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June 21, 2021, 9:12 a.m.
LINK: informationdemocracy.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   June 21, 2021

Should the government step in to save the news business? No one is arguing that journalism, as an industry, couldn’t use the help. But from the power and people it strives to hold accountable? How many journalists trust politicians to make decisions that affect their livelihoods?

Still, a new report warns, “It is important to recognize that continued inaction is a political choice too — and brings its own costs.”

Without minimizing the risks or limitations of such support, The Forum on Information and Democracy argues that governments across the world can — and should! — step up to help the ailing news industry. It released a 79-page report, A New Deal for Journalism, outlining the current landscape of public assistance and making recommendations that range from direct and indirect financial support for news organizations to strengthening existing public media to fostering environments where press freedom and nonprofit newsrooms, in particular, can thrive.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and chair of the working group that developed the report, wrote that the panel of experts focused their attention not on solutions that required “blue-sky thinking” but those that “governments could take — right now — to help ensure the freedom, funding, and future that journalists need to do their job.”

In casting around the globe for policy solutions, they looked for options that were “evidence-based” and/or “command broad-based political and public support in the countries where they are already in place.” Nielsen highlights a few categories that rank among the most important for governments to adopt:

Supporting private sector news media through indirect forms of support such as tax exemptions, direct support specifically tied to investment in professional journalism and structured to prioritize local media and media serving minorities, and supporting innovation, without tying these forms of support to increasingly marginal forms of distribution like print.

Supporting public service media with a clear remit and ability to serve the public across all media, not just broadcasting; strong insulation from political pressure to ensure their editorial independence from government, sufficient funding to deliver on their mission, and a clear focus on serving those communities least well-served by private sector media.

Supporting the creation of nonprofit news media by easing the creation of journalistic nonprofit organizations, whether from scratch or by converting legacy titles, and creating incentives for both individuals and foundations to support nonprofit news media, is a third option. Non-profit media are already making important contributions in some countries.

Supporting independent news media globally by committing at least some official development assistance (ODA) to journalism in other countries is a fourth option, whether done bilaterally or through joint vehicles. We can all benefit from stronger journalism, not just at home, but also abroad — if anyone needs a reminder that our futures are tied together in an age defined by the climate emergency and intertwined economies, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided it.

Funds and support shouldn’t privilege publications that cater to an elite, already well-served audience or those that rely on “old-fashioned” means of distribution, the working group warns. (That print publications disproportionately benefit is one of the criticisms that has plagued a $50 million program, called the Local Journalism Initiative, in Canada and direct support to media in France.)

“Acting to ensure the sustainability of independent professional journalism in this situation is not about propping up ailing incumbents, handing money to proprietors and shareholders, or collapsing back into outdated forms of state aid trying to preserve industries in terminal decline,” the report’s authors write. “It is about creating an enabling, competitive environment where it makes sense to invest in news production.”

Some of the indirect subsidies at governments’ disposal include creating media vouchers or tax relief that cover or subsidize news subscriptions, offering tax breaks on gifts or inheritances left to media organizations, and providing tax credits to encourage nonprofit media or startups in underserved communities.

There are limitations to these types of indirect measures, as the authors readily acknowledge. “They are hard to design in ways that do not reinforce existing market dynamics, including ‘winner-takes-most’, or line the pockets of shareholders, or bypass public scrutiny,” the report notes. (It’s easy to imagine more tax write-offs going toward digital subscriptions to The New York Times than those for local outlets.)

In addition, many reporters (and observers) worry about increased government intervention in journalism — and not without good reason. Regimes can use financial support to bring media under state control. Governments in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia, for example, “are co-opting, undermining and weaponizing public service media, using and misusing a variety of legal and other instruments.”

The full report has examples of policy interventions and successful collaborations from around the globe. It can be downloaded here.

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