“I think there’s a very viable long-term financial model for commercial media. But I don’t necessarily think that applies directly to journalism.”
The ability of the media to secure democracy is being challenged by great disruptions: ad funding doesn’t work that well anymore and large, non-transparent platforms are increasingly central in our information flow. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, thinks public service media may be about to play its most important role since World War II.
Facebook and Google have taken over not only an increasing share of the attention, but also much of the ad market. This has taken away another large chunk of the revenue that supports journalism, following classified ads in the unbundling of the business model that once made newspapers a thriving business.
The rise of subscription models and paywalls has begun to inject fresh money in some media houses, but those who aren’t subscribing to journalistic media could be left worse off. It’s no longer a matter of picking up a single newspaper copy at a newsstand; a paywalled news industry limits information to those able to make a long-term financial commitment, one that usually involves disclosing your personal data. And that personal data has become a commodity, being used to target everything from advertising to political manipulation.
At this year’s SXSW conference, I met Bell, who before founding the Tow Center, worked for many years as an award-winning journalist, digital pioneer, and later digital editor of The Guardian. She worries that we’re entering a period where the messages we receive are individually adapted, and we no longer have access to the same information.
“In a way, that’s what we think we’ve seen in the 2016 election cycle: Certain people getting certain messages, others getting different ones, and not really knowing where it’s coming from, who’s deploying it, and with no kind of transparency,” she said. “We are being made to feel a particular way by the media we’re consuming, and it is not an organic, cultural phenomenon, but a highly manipulated political phenomenon. Unless you can have free high-quality news, you don’t have an antidote; you really don’t have an antidote.”
More of our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity, is below.
One of the things I found hardest as a digital editor to figure out was: Which thing is the change? What’s the body of water that’s moving, and what’s the foam on top of the wave? If you’re on top of the wave, it will be very distracting and make the wave seem bigger than it was. But really, it’s the moving water you have to pay attention to.
The thing that I completely got wrong is that I did think advertising would be much more durable. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the scale or pace at which the ad market would change under Facebook.
When you think about the institutions that contain that, maybe it’s perfectly sensible when people say post-war profitability in news was a blip. It didn’t make money beforehand and hasn’t made money for a few years. Maybe we had fifty years of it just throwing out cash. Now that’s coming to an end, and we can’t expect those functions to really be profitable.
I think public service broadcasters can do anything because they have longevity and security of funding. But they’re not always as imaginative as we need them to be at this particular time.
Existing political systems and public service broadcasters need to be free to imagine the kinds of information ecosystems that they’d want at the nation/state level and then real freedom to experiment with and find new paths to deliver that.
And also to think about themselves oriented in a world where it could well be that large-scale technology platforms — designed, built, operated in America — will be taking over much of what your information ecosystem looks like over the next decade.
Actually, I think you do see certain general journalism outlets being more sustainable now through reader revenues, and I think that that’s definitely a model for some of them.
We don’t know much about payment mechanisms yet, how they will develop, and what people will pay for. So I don’t think that there is a viable advertising-supported model for free journalism — there just isn’t. It’s not going to happen.
And if it still should happen, it’s not going to happen for some years. Many of the digitally-born sites living within the social ecosystem, they’ve had a terrible time. Much worse than almost anybody else, including legacy media.
Google and Facebook have hoovered up everything. The ad departments just didn’t see it coming. We missed that trend much more profoundly than we did the editorial trends which we’ve beaten ourselves up about — Oh, we’re not digitizing quickly enough.
What I have not changed my mind about is something which I was really concerned about at The Guardian — which former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger was also champion of and I think Kath Viner is now a real champion of — is we have to make high-quality news available to everybody. As long as The Guardian can afford to put its best journalism in a place where you don’t have to transact for it, and the more we can persuade people to generate revenue which enables us to do that, the better it is. I just think that that is a huge challenge now.
At the moment, I think public service media has got the most important role to play that it’s had at any point since the end of the second World War.
In America, we’re not quite so alert to the facts of the big wars in Europe. The First World War really caused the formation of the BBC. You were in an incredibly insecure period of global politics that was threatening and dangerous and appalling for most people.
But at the same time, I think the commercial companies, who are interested in servicing their shareholders, aren’t necessarily the right people to decide what the correct format for a communications ecosystem that benefits all people is. In fact, they might be the worst people to decide that.
And you have to be very careful. I’m well aware of the argumentsthat people like Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail constructed in the U.K. to undercut the BBC.
Now, that doesn’t mean the BBC should never be reformed. But it should be reformed in a way which is efficient for the population, not in a way that benefits commercial media ahead of public service media.
To say that they should just stick to their traditional platform seems to be willfully ignorant of what’s actually happening in the political ecosystem, when everybody deserves access to high-quality information, and I don’t see commercial media necessarily delivering that consistently enough.
Public service media is there for such an important and vital function, and, if it’s doing its job properly, it’s indispensable.