Public interest journalism is unlike other news content. Audiences do not read it out of pure interest but because they need to stay informed about the institutions around them, said Adam Newby, director at the independent news discovery platform NewsNow, speaking at the Funding and regulating public interest journalism in a world of fake news event last month.
Investigations into public or private organizations take up months and even years and are costly to produce. This means that public interest journalism cannot be financed just through advertising, which is often the main source of revenue for smaller and local publishers. Although the pandemic has made the situation even worse, ad money has been drying up for years and much of it went to Big Tech.
If social media could distribute public interest news instead of publishers, that would perhaps not be such a problem. But platforms function in a fundamentally opposite way — their aim is to grab users' attention and produce a lot of cheap content to keep people scrolling. And the last report on your local council spending is hardly a captivating read.
But here is the catch: people rarely proactively seek out public interest news. Rather, they stumble upon it while reading other content and have no idea how much time and resources go into producing it, said Jonathan Heawood, executive director of Public Interest News Foundation.
The lack of media literacy does not help. A new Pew Research Center study found that four in 10 Americans were unsure whether Facebook, Apple News and Google News do their own reporting. Combine that with mistrust in the mainstream media and unwillingness to pay for journalism, and sustainability is a problem.
The bad news is that there is no silver bullet. The good news is that there are several untapped ways to finance public interest journalism, and a combination of different solutions may be the answer.
The UK has not got an established system that would allow newsrooms to receive philanthropic donations despite having a thriving charity sector.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) decided to challenge this status quo and established a trust, which is distinct from the Bureau itself. Although this model helps to finance some parts of its work that trustees consider charitable, it does not provide TBIJ with the full benefits of charitable funding, such as tax relief or access to grants.
"The law doesn’t need to change, we just need to open up ourselves to it," said Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor and CEO at TBIJ, who successfully helped to establish the trust after the application got rejected twice.
Charitable status is a part of the solutions and so is audience revenue, added Heawood. There are many tools on the market, including micropayments, subscriptions, memberships or the Guardian-style donations. The downside is that many are just too complicated.
"Subscriptions need to be simpler," said Newby, and the same goes for donations. Ideally, there would be a single sign-on platform that could direct money to different publications to save users the headache of myriad disjointed accounts and the need to keep an eye on each individually.
Whichever source of revenue a publisher goes for, it will always influence editorial decisions. That is perhaps the trickiest bit to manage for publishers who investigate public institutions while depending on their money for survival.
The Cairncross review into a sustainable future for journalism proposed the creation of an industry body similar to the Arts Council. That was rejected by the government. One of the arguments against such a body was that the deputies did not want to be picking winners among publishers who would receive public funding.
Even if the government does not want to directly support the news sector, they can do more by legislating on issues around unfair competition between publishers and tech platforms, as well as between big and small media organizations that operate in the same markets, said Heawood.
The authorities could also invest in publishers to help them transition to digital which would be a decisive boost for the sector without it being direct funding, he continued. Finally, the government needs to do more to monitor news deserts in the country and incentivize the creation of local and hyperlocal outlets where they are most needed.
The role of the state is to help fix the market in which we operate, added Matt Rogerson, director of public policy at Guardian Media Group. This could, for instance, regulate the large portion of subscription revenue that news aggregators currently take despite their cost of processing news subscriptions being marginal.
There is also the idea of a tax credits scheme currently tested in France. The government there offers up to €50 tax reduction to households subscribing to a current affairs newspaper or magazine for the first time in an effort to boost reader revenue, but without directly spending public money.
Whichever way you look at the problem of sustainable revenue model for public interest news, it seems that it cannot be solved without regulating social platforms.
Social networks have no incentive to promote high-quality journalism as their business model relies on user attention. Although they often argue that they are merely platforms and thus not responsible for user-generated content, they make editorial decisions through algorithms that boost or downgrade certain information.
"Platforms are regulators rather than publishers because they may be suppressing public interest news and promot[ing] misinformation," said Heawood.
Oldroyd agreed, adding that social media can cause huge harm to online journalism because they make it hard to distinguish fact from lies. What is worse, no one really knows what the problem is because the algorithm changes often and every time we believe we have a grasp of it, it changes again.
"Regulation and transparency are the answer," she concluded.