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Business models for news, already under threat before the pandemic, have been devastated during the global health crisis. How do we invent new ones so that citizens and communities get the news they need to make informed decisions?
To examine the best strategies to develop new models for growth, internet pioneer Vint Cerf and ICFJ Senior Vice President Sharon Moshavi talked with a panel representing organizations that support independent news media both through direct investment and industry-wide efforts to improve the news and funding ecosystems: Google News Vice President Richard Gingras, a member of ICFJ's board of directors; Luminate Managing Director Nishant Lalwani; and Media Development Investment Fund Managing Director of Media Advisory Services Patricia Torres-Burd, during an ICFJ webinar this week.
As the news media search for viable business models, subscribers and members, the industry must focus on the issue of trust. “To me if there is no trust, that is not something I'm going to want to pay for,” Moshavi said.
“A lot of the online news is a mixing of opinion,” said Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google. “I worry about the trust part being eroded by the fact that we don’t quite know what we should believe and how we should evaluate what we’re reading.”
The panelists shared their visions of how to rebuild a robust news media, the role of technology platforms in supporting independent news, and how news outlets can gain the trust—and financial support—of audiences.
Here are key quotes from the discussion:
On how to build new models for independent news
Lalwani says Luminate aims to launch the International Fund for Public Interest Media. “The idea is to draw on government aid agencies, philanthropic capital. We also hope the tech platforms and [corporate social responsibility] initiatives, will actually put in place funds that can support public interest media in different parts of the world, primarily in lower- and middle-income countries where rising revenue is even lower than it is in Western Europe or the U.S.”
“Right now, just 0.3 percent of overseas development assistance goes into funding the media. That's about £500 million pounds a year. We think we need to triple that, to add about a billion dollars a year in order to sustain public interest media.”
He thinks adequate support for independent news outlets is critical to the function of society. “If public interest media fades away, [there will be] election interference and you’ll have greater corruption,” he said.
Torres-Burd highlighted the importance of supporting small media outlets that cover their communities. “If you're not aware of local media, local impact and what's happening in your neighborhood or your city, you won't be able to be an active citizen and participate.”
“Smaller media organizations are more agile and better able to pivot than the monsters that they compete against. And that ability to pivot and be flexible and listen to those audiences and shift with audience habits is what's going to make them, in the end, more relevant, [to] become a true resource for news that people can use and that can really implement and make a difference in the communities they serve, as well as be able to defend that niche of that audience they're making a difference.”
Gingras: Google is “working with the ecosystem, as we have been, to find new models; funding local experiments; finding successful entrepreneurs like Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and helping them launch a product in Oakland, and many others.”
“We are seeing successful models. I don't think this is going to happen quickly, but that's been a big focus of our work. We've identified, for instance, there's a fascinating company in eastern Canada called Village Media that has successfully, over the last 10 years, built for-profit and profitable ventures in a couple of dozen markets in Canada.
“Some of it is back to basics: Community information matters. Obituaries matter. What's going on in the schools matter. And yes, accountability journalism matters.” The company has grown during the pandemic because it “developed such strong relationships with community advertisers.”
“Our objective was, could we identify models like that, experiment with them in other communities, which we're doing in Youngstown and Longmont, Colorado, to be able to then give the next slate of entrepreneurs or small legacy players who want to make the transformation to have the playbooks and the underlying technological platforms to make it work. It's too far a reach to expect these small entities to have the engineering staff, to have the creative marketing staffs to actually develop these new models unto themselves. But there are models out there work in both the nonprofit and the for profit arena.” Now, the challenge is to replicate these models, he said.
“The most reliable predictor of success in local news, either legacy or not, is local ownership,” he said. “It’s people with a connection to the community and skin in the game.”
Torres-Burd: “We're seeing all types of really neat ways of supporting small, medium enterprises,” she said. “You can't take the exact recipe that worked in Canada and maybe apply to South Africa or Latin America, but there are strong ingredients in there.” Sharing knowledge and lessons learned across borders could result in “a whole new model,” she said.
On building trust with audiences
Panelists said improving journalism credibility is key to getting financial support from potential members or subscribers.
Gingras: “Opinion is cheap, and there's limitless capacity to an online publication,” he said. This, coupled with the popularity of opinion content, means that “if you look at even our best publications, look at The Washington Post, the percentage of opinion content, the hard news content is massively different, massively different.”
“If we're going to evolve the role of journalism in our societies, which I define as ‘how do we give citizens the information they need to be informed citizens?’ I do think we need a significant rethinking of what a news outlet is, of how journalism is performed and presented, to regain the credibility of users,” he said. “It's important that journalism not tell people what to think, but guide them how to think with the information they need.”
Lalwani: “We have to think about transparency as being a key tool in building trust,” he said. “If you look, for example, at the great work that [tech-focused nonprofit site] The Markup is doing. They publish, for every story, a piece explaining how they got to the conclusions which they have published.”
“At The Correspondent, focused on membership journalism, journalists spend between 30 and 50 percent of their time engaging readers, answering their questions, getting tips, explaining how they got to the conclusions that they got to, and doing sessions with those with those readers afterwards. And that ultimately increases credibility,” he said.
“It also explains [that] if a journalist is coming at something from a certain angle, you should know that they are. In certain cases. You should ask them not to. You can challenge them. But that transparent approach means that their bias is hopefully on the table rather than hidden or malicious.”
Torres-Burd: “In order to be able to properly explain the ramifications of most news stories and to give the full picture, the obvious thing that we all know that is so needed is diversity in the newsrooms,” she said. “If I'm a person who represents a particular community and that story means something to me, I may have a solution or I may have a problem that the editor in chief has not considered.”
On the role of tech algorithms
Gingras: The platforms’ “responsibility is to do what we feel we can best do for the benefit of open societies. And I'll point out that our business is healthiest in open societies versus not. So we have a financial motivation here as well.”
“We do have in our own consumer experiences a strong responsibility to make sure that people have access to a diverse array of sources,” he said. “I think our role with Google Search when it comes to news is to give you access to the tools and information that you could use to be an informed citizen. And how do we do that, providing a very diverse array of sources? How do we do that by being very careful about our ranking search that we're avoiding misinformation at all costs? How do we make sure that to the extent we're surfacing opinion content, that is likely labeled as opinion content?”
In addition to supporting news sites directly, Gingras said, Google helped found The Trust Project, a consortium of news companies that developed transparency standards to help readers assess the credibility of the reporting they encounter online. The project is “encouraging transparency in news such that people have a better idea of where this information is coming from,” he said.
Lalwani noted that the content people tend to share on social media has aroused their anger or other strong emotions. When they share, it then amplifies those emotions in others, thanks to news feed algorithms. Yet it’s not clear to most people how that process works. “We really have to think about how to make some of that data more transparent,” he said.
Jennifer Dorroh is a Senior Program Director at ICFJ.