The People’s Paper
With the rise of digital media, the decline of ad revenue and publications taking extreme measures to survive, is there still a place left for objective journalism in this industry? By Samuel Lim
The role of a journalist is to report an event, situation or narrative in an objective and informed manner. If that is the case, then it seems the very definition and values of journalism are under attack and the digital evolution of information distribution plays a strong role in this challenge. In the past, news publications relied on the revenue they generated through the sales of ad space and the product purchase. That business model left room for independent print publications to maintain a form of sustainability and it allowed the owners of publication to set the precedence of how they wanted it to be ran. And while there is no denying that there were news outlets that furthered the political and social agendas of their financial backers, there was still a place for objective, professional journalism in the workforce from print ad revenue. But all that is changing with digital ad space sales overtaking print.
In 2011, it was reported that magazine publication and media group, Atlantic, had seen an increase in digital ad revenue from the profits constituting 9% to 51%, beating out print ad revenue. However, the rise of digital ad revenue has in turn reduced the amount of overall advertising revenue with newspapers seeing a decline of 8% in 2014 followed by 10% in 2015. Due to the fact that media outlets are facing losses in terms of ad revenue, cutbacks and compromises are made for the purpose of sustenance which in turn affects the quality of the content. Media outlets like Buzzfeed and Elite Daily turn to generating news content that is simplistic, eye-catching and built on sensationalism in an effort to generate as much reader traffic as possible since they are providing free content. Therefore, there isn’t much of an incentive to conduct independent journalistic investigation than there is to repackage and summarize information that is readily provided online.
On June 2nd , newspaper publishing company, Tribune Publishing Co. was rebranded as Tribune Online Content (TRONC) and along with a new name came a new direction. TRONC is now defined as a “a content curation and monetization company” that is geared towards content distribution. In light of all these facts, there are many questions that need to be asked. Is this the end of independent journalistic investigation, safe for media groups that have financial backers? Where can people turn to for a reliable and objective source of information? Can there be a paper ran by the people and for the people? These questions deserved to be answered.
In Germany, there is a publication, that against all odds, has managed to stay afloat without having to turn to financial support from large media outlets or compromise its journalistic quality. This is Die Tageszeitung (taz), translated from German it means “the daily newspaper”. Taz is an independent leftwing paper that was founded in Berlin in 1979. Years after its inception, taz rose to become a prominent and respected publication, establishing a readership of 60000. But in 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, the state had issued a number of cutbacks and taz subsequently received less funding as the years went by. Three years later, the paper was on the verge on bankruptcy until something particularly interesting happened. A group of people had formed a Genossenschaft, or cooperative, in an effort to keep the publication alive by investing some money into it. Not long, the movement took off and the paper managed to carry on from donations and investments donated by the public. It was reported in 2012, that the publication has earned over 11 million Euros from subscriptions and donations. There are no private executive board meetings or upper management discussions. The direction of the publication is dictated during an annual general meeting by all investors. Which means that any investor, regardless of the amount, has an equal say in giving suggestions on how they wish the publication to be ran. That being said, the independence of the paper is still valued and respected by the community. The fact that taz has managed to keep its doors open and print machines rolling for 37 years from grass roots support is a testament to its quality and integrity. And much like its business model, taz‘s administration system is equally unorthodox. Unlike traditional media companies in which there is a form of vertical workforce hierarchy, taz takes a more horizontal approach when it comes office organization by employing a workers’ self-management mode of operation. That means that the writers and workers control the means of production and that company decisions are voted by committee in lieu of having segregated meetings. “We don’t have a hierarchical structure where someone can say: shut up now.”, Deputy Editor Reiner Metzger explained regarding the structure of taz. The profits and revenue gained from sales is distributed equally among the staff. Metzger himself only earns 500 Euros more than an average junior writer. Writers are permitted to pursue their interest and passions actively, whether it be politics or sports. “You’re a free journalist here,” Metzger says.
Taz has managed to survive as an independent publication through grass-root support by earning public trust and in time establishing a strong readership. And while some might say taz is merely the exception, it could become the precedence but it requires a shift in paradigm and mentality within how society views journalism. In 2015, a global research conducted by Reuters Institute Digital News Report and Tow Centre for Journalism on digital news consumption reveal some shocking results. It was shown that in the US that around 47% of internet users have ad-block software, a program that prevents sites from creating new tabs or pages that promote the sponsors. Many users have shared the opinion that they find the presence of online ads compromising to their reading experience, hence they install the software. This has serious implications because if almost half of the online population has ad-block software that leaves very little incentive for advertisers to invest in online news media. These news sites have less traffic on the front page of the site where the sponsors pay for their promotional material to be prominently displayed in compared to people accessing the links second hand via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, the study shows that in 2013, only 10% of online users worldwide were willing to pay for online news content and predictions have shown that figure is unlikely to increase.
Readers need to understand the importance and benefits from supporting their news sources, print or online. If more people start funding news publications, they in turn will see less need to rely on investments and support from big media corporations. The financial backing that these corporations provide often come with contractual restrictions and are profit orientated. But if there is an alternative method to maintain the publication, then this could allow more freedom for journalist to do their jobs without having to worry about “rocking the boat”.
With revenue coming from the continual support of active subscriptions and a newfound independence, publications could start using that revenue as a form of resource for journalist to begin conducting their own investigations instead of relying on filtered sources. That is of course reliant on what agenda or precedence the publication sets, which means readers must be wary of the kind of news sources they want to represent their collective interest. The readers are the ones that have the final say at the end of the day. If readers demand a higher standard in terms of content quality from publications by either denying them readership, sending suggestions for improvements or cutting off their subscriptions, it could be a strong enough motivation for news publication to begin realigning themselves in a more professional and objective direction. “We’ll see a genuine change in the way journalism is conducted when we have developed a society that is mature enough to ask for it.”, says the Editor-In-Chief of the Vulcan Post, Sarah Yong in regards to the state of the industry.
If the values of true journalism are to stand the test of time, they must be defended by those who value them. This task falls not only on journalists to uphold their integrity and standards in producing content but also on the public to vote with their views and wallets on what the industry should be.
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