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April 2, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
Business Models

Emily Bell thinks public service media today has its most important role to play since World War II

“I think there’s a very viable long-term financial model for commercial media. But I don’t necessarily think that applies directly to journalism.”

The ability of the media to secure democracy is being challenged by great disruptions: ad funding doesn’t work that well anymore and large, non-transparent platforms are increasingly central in our information flow. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, thinks public service media may be about to play its most important role since World War II.

Facebook and Google have taken over not only an increasing share of the attention, but also much of the ad market. This has taken away another large chunk of the revenue that supports journalism, following classified ads in the unbundling of the business model that once made newspapers a thriving business.

The rise of subscription models and paywalls has begun to inject fresh money in some media houses, but those who aren’t subscribing to journalistic media could be left worse off. It’s no longer a matter of picking up a single newspaper copy at a newsstand; a paywalled news industry limits information to those able to make a long-term financial commitment, one that usually involves disclosing your personal data. And that personal data has become a commodity, being used to target everything from advertising to political manipulation.

At this year’s SXSW conference, I met Bell, who before founding the Tow Center, worked for many years as an award-winning journalist, digital pioneer, and later digital editor of The Guardian. She worries that we’re entering a period where the messages we receive are individually adapted, and we no longer have access to the same information.

“In a way, that’s what we think we’ve seen in the 2016 election cycle: Certain people getting certain messages, others getting different ones, and not really knowing where it’s coming from, who’s deploying it, and with no kind of transparency,” she said. “We are being made to feel a particular way by the media we’re consuming, and it is not an organic, cultural phenomenon, but a highly manipulated political phenomenon. Unless you can have free high-quality news, you don’t have an antidote; you really don’t have an antidote.”

More of our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity, is below.

Anders Hofseth: What happens in a society where media doesn’t work?

Emily Bell: You can just run down the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of countries where press freedom is at its worst. Places like China, Russia, Turkey…You might have a functional economy, but you don’t have citizens who are engaged in proper self-governance.

I think we assumed that it’s not going to happen to us, and that may be why we’ve been fairly poor stewards of the media ecosystems. We’re at a point now where there’s an enormous amount of disruption to the economics of media. You need a durable, predictable model which continues to deliver that fundamental mission, and it’s become very hard for commercial companies to do that.

One of the things I found hardest as a digital editor to figure out was: Which thing is the change? What’s the body of water that’s moving, and what’s the foam on top of the wave? If you’re on top of the wave, it will be very distracting and make the wave seem bigger than it was. But really, it’s the moving water you have to pay attention to.

The thing that I completely got wrong is that I did think advertising would be much more durable. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the scale or pace at which the ad market would change under Facebook.

Hofseth: Is there no “rebundling” of media for more-or-less useable general journalism?

Bell: No, I don’t think so. I’ve been to a number of countries in the past year, including Norway, Switzerland, South Korea. Every single market seems to be experiencing exactly the same trauma, which is: “You’re not big enough on the Web, you’re just not big enough.” Scale has broken the business model and it isn’t going to come back.

News is hard, it’s not cheap to produce, and it needs to be consistent. And you need certain things for long-horizon stories, teams of people — maybe sometimes even generations of people — to understand them and keep following them. That sustainability has always come out of a mix of the public and the private.

When you think about the institutions that contain that, maybe it’s perfectly sensible when people say post-war profitability in news was a blip. It didn’t make money beforehand and hasn’t made money for a few years. Maybe we had fifty years of it just throwing out cash. Now that’s coming to an end, and we can’t expect those functions to really be profitable.

Hofseth: Maybe because there was a time when news was “good enough” as entertainment for the price…and now you have something which is more interesting.

Bell: I have so many great things on my phone that I would rather be doing than looking at the news.

Hofseth: The two of us would maybe use news as entertainment anyway, because we are sick people.

Bell: Yes, we are entertained — we are sick people who are entertained mainly by the news which makes us very sick! But we are also…

Hofseth: We are marginal.

Bell: Yeah. We are not representative of the general public.

Hofseth: How do you see the role of public service in this?

Bell: Everyone in public service journalism comes to work every day with a mission to inform the citizens of their country, and to try and reach everybody. Even people who can’t pay, even people who don’t necessarily think they need the news, or people who are left out of decision-making because they don’t fit the socio-demographic profile that means they would normally be included.

To me, right now, there is almost nothing more important than having robust public service media available to citizens.

I think public service broadcasters can do anything because they have longevity and security of funding. But they’re not always as imaginative as we need them to be at this particular time.

Existing political systems and public service broadcasters need to be free to imagine the kinds of information ecosystems that they’d want at the nation/state level and then real freedom to experiment with and find new paths to deliver that.

And also to think about themselves oriented in a world where it could well be that large-scale technology platforms — designed, built, operated in America — will be taking over much of what your information ecosystem looks like over the next decade.

Hofseth: Do you think there is a viable long-term financial model for commercial media?

Bell: I think there’s a very viable long-term financial model for commercial media. But I don’t necessarily think that applies directly to journalism.

If you are creating viral native advertising, you might have a future. If you are doing scripted shows or certain types of high-quality video material, you definitely have a commercial future. I mean, look at all the money that’s coming through platforms at the moment to commission scripted shows.

Actually, I think you do see certain general journalism outlets being more sustainable now through reader revenues, and I think that that’s definitely a model for some of them.

We don’t know much about payment mechanisms yet, how they will develop, and what people will pay for. So I don’t think that there is a viable advertising-supported model for free journalism — there just isn’t. It’s not going to happen.

And if it still should happen, it’s not going to happen for some years. Many of the digitally-born sites living within the social ecosystem, they’ve had a terrible time. Much worse than almost anybody else, including legacy media.

Hofseth: Do you think there is a long-term viable model for any kind of general news media that would be read by the broader public?

Bell: Well, it’s always traditionally been supported by advertising. The advertising has gone to Google and Facebook so, unless they want to make it, then, no.

Or — again — this is where public media has a big role. Traditionally, the impact of public media has been much more around who does it reach, what parts of the population are reading it, or viewing it, or listening to it. What are they getting from it? There’s a huge mission for those companies to reach those sections of society with accurate facts that people can make sensible decisions on.

Google and Facebook have hoovered up everything. The ad departments just didn’t see it coming. We missed that trend much more profoundly than we did the editorial trends which we’ve beaten ourselves up about — Oh, we’re not digitizing quickly enough.

What I have not changed my mind about is something which I was really concerned about at The Guardian — which former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger was also champion of and I think Kath Viner is now a real champion of — is we have to make high-quality news available to everybody. As long as The Guardian can afford to put its best journalism in a place where you don’t have to transact for it, and the more we can persuade people to generate revenue which enables us to do that, the better it is. I just think that that is a huge challenge now.

At the moment, I think public service media has got the most important role to play that it’s had at any point since the end of the second World War.

In America, we’re not quite so alert to the facts of the big wars in Europe. The First World War really caused the formation of the BBC. You were in an incredibly insecure period of global politics that was threatening and dangerous and appalling for most people.

Hofseth: Some commercial companies say that the public service organizations should stick to their original platforms and leave the written Internet to the commercial side of the business.

Bell: First of all, public service media has to really understand why public service media is different from commercial media. In Britain with the BBC, there were times when it really didn’t practice its public service mission in everything it did, it looked much more like an aggressive commercial company.

If you are a public service media company, you really need to be welded to your mission and understand what that means.

But at the same time, I think the commercial companies, who are interested in servicing their shareholders, aren’t necessarily the right people to decide what the correct format for a communications ecosystem that benefits all people is. In fact, they might be the worst people to decide that.

And you have to be very careful. I’m well aware of the arguments that people like Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail constructed in the U.K. to undercut the BBC.

Now, that doesn’t mean the BBC should never be reformed. But it should be reformed in a way which is efficient for the population, not in a way that benefits commercial media ahead of public service media.

To say that they should just stick to their traditional platform seems to be willfully ignorant of what’s actually happening in the political ecosystem, when everybody deserves access to high-quality information, and I don’t see commercial media necessarily delivering that consistently enough.

Public service media is there for such an important and vital function, and, if it’s doing its job properly, it’s indispensable.

Hofseth: Why do you think some media companies try to limit the public service?

Bell: Because I think they probably have a misconception that, if you get rid of public service…In the U.K., about a third of all revenues in the media went through the BBC. It’s probably even more now because the advertising market has collapsed.

We used to study this a lot at The Guardian — whether or not the BBC’s website was disadvantaging the web presence of The Guardian. And the truth of it is, actually, that if you have a healthy and thriving mixed media economy, it tends to benefit everybody. A combination of regulation and strong public media is probably why television news in the U.K. is significantly better than television news in the U.S. Generally speaking, a strong and good public service broadcaster with high standards would drag up the standard of the rest of the media.

Anders Hofseth is the acting editor of NRKbeta. This interview was originally published in Norwegian at NRKbeta.

Photo of Emily Bell by Anders Hofseth used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 2, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
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