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Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-COVID World

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The urgency of the financial travails hitting journalism in 2020 has led organizations around the world to come up with creative solutions. In our new report for the Berlin-based foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-Covid World, which was co-authored by Hannah Clifford, we mapped new ideas from the United States, South Africa, Denmark, and Singapore, among others. Early on in the pandemic, media funder Nishant Lalwani from the Luminate foundation told us he saw most of the proposals falling into four categories: increased foundation funding, public subsidies, new business models, and getting Big Tech to pay for news.

More Foundation Funding

As soon as the pandemic hit, a number of foundations stepped up grant-making to help media outlets. These included attempts to get donors to coordinate and scale up their giving, such as the Independent News Emergency Relief Coordination chaired by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Helping government and foundations join forces is the goal of the International Fund for Public Interest Media. Google, the South African National Editors’ Forum, and many small organizations and foundations set up emergency funds around the world. They received far more requests than they could fill. 

Public Subsidies

The governments of Australia, Norway, and Singapore created funds to help outlets and freelancers during the COVID-19 crisis. Australia created an AU$50 million — nearly US$40 million — Public Interest News Gathering Fund to help maintain public interest journalism in regional areas, while Norway allocated 27 million krone — around US$3.2 million — to media outlets which lost income from advertising due to the virus.

“Interestingly, there has been almost no criticism or debate around media and journalism support in Norway,” said Roy Krøvel, a professor of journalism at Oslo Metropolitan University. “Media support enjoys a very high level of support among the population in general.”

In Ecuador, two universities (San Francisco de Quito and UTE) and two media outlets (El Universo and Código Vidrio) teamed up to win a grant from the US government to counteract dis- and misinformation related to the pandemic.

Along with the new funds came an understanding that the industry needs ambitious solutions to the massive problem of funding.

For example, in the US there is renewed interest in government support for media with groups looking at policies used in countries such as France, Canada, and Norway that already support quality journalism.

Steve Waldman, a former senior advisor at the US Federal Communications Commission, and others are promoting a media voucher system similar to France’s 2009 initiative to give newspaper subscriptions to high school students, and are assisting with the design of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Funding for local journalism could come from a number of sources, including taxes on internet advertising, media mergers, or airwave license allocation also known as spectrum auctions, says Waldman. The Act was introduced in July 2020 and if enacted would provide federal tax credits to local media outlets; as of October 2020, the bill has 72 co-sponsors including 20 Republicans and 52 Democrats.

New Business Models

In Southern Africa, Ntibinyane Ntibinyane from Botswana’s INK Centre for Investigative Journalism and Dumisani Muleya, a Zimbabwean reporter and editor with The NewsHawks, put together a proposal for funding that could be used to help newspapers in the region to transition to digital. They are hoping to raise $250,000 to help 20 independent newspapers across the region to profitably shift to digital and build their sustainability beyond the pandemic. The project includes plans to lobby local government officials for broader government support of local media.  

In September, Waldman launched a plan for the US dubbed A Replanting Strategy: Saving Local Newspapers Squeezed by Hedge Funds. It not only explains the dire state of America’s news industry but lays out a plan to revitalize it. Waldman wants to transform the nation’s roughly 6,700 privately owned newspapers. He proposes the creation of a nonprofit “replanting fund” that would identify candidate newspapers and reorganize their corporate structures to make them more responsive to community needs and to become financially independent.

Getting Big Tech to Pay for News

Most ambitious of all is the Australian competition authority’s groundbreaking effort to get Google and Facebook to pay for news. Part of what is novel about this approach is that the government is using competition law instead of copyright law (which has not worked in Europe because Google refused to pay up). Australia’s new legislation would force Google and Facebook to pay for news. If the two sides cannot agree on a price, then binding arbitration panels would make the decision. Google and Facebook have been pushing back hard against the draft legislation, which was introduced in parliament in December 2020.

It will take a concerted effort by all news organizations, governments, foundations, and citizens to sustain journalism, as no single initiative has yet solved the problem. Our report does not definitively answer the question of how to save the media — but it presents a useful primer for anyone who is trying to.

Additional Reading

New Sources of Media Funding on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Need Support to Cover COVID-19? Check Out this List of Grants for Journalists and News Media Around the World

Kylie Lan Tumiatti is studying for a Masters of Public Administration at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Prior to this, she was a Fulbright teaching assistant in Malaysia. She will be joining the US Foreign Service after graduation.

Dr. Anya Schiffrin is a senior lecturer at SIPA where she is director of the technology, media, and communications specialization. She is editor of the forthcoming Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms, and Governments Control the News, which is being published by Columbia University Press in 2021.

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