How can the government save journalism?

I had an interesting meeting recently with an MP who wanted to get a handle on the state of the media right now and how good journalism could be supported. Rather than just hear my voice I thought it would be worth starting something wider that involves more voices, and point him to this.

To kick things off, here are some of the things I thought the government could do to create an environment that supports good journalism:

  • Release of public data (I’ve made this case before – it’s about helping create efficiencies for anyone reporting on public bodies). He seemed to feel that this argument has already been won.
  • Tax relief on donations to support investigative journalism: a number of philanthropists, foundations, public bodies and charities are starting to fund investigative journalism to fill the ‘market failure’ of commercial news production. In addition, an increasing amount of investigative journalism is being done by campaigning organisations rather than news organisations, and there is also the opportunity for new types of businesses – social enterprises and community interest companies – to fund journalism.
  • Encouraging innovation and enterprise: as regional publishers reduce their reporting staff and shut down their less profitable publications, gaps are appearing in local news coverage. Local people are launching news sites and blogs to fill those gaps – but not quickly enough, or with the resources, to match what was left behind. Funds to support these startups are much-needed and might also encourage journalists who have been made redundant to put their experience into an independent operation. There is no evidence to suggest that subsidising existing publishers will subsidise journalism; indeed, I would suggest it will stifle local innovation and economic growth.
  • Reskilling of redundant journalists: related to the last point, I would like to see funds made available to help put redundant journalists (more Chris Browns and Rick Waghorns) in a position to launch news startups. They have a wealth of experience, ability, knowledge and contacts that shouldn’t be left to waste – give them online and enterprise skills.
  • An effective local news consortia: The Digital Britain-mooted local news consortia is a vague idea in need of some meat, but clearly it could go some way to meeting the above 2 by supporting local independent media and providing training. Allowing the usual suspects to dominate any new operation will see business as usual, and innovative independent operators – including those who work on a non-commercial basis – will quickly become disillusioned. The idea of putting some or all of the commissioning process in the hands of the public, for instance, could be very interesting.
  • Address libel laws: one of the biggest obstacles to investigative reporting is the potential legal costs. Most newspapers now make a hard commercial decision on stories: if the story is worth enough money to make it worth fighting, it gets published; otherwise, it doesn’t. Public interest or importance is not the major factor other than in how it affects likely sales. Likewise, startup operations are likely to shy away from edgier reporting if they feel they can’t afford to fight for it in the courts. Stopping councils from suing for libel was an important step; keeping libel laws out of science should be the next one – and it shouldn’t stop there.

So those are the ideas that occurred to me. What would you suggest this MP, and government, do to help journalism?

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14 thoughts on “How can the government save journalism?

  1. Pingback: Online Journalism Blog: ‘How can the UK government save journalism?’ | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  2. Jo Ind

    How about funding people to go from postcode to postcode helping community organisations and individuals set up and sutain their own hyperlocal sites and connect those sites to each other and to the websites of the local mainstream media? A kind of Government funded Talkabout Local?

    Reply
  3. Béla Kuslits (hun)

    Hi!

    It would be nice, but for example here in middle Europe it is unimaginable, that the governement supports investigative journalism becouse mostly they are working against each other.

    I don’t know what about your country, but it is hard to believe, that all the people in the governement likes investigative jorunalism.

    Irrespectively of that, it is a good idea, and we would need it for better work.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Morning Reading 8 21 09 « State of the Fourth Estate

  5. cynic

    I hate to sound dismissive, but local BBC, be it radio, online or TV, really isn’t a good use of public money.
    The news is often outdated and largely pilfered from local newspapers.
    Why not leave the Beeb to do what it does best – national and international reporting – and re-direct the resources to local newspapers who are now taking up the mantle of online and video news themselves?

    Reply
    1. Jo Ind

      Bradshaw’s not talking about the BBC. He specifically mentions publishers. And he says: “There is no evidence to suggest that subsidising existing publishers will subsidise journalism; indeed, I would suggest it will stifle local innovation and economic growth.” It’s about finding new ways of doing journalism rather than supporting one industry or another.

      Reply
  6. Chris

    I understand Béla here –

    There is a tendancy for people to make sweeping statements about topics, be it journalism or whatever, that suggest that experience is somehow universal. The points you raise are very interesting and maybe possible in Blighty but I think your question should be “How can the government save British journalism?”

    When I left the UK I was of the opinion that the BBC was a tool of the establishment, after 16 years in Spain, I see it as a model of enlightened independence. In fact there has been a campaign here on Facebook recently to get Spanish journalists to actually ask questions instead of just reporting what has been said in press “conferences”.

    So while it is practically impossible, as Béla points out, for these things to happen in many countries, you should be aware of the effect you can have, are having, in other places. This is something I really want to write about sometime – how people in other, perhaps less innovative countries (that’s probably not the correct term, but as I say, it’s something that I’m thinking through), use things happening elsewhere (think Obama or FixMyStreet for example, which is really well known in Spain) to validate what they are doing or trying to do.

    Sorry that I haven’t made any useful suggestions, it’s just that living here, my imagination is simply not capable of such fantasy.

    Reply
  7. Andy Williams

    On local news, I like your points 3 and 5. Personally I think that there is a real future for hyper-local community-run not-for-profit news. Like you say, subsidising current local newspapers is a dead end – the Trinity Mirrors and Johnstons would just hoover up the cash and carry on cutting news staff and shoddy content. Likewise, I’m sceptical about the PA’s local public service journalism plans.
    But hyper-local news organisations staffed by hybrid teams of skilled journalists and enthusiastic volunteers, with an emphasis on good journalism training and skills sharing could be really valuable, in my opinion.
    They could make the most of the myriad low-cost publishing opportunities on the web and also produce cheap free sheet newsletters showcasing the best content delivered door to door locally.
    Existing local newspapers could then enter into agreements regarding using content in exchange for skill-sharing/journalism education, or they could pay for it in some other way.

    Reply
  8. David

    For those already in journalism, the data point you raise is probably the one the Government could tackle the fastest. This should include a standardised way of presenting data, or at the very least, a standardised way of holding it on Government websites – ie each Government website holds its information in the same place, under the same tab, so it’s easy to access. That data should also carry ‘jargon buster’ information so the journalist can be certain of what they are seeing – too often this information is still subject to vague terms. Crucially, the local data should also be easily extractable – often you’ll get the headline national figures, but no regional breakdown. While some change is happening, I’m not convinced the battle has been won on this, although there are signs of progress.

    On the financial support point, any work on this within government has to come from the view that they want to support local, independent journalism – and that has to mean that if a journalist or publisher receives financial support, they won’t be under any pressure, abstract or otherwise, to toe a certain line. This might sound a little like paranoia, but councils, among other public bodies, have been known to threaten to pull public funding such as advertising if negative stories appear.

    Reply
  9. riverScrap.com

    How about tightening the law over unpaid internships in the media? The Economist addressed this a couple of weeks back – the ratio of hacks coming from middle class families has unexpectedly risen over the past few decades despite improved social mobility. In a nutshell this is because well-to-do people are the only ones who can afford to work for free while they kickstart their career.

    http://www.economist.com/world/britain/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14085782

    One of my previous employers – an online news agency which will remain nameless – recently ran an advertisement for a 6month unpaid internship. Is that really acceptable in this day and age?

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Investigative journalism on 27 Aug 09 « The Centre for Investigative Journalism News Blog

  11. paulbradshaw

    Very good point – my own experience with students echoes that. It’s often said that the media industry would collapse if the free labour that underpins it was withdrawn, although that isn’t exactly an argument for supporting journalism, just ensuring more diversity. You’d need public funding for internships which required applicants to reflect the wider makeup of society.

    Reply
  12. focoafrprtng

    In the micro-world of student journalism the release of data can cause a lot of problems. I can’t talk to any of the police officers on campus. Nobody really high up wants to talk either, especially if they think I belong to the campus newspaper. Being associated with bad reputations is the cause in my case. I suppose a lot of people consider student journalism practice and not “real.”

    Reply

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