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An inquiry into the future: Facing the digital avalanche in mass communication

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(Image via simplyrikkles / Flickr)

In this final article of his three-part report, media editor Dr Lee Duffield comments on the recent Senate Inquiry into the future of public interest journalism and draws some conclusions on how the good purposes of media can be preserved.

Read Part One: Enter the 'Third Estate' HERE.

Read Part Two: A stand for journalist freedom HERE.

An inquiry into the future

LAST MONTH, a Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism produced a report sympathetic to free inquiries made by journalists, especially for company journalists still on investigative projects.

The report brought together current ideas on media generally — notably impacts of "digital giants" such as Facebook and Google.

FOREIGN INFLUENCE AND FAKE NEWS

While it aired good information, the Senate Inquiry delivered a quasi-cop-out on managing great disruptors. It handed over the investigation of aggregators and social media platforms re-using media companies’ copy and the potential 'negative or unfair effects on consumers, media content creators — including journalists, and advertisers' to an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). It said the ACCC had 'broader terms of reference, as well as the resources, expertise and time'.

Online "fake news" was raised in the report, referring to the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme that was introduced into Parliament last December, stating the scheme's coverage:

… could include fake news content, whether disseminated via hard copy, online or through other platforms. For example, the publication of information that is intended to sway the public's vote in a federal election, or persuade the federal government on a policy matter, if done on behalf of a foreign principal, may give rise to registration and disclosure obligations under the scheme.

It would police activities like robocalls and mass SMS messages and, through the ACCC, inquire into 'the market dominance of aggregators, their advertising practices, and the effects these have had on the state of public interest journalism'.

Being nothing but fair, the Senate Select Committee acknowledged the work Google and Facebook were doing to promote capacity building for media companies, including Google News Initiative, though users were getting mixed benefits:

They now have the power to access more information than ever before and for relevant information to be brought to their attention by aggregators, for the most part at no cost at all. In some cases this is an incredibly powerful tool that connects people with information they need. In others, it facilitates the rapid spread of misinformation and may enable people to hear only their own perspective rather than be challenged by a range of views.

Signs of their positive engagement with the industry in the report included:

... indications they are taking more ownership of the problem of fake or misleading news, misinformation and hate-speech, and looking for ways to crack down on the spread of damaging material through their platforms. Moreover, whereas some evidence spoke to the profound difficulties that the news media faces from aggregators, other evidence spoke of the exciting opportunities offered by new global markets, ever-growing audiences and the enhanced connectedness that the digital age brings with it.

However, one submission from media added the sour note to the report that 'Google is no friend and has done more than anything to destroy the journalism model'.

MEDIA GOING BUST – NEW MODELS, NEW FUNDING

Representing journalists, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance was quoted on the same lines:

These non-paying entities strip advertising and other revenue from regulated media entities that provide important public interest editorial and entertainment Australian content for Australian audiences.

On financing media – apart from a proposal that the American companies could declare themselves media organisations and comply with the regulation that would demand – the suggestion was canvassed of putting a statutory levy on their earnings.

The levy idea was contested with a commercial argument by Google saying such a scheme had failed in Spain. If they had to pay, they would use less, the media companies would not get the same exposure to audiences and some could go out of business.

Before settling on its recommendation for tax deductions on media subscriptions or donations, the committee reviewed the different ways to fund online media operations already tested, including:

... advertising (display and native); building databases to sell access to them; hosting events related to an outlet’s digital media content; developing new media products based on market research; crowdsourcing funds and philanthropy and, the least used option, erecting paywalls.

For most digital newsrooms, the most important source of revenue is native advertising. This is paid ads that match the news outlet’s page content, overall design and is consistent with its platform behaviour.

The reliance on native advertising means media organisations are having to think differently about the relationship between journalism and advertising, especially about issues of transparency and audience trust.

MEDIA AND FREEDOM

The main concern of the Parliamentarians and others involved in this inquiry is that closing down mainstream media will mean the loss of the benefits of "public interest" journalism to a democratic society. Without some central forum for information and ideas, justice, and exchange, where will we be?

What would help, is an agreed definition of “public interest”. Then media prepared to provide such services might be recognised, badged and, in some ways, assisted or protected. Submissions to the Senate Inquiry provided the makings of a practical definition that could be built up, like keeping the public up to date with the world, giving reliable information for making decisions, having forums, being a watchdog, crime-busting and helping societies to understand themselves.

While citizens now can find much of that directly online, the atomised, unregulated activity and what was described as the online 'hyperpartisan debate' gets polluted with wrong, misleading and ill-intentioned content and you cannot keep track. Moreover, if you want a democratic country, often you will need all people together in one place thinking about the same thing.

Here is a suggestion. Make a standard, even under a legislation, that will define what public interest journalism is. This way, media providers can opt-in to meet that standard if they want and get a special badge. For many, it would be part of their business model to be “marketing truth”.

If these then become the preferred outlets for government, law, arts, science or business, they will form what might be called “plenary” media — ones that all the public can go to at once when looking for something generally important. Also, when able to go directly to plenary media, citizens will not be forced to spend time searching through a confusing mush of media. When you like, only use the ones with the badge.

The “public interest” badge would give the designated media outlets access to taxation concessions, grants or other supports and position them well to get private funding. They could be mainstream players like a major newspaper (though not all major newspapers), small private enterprises or community publishing groups that made the commitment.

All kinds of junk media would continue flourishing for entertainment — making friends, advertising services, diversions, attacking reputations, cooking fights, talking rot. They would not be in the “public interest” area, nor would they want to be and it would not matter because public interest would survive and be there as needed. If an arbitrator or regulator was set up, that body would settle cases such as media outlets failing to meet the standard.

The idea comes from the British Royal Charter promulgated in 2013 after the News of the World scandal. It provided for media to sign on to a hands-off regulatory scheme where they would commit to a standard of social responsibility — and become recognised and rewarded, for example, through access to relief in certain legal cases. The project lapsed with the exit of the then Prime Minister David Cameron.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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