Recently Fianna Fail launched a proposal for state support of quality journalism by funding print news initiates. The aim is to boost quality journalism by addressing threats posed by falling revenue. To this end, it proposes to fund print news media projects by ringfencing VAT receipts from newspaper sales (est.€27 million) and/or imposing a 6% levy on all digital advertising sales (est. €30 million). And although FF’s communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has said that digital publication can apply, provided they meet the same standards as print, the proposal document makes no mention of this.
It’s an analogue solution to a digital problem. Such a fund could also be used to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the digital news industry that meets much higher standards of transparency, accuracy fairness and balance.
The proposal conflates print journalism with quality journalism but the ‘print good – digital bad’ concept is a wholly misguided dichotomy. The problems facing public interest journalism, like overreliance on PR, the proliferation of single source stores, cross-media cannibalisation, low investment in investigations etc. originated in the industrialisation of print. They were amplified by the digital changeover.
Digital standards are higher
Digital journalism, however, has the potential to be produced to far higher standards than print ever could and more meaningful for audiences. Corrections or clarifications can be made to news articles with the details of alterations included in footnotes. Newstitles can record all of their fixes on one webpage which allows audiences an insight into the level of error and soft pressure on journalists to be more accurate the first time. Linking to publicly available sources so readers can do more research. Using blockchain for copyright and source transparency. The list of ways the digital can meet higher standards of print goes on. It is not a step back we need, it is a step forward.
The association of ‘quality’ with ‘print’ implies that digital is lacking in rigour and ethics. As noted in the report, newsrooms have been consolidated; print and digital journalism are produced under the same roof. And some of the most popular news organisations in Ireland are digital only while others publish digitally first. There are opportunities to support established media to engage in a range of high-impact multimedia projects. But it could also support a growing body of digitally native freelancers to work with them.
Weaving the digital safety net
There is also the potential to support quality digital journalism through investment in new initiatives. While the report cites initiatives to support print media in other markets, it overlooks other opportunities that benefit consumers but are not yet pervasive or present here.
The democratic function of digital journalism in larger markets is often supported by a range of cooperating initiatives and organisations. Some of the funding could be directed towards existing small-scale public interest projects or new additions to the news industry. These could include non-profits, independent fact-check organisations, specialised investigation units, new multimedia start-ups, cross-disciplinary publications, media literacy projects and more.
These projects are forming part of digital immune systems in democracies by providing audiences with checks, balances, and supports to problems faced by mainstream media. They do not compete with the mainstream but work with it, improving the information environment. But it is difficult to get a foothold without seed funding. There are countless public interest digital journalism initiatives that could insert new and necessary features into Ireland’s online news landscape.
Digital journalism is too important a component of how people are informed to be omitted from such a resource. Most people get their news online and consumer habits are unlikely to reverse. Meaningful solutions can’t be offline.
There is also the question of accessibility to the digitally native generations for whom print standards mean little and the idea of producing quality journalism is wholly digital and multimedia.
Among the features of the proposal is the introduction of a Minister for Media, expand the role of the BAI and link them with the Press Council to directly fund quality print journalism. Some of these proposals are vague at this stage. But on a prima facie basis could introduce as many problems as they claim to solve. It also joins the call for defamation reform and supports collective bargaining with advertisers and a tightening of copyright.
There is no doubt that digital media has changed the landscape of democracies and presents new challenges to ensuring informed citizens. The old traditional structures of democracies do not fit neatly into cyberspace where clicks, likes, data, profiling, and algorithms are so influential on news feeds news. But what we need are digitally orientated, forward-thinking solutions that can address the multitude of ways in which citizens can now be informed.