism as an essential service, & journalists as key workers. Many, though, used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down further on press freedom and freedom of expression. What was already an economic crisis for journalism – with the sudden stop in ad revenues – now threatened to become what some, the UN Secretary-General included, were calling an ‘extinction event’.

Our report tries to give a dispassionate and evidence-based account of what this crisis actually means for open societies worldwide – i.e. why independent public interest journalism is under pressure in a changing market, why it matters, and what the cost of inaction may be.

3. It is in many respects a bleak picture – not only in economic terms, but also democratic. There’s a long-term democratic recession underway, and authoritarianism is rising. But there is room for optimism, if – IF – those who care about independent public interest journalism now step up, together. And governments in particular must play their part.

We found – and many told us – that there are policy-makers, legislators & regulators in many places (including at the city and regional level) who would act if they had access to quality industry, policy and legal analysis, better technical capacity and knowhow, domestic and international peer support, and the freedom to push back on lobby interests.

The report focuses on what governments can & should do – principally:

  • respect & protect fundamental freedoms
  • spend 0.1% of GDP on supporting independent journalism w/ direct & indirect measures
  • support the wider environment, incl. FOI, & nonprofit/charitable frameworks for journalism

4. People at all levels who care about independent journalism must (and many appear willing to) now step up, together, including:

  • international institutions & organisations, like the G7, G20, OECD, the Open Government Partnership, the Internet Governance Forum, the World Bank, and others
  • Finance ministries & tax authorities, which hold the purse strings, and must be persuaded that investing in journalism has a strong rationale versus other post-pandemic priorities
  • governmental donors (like the Foreign and Development ministries in OECD DAC) have long been aware of the need to dramatically increase funding to support the strengthening of journalism in poorer countries, and through funds like IFPIM, the Global Media Defence Fund, and the proposed US Enterprise Fund for Independent Media, with civil society networks like GFMD, and with expert advisory teams like Media4Democracy, the infrastructure to do so is coming into place
  • regulators and policy makers – of communications, media, data, competition, the labour market and so on – and their international networks such as EPRA, PRAI and the OECD’s NER need to be at the heart of understanding the new environment, and building policy and regulation that ensure the playing field is truly level, including for the smallest and most precarious, rather than reinforcing the current winner-takes-most dynamics.
  • investors – including social investors like Big Society Capital and the Soros Economic Development Fund, mission-driven investors like MDIF and North Base Media, tech4good funders, and more generally those responsible for growing and mainstreaming ESG investment approaches
  • philanthropy – as I have written about many times before – has a significant role to play, but journalism funding from trusts and foundations needs to improve both in the raw numbers and in the practices. Funders need to connect and organise domestically and internationally, through their national bodies, and in international networks like the JFF and EFC in Europe, and WINGS globally.
  • cities, towns and regions, their mayors and others – if city leaders can build progressive policies and networks on climate adaptation, transport, creative economies, living wages, and Covid, they can surely do so for independent journalism and local media…
  • the journalism sector itself needs to find productive ways to build common interest, common ground and a common agenda on sustainability, even among competitors, or between incumbents and startups, or between publishers and workers – without this, it will be easier for adversaries to divide the sector.

5. It was striking how widespread the desire & support for genuinely independent public service broadcasting/media were, even among private investors/media. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for reform, but PSB/PSM are key to meeting the information needs of the public at large, can be catalysts for the wider creative economy, and setting both rights-based norms (through representation of various kinds) and technical standards (e.g. through technical R&D and Innovation Labs) for the wider sector. But this relies on their genuine independence from political, corporate or editorial interference, and their own transparency.

6. Let’s be honest. If governments really wanted to support independent journalism not just with warm words, but also with cold, hard cash, they would find a way to do it. In many countries, the past 18 months have shown that governments can find the money for public policy priorities if they need to. Some governments have managed to do so for journalism, and approach or exceed 0.1% of GDP with the range of measures they enact – like Denmark (whose measures the EU found to be in line with state aid rules) and Germany (both countries with strong labour rights protections, perhaps coincidentally?). Since the publication of the report, analysis has shown that even in Norway and Sweden, they have a distance to go before they meet our call. Other countries have enacted some of the measures we outline, but by going further could have tremendous impact both domestically and internationally.

7. More often, government resources, especially allocation of government advertising, are used to try to control journalism – whether by rewarding lapdogs with more funding, or punishing watchdogs by throttling or withdrawing it. Our research shows that this is an area where a simple reform could be transformative by ensuring the transparent, fair, independent allocation of government advertising. The OAS issued guidelines a decade ago, but adoption and implementation of these has been… slow. It’s not clear whether the Indian government will implement or take on board a 2020 proposal from the Vidhi Centre to reform government advertising in a similar way.

This goes hand-in hand with other tools of government control over journalism, like media capture – especially buying up independent media, whether directly, or through political or business allies. Some recommended that the most effective tools against this right now are in measures to extend transparency of beneficial ownership, or those promoting financial integrity, anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, and fair taxation, which not only improve the overall economy, investor confidence, etc, but can also help at least to expose and perhaps even limit media capture. (Avoiding judicial or regulatory capture also helps…)

8. We’re also not suggesting that governments should either do or fund all these strategies alone – but government funding can unlock funding from others at scales which other funders would struggle to reach. Underwriting risky investments (e.g. InvestEU) or liberating dormant assets (as in Canada, Ireland, Japan and the UK), supporting R&D, better and more open industry data, universities and research collaborations, applied research, creative clusters, independent funds, strong civil society, and so on can act as a multiplier by bringing other funders – philanthropy, investors, corporates, local governments, cities, crowd funding and so on – to the table.

9. Journalism intersects with many other fields and rights areas, and is interdependent with them – this came up consistently in the research, interviews and editorial process. For reasons of space and coherence we simply couldn’t cover all of them – of course, that’s not intended to minimise other related areas.

But one we did feel needed spelling out, and for which there was little advocacy from within the field was this: beyond funding journalism, governments, funders and the journalism sectors itself need to protect and promote RTI/FOI legislation, and to support and fund the RTI field properly. It’s a critical ally for journalism, but is chronically underfunded in pretty much all societies – in some societies, RTI activists are at least as at risk of attack, harassment and killing as journalists, if not more so.

10. Finally, as we say, no single report can credibly cover every issue affecting the field of journalism – the Working Group has focused on what we think can make a tangible effect on the sustainability and viability of journalism in a wide range of societies in the next couple of years and beyond. In the main, it is far more substantial, systematic and sustained support from public funds, transparently, fairly and equitably allocated, along with much better and more consistent respect from governments for the rights of journalists, for freedom of expression, and for human rights in general.

There are many issues requiring urgent attention within journalism that already have excellent and tenacious advocates – we tried not to duplicate where we could see that kind of analysis and advocacy is already being well done. We also didn’t cover many of the more speculative, but exciting changes and innovations emerging in parts of the industry, as it was out of scope for this specific report.

But we really welcome responses from these and other perspectives – things we missed or didn’t have the space or mandate to cover effectively, reports and analyses from areas and in languages that we weren’t able to include, examples of good practice (including from governments) that can inspire others to action. So please use the report as a springboard to more positive attention and action on the field of journalism generally, and let us know of responses you write, actions you take, and – we hope – changes you secure.

*The Steering Committee was assembled by the Forum team, and comprised internationally-recognised journalists, editors, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, media development specialists: Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (chair), Julia CagéStyli CharalambousPremesh ChandranNaresh FernandesElizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Kwame KarikariProf. Arne H. KrumsvikNishant LalwaniMira Milosevic, Tania Montalvo, Henri PigeatSibylle Rizk, Natalya SindeyevaOlaf SteenfadtKirstine Stewart and Patricia Torres-Burd. The rapporteur team comprised me, Emma Goodman and Louise Anglès d’Auriac. The Forum team originally included Harlem Desir and Camille Grenier, with Forum President Christophe Deloire deputising when Harlem moved to an external role. The RSF team comprised Thibaut Bruttin and Iris de Villars. The report was also reviewed by the Board of the Forum.

PS – on 24 June 2021, the New Deal for Journalism report also received an endorsement in an open letter in the Mail & Guardian newspaper from Shirin Ebadi, Christophe Deloire, Navi Pillay, Mario Vargas Llosa, Emily BellBiao TengNighat Dad, Mireille Delmas-Marty, Can Dündar, Ulrik Haagerup, Hauwa Ibrahim, Adam Michnik, Antoine Petit, Aidan White and Mikhail Zygar.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s