Pat Kane: Shock of the new for news

TO THINK about the future of the media in Scotland is both a daunting and an exciting task.

But in this space, let me just pluck out a particular crisis – one that flashes at the meeting point between constitutional and political change, and the structures, economics and cultures of Scots media.

Firstly, we must recognise that Scotland is in a historically bizarre situation. A momentous challenge of democracy and citizenship is rising before us – the independence referendum – while large areas of the non-state media, which crucially enable or inform such a process, are in near or actual collapse.

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Our local agenda is meeting a global meltdown. The old financial arrangement that supported the jobs of professional journalism – getting money from objects sold over a counter, as well as cash from advertising (display and classified), all of which paying for a precious zone of editorial freedom – has been largely disassembled by the open web.

With everyone a publisher (or everyone’s publishing copyable), newspapers can’t charge for the scarcity of their content. And vast networks such as Google and Facebook now connect advertiser and consumer directly, without needing to go through a slab of paper (or increasingly, even a news website or app).

Though online paywalls with varying degrees of severity are now rising across the industry, and there are faint hopes that new mobile info-devices might kickstart revenue streams again, the short-term economics look grim. This year’s US Pew Internet survey of the press (generally applicable here too) noted that for every $1 of internet revenue gained, $16 of print revenue was lost. Whether in Galveston, Gloucester or Glasgow, that’s an economic upheaval which will have incalculable consequences.

The core question is: do we regard journalism in the same way as, say, education or health – that is, as a necessary input to a healthy, empowered and progressive society? If we do, then, as the American academic Robert McChesney succinctly says, “journalism needs an institutional structure that comports with its status as a public good”.

Last week, Peter Geoghegan cited the Scandinavian tradition of state subsidy of minor commercial newspapers in regions. But McChesney’s brilliant new book, Digital Disconnect, makes the point that even the United States had effective state newspaper subsidies for a centuries – via low postal rates – long before the commercial model of the 20th century.

This was rooted in the Founding Fathers’ passionate belief that a free press was the foundation of a healthy democracy. Thomas Jefferson asserted that “the basis of our governments being the opinions of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right” – that right being the “full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers”.

Now aren’t we in the same moment of constitutional fervour? One would presume that our commitment to “the right of full information” would be no less than these 18th century citizen-farmers. And although as a Yes supporter, I believe that we should opt for the maximum available national tools to reshape and reform Scotland, a No vote may yet result in the Scottish lion being thrown the bone of a devolved media, broadcasting and fiscal environment.

If so, can we begin to imagine policies in Scotland that can secure those Jeffersonian rights – policies that accept the civic but economically disruptive power of the open web, but which also ward against the fear that public subsidy equals state control? And which also, incidentally, find a way for journalists to be paid to do what we want them to do – which is, generally, to fulfill the old dictum that “journalism is about writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written”.

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McChesney’s American-flavoured solution is radical, but worth a moment’s consideration: he calls it the “citizenship news voucher”. Every adult gets a voucher, allowing them to donate money to any non-profit news medium of their choice, whether via their tax return or a separate form. (McChesney suggests $200 (£130) per head for the US. In our environment, where state investment in public media is much larger, we could establish a rate by perhaps looking at some proportion of the existing license fee, as the radical republican Dan Hind suggests.)

You can apportion elements of your voucher to as many outfits as you choose, but the outfits must be specified as not-for-profit, producing exclusively media content, and unable to accept advertising (though they could accept donations or foundations). As a media outfit, you’d qualify only if you reached a certain level of voucher commitments, showing that there’s a tangible community of interest out there.

McChesney suggests that this could start to pay for those aspects of journalistic practice that serve the public good. But it would do so with more liberality and diversity than a state news service could do – and it would recognise both the civic benefits of an open web, but also how much it destroys the old economic viabilities of the press.

This leaves commercial publishers to pursue whatever strategies they need, to get at whatever monies are out there – whether peddling celebrity piffle for free (like the Mail Online), or providing mission-critical services available by subscription (like the FT or the Wall Street Journal).

Still worried, in our Leveson climate, about the link between state subsidy and state control of media? McChesney cites respected global democracy indexes, like Freedom House and the Economist’s, that proceed from a centrist or even right-wing locus. The countries they score at the highest end of the democratic scale are all ones which apply some kind of public subsidy scheme to the free press (the US is at the bottom end of each table).

Now, is all this just a shiny idea taken off some American academic’s shelf with no purchase in the real world of an imploding Scottish media? Let me give you two brief instances which may give this proposal – or at least the wider field of how we might secure the public good of journalism – some urgency.

The well-known cybernat site Wings Over Scotland managed something extraordinary the other week. Through a crowd-funding platform, it raised over £30,000 to support his media monitoring and original reportage (from an independence perspective). Wings’ founder, the Rev Stuart Campbell, has the ambition to create a Daily Record for the Yes campaign. No matter what you think of that goal, it’s a tangible example of how it’s possible for light-cost digital operators, with a clear idea of their community, to successfully appeal to them for financial commitment.

Is it beyond our wit to imagine more infrastructural and fiscal measures, to make sustainable and diverse this relationship between citizenship and digital media?

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The other grand discussion I’m involved with at the moment is the Open Sessions, exploring the future of Creative Scotland, meeting artist communities all over the country. The outcome of this is as genuinely open as its title. But some of the issues about the “arms-length” principle of public arts subsidy – the need for the state to cope with the potential “critical disloyalty”, as former Scottish Arts Council head Richard Holloway put it, of the artist and maker – seem to me to be directly relevant to a discussion about the future of news media.

Whatever emerges from our CSOpen discussions, it must at the very least respond to the subtle question of how a small nation might guarantee a healthy diversity of attitudes and practices.

Like an NHS, or an Open University, we should be open to visionary institutional reform as one of the outcomes of our momentous national decision. Thinking anew about how we secure the conditions of a free press for a healthy democracy – whether it’s McChesney’s scheme or anothers’ – should be one of those reformist ambitions. The “channel of the public papers” should have its constitutional moment again, this time in Scotland.

• Pat Kane will address The Scotsman Conference on “The Future of Media in Scotland” next week. He blogs regularly at