How to Address Journalism’s Funding Crisis

A new UNESCO policy brief led by ICFJ calls for urgent action to address the news media viability crisis. The authors, including ICFJ’s Deputy Vice President of Global Research Dr. Julie Posetti and Columbia University’s Dr. Anya Schiffrin, review how news organizations, online platforms, governments and other stakeholders have responded to the funding challenges facing journalism, and offer recommendations to help independent media thrive.

The brief argues that without financially viable, trustworthy and independent media, democracies can’t flourish, and it notes that the lack of funding for such outlets contributes to the erosion of press freedom globally. Around the world, the gap between well-served, wealthy audiences and underserved, low-income communities is widening. Without easy-to-access quality journalism, the space for disinformation, misinformation and conspiracies grows. The time to act is now, the authors write.

The researchers provide an assessment of global responses and make 22 actionable recommendations for governments seeking to support independent journalism. “While interventions are urgent, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the design, passage and implementation of regulatory and/or other responses to the news media viability crisis,” the authors write.  

 

Key recommendations include:

  • Create multi-stakeholder national commissions/task forces to investigate the challenges and propose solutions for mobilizing resources.
  • Consider giving tax breaks to local independent news outlets, or vouchers for subscriptions, along with subsidies for hiring local news reporters, especially where the viability of local news is under extreme pressure, or where “news deserts” exist.
  • Provide subsidies for news entities to hire dedicated journalists to report on key issues – such as climate change, municipal affairs, elections and threats to democracy, public health, gender and other diversities, and migration.
  • Avoid cutting the operating budgets of independent public broadcasters (as distinct from State broadcasters), in recognition of the fact that these entities can be especially vital for audiences who are not served by the market.
  • Create incentives for whistleblowing that exposes tax evasion or misuse of public funds, and systemically reward and incentivize journalism institutions that help governments recover stolen resources.
     

Making internet and other companies part of the solution:

  • Require companies that are significant intermediaries for news to maintain and make available to news producers relevant audience data regarding the reach and engagement of news on their platforms, as well as associated advertising metrics.
  • Encourage the companies to increase (at arms-length to protect against editorial interference and pressure) their donations and to be more transparent about this support.
  • Pursue antitrust cases and competition policies that address monopolistic behavior in advertising markets.
  • Ensure fairness and avoid the marginalization of local and niche media in any regulation that requires bargaining by internet platforms that carry news content.

The policy brief gives several reasons for funding crises facing media outlets. Not only has advertising revenue migrated from news organizations to online platforms, but outlets are also becoming increasingly reliant on big tech. This presents various risks, such as unstable distribution, editorial interference connected to funding with “strings attached,” and vulnerability to ever-changing algorithms.

Reliance on short-term philanthropic funding and the limited resources of low-income audiences create long-term sustainability issues, while the need for news organizations to spend money on fighting various threats – from lawsuits to digital attacks – also impacts financial viability. Lastly, the lack of unconditional government funding contributes to the problem as well.

The brief responds to the Windhoek+30 declaration, a landmark statement endorsed by UNESCO’s 193 member states recognizing media viability as central to information as a public good.

To read the full assessment of the crisis and the 22 recommendations, see the full report here.

About the authors of the brief: Dr. Anya Schiffrin is the director of the technology, media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Dr. Julie Posetti is ICFJ’s Deputy Vice President of Global Research; Francesca Edgerton is a master’s student at New York University; and Professor Emily Bell is the director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

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