It’s no secret that the problems that are roiling the business of journalism in the U.S. — the slow demise of local media, advertising revenues shifting to Facebook and Google — are playing out on the global media stage as well. Luckily, governments and philanthropists around the world are stepping in with innovative solutions and creative thinking.
Attempts to support quality journalism, and the media organizations behind it, are evolving. France and Canada have expanded tax credits, while Tunisia and Indonesia introduced new ones. With its News Media Bargaining Code, Australia has been playing hardball with Facebook and Google since 2021, forcing tech giants to pay more for the news on their platforms.
No single approach provides a silver-bullet solution to the long-standing problems facing journalism, but media organizations including those in the United States can learn from the efforts of others.
For a second year, my colleagues at Columbia University and I have examined initiatives deployed to support journalism worldwide. Our new study, Saving Journalism 2: Global Strategies and a Look at Investigative Journalism, published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, provides a taxonomy of interventions and examines progress achieved in support of quality journalism. In particular, we look at philanthropy, attempts to develop new business models, taxes on tech companies and public subsidies.
The quest for big systemic solutions continues. Journalists and media development experts are making the case that quality information is needed to reduce corruption and fight autocracy, and therefore needs substantial investment in order to grow. “We’re seeing a shift in emphasis away from looking at business models and towards interest in media as a public good that is supported by governments or donors,” said one donor.
We detect growing interest in government engagement through tax credits and other subsidies. Three proposals are pending in Congress in the U.S., notably including one to provide a subsidy for the salaries of local journalists.
Countries that have already embraced government involvement include Canada, which introduced a journalism labor tax credit to support news organizations. Canada also enabled nonprofit news outlets to acquire “registered journalism organization” status and encouraged taxpayers to buy digital subscriptions with a 15% tax credit in 2019.
As the pandemic hit, several governments stepped in to support beleaguered media organizations. Indonesia introduced a series of measures that included the suspension of electricity charges and value-added tax for newsprint, and a decrease on corporate tax to support news organizations while also providing financial support to individual journalists. In addition to a 30% tax credit to promote subscriptions, France introduced a comprehensive recovery plan to stabilize the industry as a whole, including the infrastructure of newsstands and distribution outlets.
In other countries, like Mexico or Argentina, media organizations express more skepticism toward government involvement and fear interference. In sub-Saharan Africa, where many basic needs are still unmet, governments don’t view supporting quality information as a priority. As their revenues continue to drop, African media outlets hope that donors will step in to support them.
Our interviews with media practitioners and experts found many outlets that are reluctant to accept government money but willing to accept funding from large foundations or foreign governments in the form of development assistance as well as money from Google and Facebook. Philanthropy has limitations though, and often comes with strings attached.
The tech giants’ philanthropic support for media outlets and academic research often looks like public relations designed to buy goodwill. “(Google and Facebook) pay out just enough money to get people to not complain about them,” said one grantee we interviewed.
It is striking that they tend to shower their largesse on regions like Europe, where they face the threat of regulations and are actively lobbying to limit their impact, or Australia, where the News Media Bargaining Code — passed in February 2021 — forced Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news.
Big Tech philanthropy can provide a lifeline for struggling media outlets, particularly digital startups, but Facebook and Google recipients need to be wary of the risks. Saving quality journalism will require new, increased funding. What could be a better source than taxing the tech companies, which now swallow most of the advertising revenues that used to flow to the media? This is why Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code is widely viewed as a game changer.
The code may not serve the needs of big and small publishers equally, but it is forcing Big Tech to pay media organizations for news. After the Australian authorities successfully arm-wrestled Facebook and Google into accepting to pay for news, countries like Canada, South Africa and Italy have expressed an interest in emulating the Australian model.
In October 2021, Google and Facebook made an agreement to pay an alliance of national and regional newspaper publishers in France while in Canada, both companies have announced new partnerships with publishers. The Canadian government is considering how to improve on Australia’s code. One idea is to require transparency so that it’s clear which outlets get funding from Big Tech payments.
Another point of tension in many countries is how to design policies that don’t just benefit the incumbent outlets. For example, in Australia, the larger outlets got proportionately bigger payments from Google and Facebook than did the small ones, many of which (such as The Conversation) were cut out of the arbitration process by the tech firms.
Similarly, support from the government needs to be given to small and more recently launched outlets as well as the large ones. In Germany, the Krautreporter successfully protested after the German government slapped together a plan in 2020 that it would provide €220 million in its budget for the year in order to support “digital transformation.”
Co-founder Sebastian Esser argued that this was unfair to digital natives. After Krautreporter threatened a lawsuit, the government dropped the plan and at this writing has yet to replace it. “We killed it. But I don’t mind that, and we didn’t get complaints from other publishers about it, actually. This approach was messed up from the start, so better to start from scratch, or not at all,” Esser wrote in an email.
Our report shows no lack of good ideas and practical proposals to support quality information. Events like the U.S. elections and the COVID-19 pandemic — and related misinformation that spread as rapidly as the virus — have also provided stark reminders that serious journalism remains vital to the proper functioning of societies.
This was reflected in an increase in trust in the media and in audiences, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2021, though the trend did not translate into a rise in subscriptions and revenues for most print media.
Already, the interventions discussed around the world to bolster journalism go well beyond the voluntary efforts of the past. But to take these proposals to the next level and implement them at scale will require convincing both the public and policymakers that action is needed to shore up journalism — and its function as a pillar of democracy.
Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Coauthors of the report are Hannah Clifford, Theodora Dame Adjin-Tettey, Ryan Lee and Matthew Reysio Cruz.