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Steve Dempsey: 'Future of journalism in spotlight'


Dame Frances Cairncross,  a former editor for The Economist and columnist for The Guardian.

Dame Frances Cairncross, a former editor for The Economist and columnist for The Guardian.

Dame Frances Cairncross, a former editor for The Economist and columnist for The Guardian.

Last year the UK Government commissioned a report on safeguarding the future of journalism. This task was given to Dame Frances Cairncross, a former editor for The Economist and columnist for The Guardian. This week she produced her report. It featured some sensible recommendations.

"We are likely to see a further decline in the size of the UK's news publishing sector - in journalists and in titles," she said. "Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing the sustainability of high-quality journalism and the press may be the same as that which is affecting every area of life: the digital revolution means that people have more claims on their attention than ever before.

Moreover, the stories people want to read may not always be the ones that they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account." So what suggestions did she have to offer? Some related to financial supports like lowering Vat on digital news subscriptions to bring online paywalls into line with printed newspapers, tax relief for publishers that invest in public interest journalism, and even potentially giving charitable status to some publishers. The report also recommends the creation of a fund focused on innovations to improve the supply of public-interest news and a new Institute for Public Interest News, which would distribute funding and work with publishers on sustainable public-interest news.

Then there's big tech. Dame Cairncross calls for the UK competition regulator to investigate whether the dominance of Facebook and Google is detrimental to public interest news sources.

She also favours a new regulated code of conduct between publishers and large tech companies. But the report doesn't make the tech industry out to be the bad guys. Cairncross rejects any suggestion that Facebook and Google should be made to pay publishers to host news content, warning that this could limit the spread of news to those who want to see it.

Publishers catch some of the flak for their own downfall in the Cairncross Review. It points out that many newspaper groups in the UK have failed to invest in the infrastructure and innovations needed to forge a successful digital future, instead they've focused on making cuts or restructuring their debt.

The UK isn't the only country where such an interrogation of the issues facing the news industry has taken place. In the US the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy recently issued a hefty 200-plus page report. It's not government backed, and as a result lacks the policy-punch that the Cairncross review delivers. But it does cover many similar bases - how to restore trust in journalism and revitalise publishing.

The overarching recommendation is that news organisations need to be radically transparent and interwoven with the communities they cover. This means prioritising reporting and evidence-based commentary over opinion, implementing best practices around corrections and fact-checking, and engaging with communities to improve the relevance of reporting and increase trust.

The Knight Commission report homes in on the growth of non-profit news outlets. "As profit-driven newspapers continue their economic decline, the Commission recommends accelerated investment in non-profit, mission-driven journalistic entities we call Community News Organisations", it says.

Like the Cairncross review, the Knight Commission report also has a section on technology. News companies need to embrace technology to support their mission and achieve sustainability it says. And it rightly points out that there is an inequality of resources in relation to news organisations and technology.

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The New York Times and the Washington Post can afford data journalists, AI experts, engineers and app developers, but many local news entities struggle to keep the lights on.

Given the travails of the news industry in the developed world, the growth of the internet as a advertising powerhouse and as a vector for the spread of misinformation, plus the threatened extinction of local media outlets, it's vital that the points raised by the likes of the Cairncross Review and the Knight Commission are discussed by policymakers and civil society. The news media itself can't be a passenger, here. It must engage with the valid criticisms in such research and do better than waiting for government handouts, because Facebook and Google came along and threatened its business model.

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