Online only, so far

How to make journalism sustainable?

THE CAIRNCROSS Review: A sustainable future for journalism was published in February. It looks into the "the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism". Its remit included "the future of the press... the overall state of the news media market, the threats to the financial sustainability of publishers, the impact of search engines and social media platforms, and the role of digital advertising". The full report is here.

In 156 pages, plus another 50-odd pages of appendices, the Review lists the "abundantly clear" threats to the press: notably contraction in "advertising, revenue and circulation". It notes that some of the newer digital-only outlets like HuffPo and BuzzFeed are struggling too. The number of full-time frontline journalists in the UK industry has dropped from an estimated 23,000 in 2007, to 17,000 today, and the numbers "are still swiftly declining."

The Review notes that "most national and regional news publishers are generating good profits, with margins of 10 per cent or more." But for several publishers, a large proportion of those profits is being used to pay down debts or pension liabilities - for example at Johnston Press and Reach/Trinity Mirror.

The Review observes that over 70 per cent of consumers now read the news daily online, mostly aggregated through Google, Facebook or Apple News. It considers whether the power of Google and Facebook is such that it deserves government intervention in order to defend some of the "more democratic outputs" of the press.

The "internet platforms" (basically Google and Facebook, and to some extent aggregators such as Apple News) have, according to the Review, taken the lion's share of the advertising and have also become the readers' route in to news. Its recommendations include making a "better balance between publishers and platforms," through regulation if necessary. "Market failure" in the supply of public interest news means that "public intervention" may be the only solution, the report concludes. It examines "how to help publishers become self-sufficient."

The local press is in particularly bad shape, according to Cairncross. Now we can see how many readers are reading which local newspaper article, it's clearly no longer economically viable for local newspapers to send a court reporter; yet "society" has a need for "public interest news," particularly local news, where support for public-interest news providers is viewed as particularly urgent and justified.

Public interest journalism is a recurring theme - it "may need support" – and investigative journalism in particular rarely pays for itself. The "unbundled" experience of news coming to the consumer via search engines means less public interest news.

Recommendations? There doesn't seem to be a specific mention of a financial levy on Google and Facebook – yet. But the Review does propose that the Competition and Markets Authority conduct a "survey" of the online advertising industry and how it works, leading to whatever "remedy" such a survey may identify. The "opacity of the market" in online platforms in particular makes it ripe for intervention, in the report's view.

Further recommendations include codes of conduct for the "online platforms" governing their relationship with the news publishers. This would mean a regulator, with a full set of regulatory powers. Possible forms of regulation could include ensuring that the "platforms" do not impose their own advertising software on news providers.

Efforts by online platforms to improve the trustworthiness of the news content they carry - such as the Trust Project, in which Google and Facebook are partners - should be overseen by a regulator, the Review recommends.

The media literacy of the nation is also to be developed with the help of media regulator Ofcom, which has a statutory duty in this area. Could this lead to opportunities for freelances as media literacy teachers?

The BBC should do more to share its technical and digital expertise with local media, says the Review. The licence-fee funded Local Democracy Reporting initiative has up to now channelled money in the direction of a few big news groups - which were part of the problem. Cairncross proposes extending this scheme, but ultimately as a joint project between the BBC and a yet-to-be-established Institute for Public Interest - described as a sort of Arts Council for journalism. The NUJ's submission gets a look in.

There is only one occurrence of the word "freelance" in the report, in a list of elements that made a Times investigation, into sexual abuse by aid workers and the subsequent Oxfam cover-up, an expensive one. This is not encouraging. The number of appearances of the term "self-employed" in the report is a big fat zero.

The recommendations of the report – if adopted and implemented – may eventually result in a healthier news media landscape with more opportunities for freelance journalists. The only easily discernible benefits for freelances would be opportunities to teach "media literacy" and money possibly coming our way – eventually – in grants from the proposed Institute for Public Interest News.

The Freelance understands that even a part-time teaching gig that has "regular timetabled hours" would be paid through the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) system with deductions at source, though. If the proposed Institute for Public Interest News really does come to resemble the Arts Council, then individuals including freelances will be able to apply to it for a piece of the action. It is to be hoped that funding from the future Institute really will be accessible to individual freelances, not just the big newsgroups and media conglomerates.