THE recent State of the News Media 2013 report, from the respected Pew Research Centre in Washington DC, makes grim reading for anyone who cares about quality news reporting.
It found a contemporary American news industry that is “undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands”.
This message won’t surprise anyone who watched Barack Obama’s presidential victory unfold on US television. Partisan commentators talked up their candidate long after the polls had closed, reaching an apogee late in the night when, live on Fox News, a recalcitrant Karl Rove refused to accept that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had lost Ohio – and with it the White House.
The angry protestations that “this is premature” from George W Bush’s one-time spin-doctor was a garishly-lit reflection of the ugly state of the US media: jaundiced comment abounds, but real news that affects the lives of millions – especially local news – is often brushed over, or not reported at all.
It is hard to imagine a British version of Karl Rove sitting beside David Dimbleby on general election night – but the UK is not immune from the wider problems identified by the Pew Research Centre.
British newspapers have seen sales decline precipitously. Budgets are being cut; staff are laid off; media ownership is concentrated into an ever-narrowing band; editors and reporters are routinely asked to do more with less. Yet, despite phone hacking scandals and other malfeasance, trust in journalists and the press remains reasonably high.
Independent journalism at its best holds big business, parliaments and local government to account. Without pugnacious reporters and diligent editors, MPs would continue to claim extravagant expenses, hospitals would continue to fail and schools would close almost unnoticed.
But this kind of in-depth reporting takes time, expertise and, most importantly, money. As newspapers shrink in size and scope, and, in many cases, close, the media’s capacity to act as a democratic watchdog is diminishing – and fast.
The internet, for all its power as a democratising force, will not fill the void unaided. Making information free is not the same as making government transparent.
So, what’s the answer? As is the fashion these days, a glance across the North Sea to Scandinavia is instructive. In Sweden, participation in elections is much higher than in the UK. Newspaper readership is much greater, too. These two facts may or may not be related, but what Sweden does have is a far more extensive system of local news production and consumption. In the UK, London newspapers account for 75 per cent of all sales; in Sweden, the Stockholm press has only a third of the market.
This situation is no happy accident: after a series of newspaper closures in the wake of the abolition of price maintenance in the 1950s, fears grew about the corrosive effect of media monopolies on Swedish democracy. The state stepped in with a system of media subsidies.
The first subsidy measure – a fund offering loans on favourable terms to weak newspaper companies seeking to update their technology – was introduced in 1969. Legislation was passed in 1971 and 1975 and has remained in place ever since: every year, 90 Swedish daily newspapers receive subsidies totalling SEK499 million (£50.5m). Most of this goes to the second-highest selling newspaper in metropolitan areas. In addition, 137 dailies receive distribution subsidies worth around SEK67m, which allow “number two” newspapers to share distribution systems with their bigger-selling rivals.
The cash for this comes directly from the industry itself, via a 3 per cent levy on most print advertising. A similar system is run in Norway.
Press subsidies have helped Swedish newspapers to maintain their standing as “trusted sources of information” in the digital age, according to a report on the impact of press subsidies, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
In the UK, as in the US, the notion of funding the “free press” elicits a distinct squeamishness. But the reality is that most newspapers have seen their revenue collapse since the advent of the internet. Paywalls have proved largely incapable of halting the decline. The need for a new model for funding quality journalism has not gone unnoticed.
In a thoughtful recent paper, David Eyre, a former BBC journalist, argued for the creation of a “Scottish News Commons”, a peer-to-peer network for journalists and others involved in the media to publish collaboratively online. The public, in this model, could pay directly for quality journalism, while increased advertising revenue should accrue from aggregating multiple individual writers in one place.
But even a not-for-profit Scottish News Commons would cost money – for editors, technicians, and also for journalists to take on the vital, but time-consuming spade work that is the bedrock of quality journalism.
Independent journalism needs to make a case for itself as a “public good” now, while the aptitude and the appetite for it still remains, in Scotland and across the UK.
We – journalists and the public – also need to re-evaluate the notion that a free market is necessarily the best thing for a free press. The time has come to think the unthinkable – not statutory regulation, but public subsidies for the press.
• A Scotsman conference on the future of the media takes place on 9 April. Further details: www.scotsmanconferences.com