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A Marshall Plan for journalism?

Blog written by Nicole Pope

Author: Olga Komarova | 11. January 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a further blow to the media sector, already ailing, slashing revenues and causing job losses in media outlets around the world. In the US alone, at least 21 local newspapers have merged, 60 local newsrooms have closed and well over 1,000 staffers have been permanently laid off according to the Poynter Institute, cited in an interesting new report entitled Worldwide Challenges and Possible Solutions for Journalism Funding in the Age of the Coronavirus and After.

Authored by Anya Schiffrin, from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with Hannah Clifford and Kylie Tumiatti, and backed by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the report surveys some of the most promising initiatives to sustain independent journalism worldwide. Some of these programs were developed or expanded in response to the pandemic, which has further highlighted the importance of reliable, independent news sources to counter disinformation.

Some initiatives involve tapping development aid, philanthropy, and venture capital in support of struggling media outlets and/or innovative start-ups. The billion-dollar International Fund for Public Interest Media formed a temporary coalition of donors last year to pool development aid in support of hard-hit media organizations. In South Africa, the Open Society Foundation is making small grants to media outlets affected by the pandemic while the Google News Initiative provides small grants for media start-ups. The American Journalism Project supports inclusive, community-based media. Community is also at the core of the Open Markets Institute’s efforts to transform 6,700 privately-owned news outlets into more community based and financially independent institutions.

But, as the report points out, “Beyond individual grant making, there is a growing recognition of the need for something like a Marshall Plan for journalism.” The authors therefore highlight big-picture ideas that could lead to systemic change.

The current media crisis is causing renewed interest in public funding for media organizations, particularly in the US, traditionally lagging in this area. Several countries around the world already provide assistance to quality journalism in various ways, which include funding public broadcasters (Germany, France, Canada, the UK), offering tax credits to newspaper subscribers (France), or supporting public-interest regional journalism (Australia). During the pandemic, philanthropists and impact investors teamed up to buy Australia’s struggling AAP newswire.

In the US, a Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced in July 2020, seeks to assist the media through federal tax credits for subscriptions. Designating journalism as a public service profession and government purchased advertising are other ways the authorities could support journalism. Governments can also purchase super subscriptions, making content available to selected audiences. There are precedents: Churchill rescued Reuters during World War II, the report mentions.

As always, finding sustainable funding sources to make a substantial impact remains the main challenge, which is why this publication devotes plenty of space to Australia’s exciting new draft legislation.

Unlike previous (unsuccessful) attempts to make tech giants pay for news, which focused on copyright legislation – in Spain, France and Germany, for instance – Australia’s draft Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code harnesses competition law and arbitration to force Google and Facebook to share their data and bargain with news organizations for remuneration. If no agreement is reached within three months, a final offer arbitration process would come into play. A non-discrimination clause would prevent tech companies from side-lining media organizations that have signed up. The Code has its downsides: Because it would apply mainly to established news organizations – big publishers like Murdoch’s News Corp and Nine could be major beneficiaries – the planned legislation would not increase media diversity.

According to the report, Google and Facebook are protesting loudly that the Code would be unworkable. But as global efforts to support floundering media outlets pick up pace amid the pandemic, many countries will be watching Australia’s bold move to dig into the pockets of tech giants to support quality journalism with great interest.

Nicole Pope is a writer and consultant based in Berlin. She worked as a journalist in Istanbul for over two decades, including 15 years as Turkey correspondent for the French daily Le Monde. She is the author of Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century and co-author of Turkey Unveiled: a History of Modern Turkey.


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