New report explores COVID-era funding efforts around the world

Jan 12, 2021 in Media Sustainability
Money in jar

The report discussed in this piece was written by Dr. Anya Schiffrin, Hannah Clifford, Allynn McInerney, Kylie Tumiatti and Léa Allirajah from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists everywhere are feeling the consequences; job cuts, layoffs and closures have swept the world. 

Philanthropists, journalism organizations, economists and governments have come up with solutions to address this financial devastation, some calling for greater collaboration among these groups. In a new report from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, “Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-Covid World,” we analyzed initiatives around the world that hope to save the industry.

Our research noted renewed interest in government and Big Tech funding news and an emphasis on preserving what exists rather than starting new outlets that may not survive. 

To make sense of the proposed solutions, we broke them up into four categories, established by Luminate foundation’s managing director Nishant Lalwani: getting Big Tech to help pay for news, government subsidies and support, new business models and philanthropic funding. 

[Read more: 5 things sustainable journalism organizations have in common]

(1) Getting Big Tech companies to pay for news 

Many of the people we spoke with feel strongly that it’s time to get Big Tech companies to substantially support journalism, and to get governments involved in making that happen.

One example paving the way is the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission’s new media code that would force Google and Facebook to pay for news. Introduced to parliament in December, the law would require the tech companies to pay for the news they use and force them into binding arbitration if they can not agree on a price. The law would also require the tech companies to notify news outlets before they change algorithms that affect audience traffic. If passed, the law would create a more balanced relationship between news organizations and the platforms. 

Germany, Spain and France have all tried to use copyright laws to get Big Tech to pay for news, but Australia is attempting to use competition law to change the balance of power between technology and media companies. 

Efforts are also underway in the U.S. to get tech companies to pay for news, including Free Press’s 2019 proposal to tax micro targeted advertising and then use the funds to pay for civic journalism. There is also the bi-partisan Journalism Competition & Preservation Act, which if passed would allow publishers to band together when negotiating payments with Google and Facebook.

(2) Public subsidies

Over the past year, we’ve also seen renewed interest in government support for news, including in Africa and the U.S., which have traditionally been more wary of the dangers of public funding. 

Norway, Denmark, Canada, Australia and Singapore all stepped up with extra government funding and/or tax credits to support journalism during the pandemic. For example, Australia’s government created an AUD50 million Public Interest News Gathering Fund in May to help maintain public-interest journalism in regional areas. Norway and Singapore provided subsidies to outlets and freelancers during COVID-19, and Denmark dedicated DKK180 million to compensating outlets for lost advertising revenue between March and June 2020. 

In the U.S. there are a number of proposals for supporting news, including the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which was introduced in July 2020. The proposed law would provide federal tax credits to local media outlets for subscriptions, journalists’ compensation and advertising. Advocates are hoping that some of these plans will be voted on in 2021. 

In the report, Kenyan journalist Mark Kapchanga argues that some endangered news outlets should receive financial assistance from the government, but that the funds must be delivered in such a way that the outlets can safely maintain their independence, for instance, through the Media Council of Kenya.

[Read more: Reinventing the journalism business model]

(3) New business models 

Innovators are also looking to see what kinds of changes can be made to current business models so that quality journalism can be preserved in the future. In Southern Africa, Botswanan journalist Ntibinyane Ntibinyane is seeking funding for The Digital Transitions Project that would safeguard the survival of quality journalism outlets in Southern Africa and help them transition into the long term. 

In the U.S., 6,700 local news outlets are owned by hedge funds. Many media professionals are worried because these funds are not interested in supporting news long-term, but in making short-term profit. Rather than waiting for them to be killed off, Steve Waldman, the former senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, proposed these outlets be turned into non-profits or locally owned outlets, which is similar to proposals from Free Press and academic Victor Pickard

(4) Foundation funding

Foundation funding has sustained hundreds, if not thousands, of small startups around the world. In 2020 many organizations established emergency funds during the pandemic and were inundated with eager applicants. Google News Initiative funded outlets in Latin America, Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe and the U.S., providing grants ranging from US$5,000 to US$30,000 to 5,300 newsrooms — selected from nearly 12,000 applicants. 

Latin American governments have done little to support journalism, so it’s mostly been foundations, Google and Facebook that have stepped in to help. Facebook and the International Center for Journalists provided US$2 million in grants for Latin American outlets to help them cover COVID-19, and also to survive. 

Lessons learned: 

Each of the above categories offers some promise for providing more substantial and sustainable support for journalism in the future. However, none of these can stand on their own, especially as the pandemic worsens an already growing crisis. 

While philanthropic support has enabled hundreds, if not thousands, of media outlets around the world, more systemic support is needed. The above examples offer some ideas.

We’d like to see more donor coordination and government support aimed at keeping existing outlets alive and strengthening the local news ecosystem, rather than funding small startups that may wind up competing with each other. Our research suggests there is a lot to be learned from countries around the world that provide government support for quality journalism and try to get Big Tech companies to help pay for news. 

Dr. Anya Schiffrin is senior lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She wrote the report with her students: Hannah Clifford, Allynn McInerney, Kylie Tumiatti and Léa Allirajah. Further research was done by Chloe Oldham.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Eric Muhr.