Decent, trusted journalism is worth fighting for. We have to find a way – The Guardian

Another hundred journalists lose their jobs. More headlines record a crisis that jeopardises our continued ability to record, or write headlines, about anything.

The Fairfax Media reporters striking to try to salvage their profession are respected colleagues, former workmates and friends. Their managers are struggling with the same upended business model we all face, albeit with a strategy very different from Guardian Australia’s.

We’re competitors, but this is about something bigger than either organisation; how we retain democratic accountability and reasonable public conversation if there aren’t enough journalists left anywhere to scrutinise and question and expose.

Running a news organisation over the last decade has been a bit like swimming into a set of enormous dumpers; just when companies think they’ve found their feet another wave of change pitches them over again.

In the latest and most destructive wave, social media platforms such as Google, Facebook and Snapchat have morphed from technology companies to publishers, swallowing much of the advertising revenue that once kept traditional media companies afloat and warping revenue incentives so that the best, most important journalism is rewarded the least.

As Emily Bell, director of the Tow centre for digital journalism at Columbia University (and a member of the Scott Trust which owns the Guardian), wrote here recently: “By acting like technology companies, while in fact taking on the role of publishers, Google, Facebook and others, have accidentally designed a system that elevates the cheapest and ‘most engaging’ content at the expense of more expensive but less ‘spreadable’ material. Anyone who wants to reach a million people with a poorly produced conspiracy theory video is in luck. If, however, you want to run a well-resourced newsroom covering a town of 200,000 people, that is not going to be sustainable.”

News companies are shedding jobs around the world, including at the Guardian in the US and the UK. The Australian media union, the MEAA, calculates a quarter of Australia’s journalism jobs have been lost since 2011, as companies fought through the initial disruption of digital journalism overtaking print. Now Fairfax is shedding 125 more, a quarter of its remaining workforce. News Corp is also cutting, and no one is quite sure where it is all going to stop.

And this crisis in the media is intertwined with the crisis in democracy, the devaluation of truth, the cooption of “fake news” by a president angry at a free press determinedly exposing his lies and the disappearance of roles for specialist journalists who have the knowledge to properly hold politicians and institutions to account.

Katharine Viner, the Guardian’s editor in chief, wrote in a 2016 essay that “above all, the challenge for journalism today is not simply technological innovation or the creation of new business models. It is to establish what role journalistic organisations still play in a public discourse that has become impossibly fragmented and radically destabilised. The stunning political developments of the past year – including the vote for Brexit and the emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the US presidency – are not simply the byproducts of a resurgent populism or the revolt of those left behind by global capitalism.

“A strong journalistic culture is worth fighting for. So is a business model that serves and rewards media organisations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything – building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable.”

But exactly how to do that in practice remains a challenge.

Bell suggests the answer might lie with the the same companies that swallowed the old model, noting that the founders of Facebook and Google “do not have to maximise profitability for shareholders. They retain control of the companies and could therefore decide to prioritise the support of high-quality journalism.”

Australia academic Margaret Simons had similar thoughts in a recent article in Guardian Australia.

“First, social media companies will begin to invest in quality content, because otherwise they will lose their audiences. This is not merely wishful thinking. In China, WeChat, owned by Tencent Corporation, is the dominant social media engine and has functionality that makes Facebook and Twitter look old-fashioned. If you want to know what’s coming next in social media, look to China.

“As I found on a recent research trip to China, WeChat is investing a lot of money in original journalism. Many of the most interesting journalists in China – including some who have been jailed in the past for their work – are now earning better salaries than those available on party media outlets by freelancing for Tencent, which actively supports and encourages them in multiple ways.”

Simons, and others – most prominently Eric Beecher, a former Fairfax editor and now media proprietor, suggest we won’t survive this dumper without some kind of public funding, pointing to France, which has had a media subsidy system for years, and to Canada, where the government is looking at options to do the same.

They might be right, although I worry about the price, whether our political system would be robust enough to cope with public funding for a wider range of voices.

Would all tough journalism and every view and opinion then be subject to the hysterical reaction the ABC now gets from those it exposes or somehow offends? Because every time a politician says an “unAustralian” story should not have been run, or demands an ABC employee be sacked, they rely on the contention that the “outrage” should not be funded on the “taxpayers’ dime”, the public funding providing the ever-convenient way of sidelining opposing voices while continuing to claim support for free speech.

Elsewhere, other innovative ideas are emerging. In Holland, De Correspondent funds 21 full time reporters and many more freelancers through members who are deeply involved in the reporters’ work. It is now expanding to the US and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, is leading a project to investigate how the model could be used further.

In a recent blog post, he explained he was enthusiastic about the model “because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes … Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news.”

In any case those of us riding the dumpers right now haven’t really got time to hang around musing about whether governments will ever decide on a public funding model, or tech giants will ever step in, we just have to find a way to continue to do a job as important as it ever was.

Guardian Australia has spent the last four years building a serious Australian news operation that, with a far smaller budget than even the new lean versions of the old players, provides a broad sweep of daily news, sport, culture and comment, has broken major stories, and been recognised with a swag of awards.

We began with a seeding loan from philanthropist Graeme Wood. Since last August we’ve been asking readers who like our Australian journalism to become members and help fund it. In their wonderful tens of thousands, they have, supplementing our advertising revenue and leaving our business plan on track.

I’m not suggesting for a second we’ve found all the answers. There are so many stories I wish we could cover, so many days when our newsroom’s resources fall short and, quite probably, another set of dumpers is forming somewhere on the horizon.

But in a similar way to De Correspondent’s model, asking readers to pay voluntarily means we are rewarded for the journalism they value the most. It means we raise far more money from good journalism than from clickbait.

The headlines about the media industry are dire for good reason. But decent, trusted journalism is something worth fighting for, and Australia needs us, and our competitors, to succeed.

• How technology disrupted the truth | Katharine Viner

• Technology company? Publisher? The lines can no longer be blurred

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