Why financial markets won't save journalism

by James Breiner
Jan 21, 2019 in Media Sustainability

Money talks. Put your money where your mouth is. Show me the money. 

We have lots of expressions that equate money with crebility and trust. How people get and spend their money is often the most credible expression of what they value and who they are.

We attribute so much value to money and to the way it expresses our true beliefs that historian Yuval Noah Harari declared in his bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

"Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised."

By extension, this belief in money as the best measure of value of everything in modern society — the loss of a loved one (insurance payouts), the salary of a teacher or a CEO, a barrel of oil — has led us to trust markets too much

In fact, many studies have shown that the media marketplace values misinformation, disinformation, sensationalism, gossip, and entertainment above social values as measured by revenue and profits generated from advertising. This is how social networks like Facebook and Instagram make their money.

In putting so much faith in the Invisible Hand of markets, we have devalued the importance of ethics, credibility, trust, and community. (Among my other holiday reading on the topic were a recent column by David Brooks, Jeffrey D. Sachs's The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity and Joseph E. Stiglitz's The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.)

So, is the marketplace the right mechanism for deciding what is trustworthy and credible? Does journalism that seeks to serve rather than titillate the public, and pursues verifiable facts rather than sensational gossip have value in the marketplace?
Can journalism that attempts to be a counterweight to political and commercial power have a commercial future? 

Reuters Institute survey of 200 media executives, editors, and digital leaders from 29 countries predicts that this year more publishers will turn away from Facebook and other social media whose algorithms have helped weaponize misinformation.

And more than half of these media leaders are making subscriptions and other user support their key revenue focus this year rather than advertising.

No help from the Invisible Hand 

In my previous life as publisher of a business newspaper, I chaired a big charity campaign and called on the CEO of one of the country's biggest investment banks. He told me his company would give nothing to charity, that his responsibility was to maximize shareholder value. If his partners wanted to give to charity, so be it. He was merely following the law. The message was clear: The marketplace does not have a conscience or compassion.

The world of financial capital will not come to the rescue of journalism. For news media committed to public service, they will have to monetize their social capital, which includes the trust that their communities put in the credibility of their work, the trustworthiness of their editors, reporters, and other personnel, as well as the commitment to help communities solve the problems they face every day.

Many of the media organizations that have been most successful at defying the challenges of the digital environment have turned toward crediblity as their most important financial asset and focused on generating revenue from users.

Recent reports show this strategy is working on the international level for the New York TimesWashington Post, and The Guardian. In national markets, eldiario.es of SpainDe Correspondent of HollandMalaysiakini of Malaysia, and The News Lens of Taiwan have all thrived and survived by focusing on the interests of users, not advertisers.

Publishers are starting to realize that journalism and public information are what economists define as a "public good", that is, a product or service that no business wants to provide because it is not profitable, such as low-income housing, or education for all, or scientific research, or streetlights.

The marketplace will still provide some support for journalism, because the best journalism will inevitably attract an audience, and that attention has tremendous value to patrons and sponsors. Some of the organizations mentioned above still generate advertising revenue. But eventually every patron or sponsor will face the day when aggressive journalism reveals some uncomfortable truths. Not all of them will find that a pleasant market to be in.


One response of the journalism community to the crisis in credibility has been to create the International Fact-Checking Network whose 61 organizations have signed on to its principles to do "nonpartisan and transparent fact-checking" with the goal of strengthening accountability journalism, what is sometimes called watchdog journalism. Obviously, they are responding to a market demand, the marketplace of ideas. 

This post was originally published on the blog News Entrepreneurs. It was republished on IJNet with permission.

James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via NeONBRAND.