The future of the free press depends on the people


This week, the Guardian published a story to its own website entitled ‘The Guardian breaks even against the odds’, in which Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner lauded readers and her own ingenuity for saving the paper from financial destitution.

At first glance, it seems odd that one of the stalwarts of high quality journalism in the UK should be so open about asking for cash from its readership – is it the role of the people to be propping up the press? In the spirit of World Press Freedom Day, I decided to take a look.

There’s no doubt that the rise of technology has created something of a hostile environment for journalism in the UK. Sales of national and local printed papers fell by roughly half between 2007 to 2017, as more and more people satisfied their urge for information by purely digital means. Over the same period, print advertising revenues fell by 69%. (To quote my Dad on this matter, the newspaper is now ‘yesterday’s news’.)

So what’s the big deal? Newspapers aren’t immune to the need to innovate, and as long as people are still engaged, does it really matter which platform they do it through?

If we’re concerned about the freedom of the press, the answer might be yes.

Struggling to compete

It would be an understatement to say that the print press as a whole wasn’t quite ready for the shift to digital. As mammoth platforms like Facebook and Google seized control of how people consume information and what ads they’re shown while they do it, newspapers struggled to compete.

Big names in print, once respected for their insight and analysis, suddenly found themselves brainstorming clickbait titles to draw in enough ad revenue to stay afloat. Many prominent papers made the decision to put their content behind a paywall.

Even sites that grew up in this changing climate, such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, have been on a downward spiral this year.

This would all be fine (albeit sad) if the press was an industry like any other. But at times when we need a strong, free press more than ever, this is a deeply worrying trend.

What we stand to lose

The lack of press financial security means more than the loss of an indulgent Sunday morning spent flicking through a physical newspaper.

In the digital world, the type of content that performs best across different platforms is quick and clickable. Celebrity and sport news is a particular crowd-pleaser.

If the press want to become financially stable, the logical move would be to focus almost purely on this content, with some world news highlights thrown in.

In fact, the roles of the press on which we most depend in our democracy are those that are most at risk of being cut.

Take, for example, investigative journalism. One of the most highly-skilled and respected branches of the press, investigative journalism has been responsible for unearthing news that has changed our society, from MP’s expenses to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

But investigative journalism is expensive. It involves sending reporters down a potential dead end for weeks, possibly months on end, with no certain chance of success, rather than asking them to churn out five or six easy-reads on Love Island per day.

The value of investigative journalism has never been higher, but news outlets are struggling to keep up with the rocketing costs.

Another worrying trend highlighted by the Cairncross Review is the decline of democracy reporting. As a result, local councils, court rooms, even schools are held less to account, as local papers can’t spare the reporters to monitor their doings.

Sure, the report on a local court hearing might not be as riveting as Chris Grayling’s latest gaffe, but we depend on the press to keep the cogs of our democracy accountable.

We need a free press to report on what needs to be reported, not just what will generate clicks.

And, as usual, it’s those who already have least who’ll miss out most. It’s hardly surprising that many news outlets have put up a paywall to fund their content, but it’s the poor who will be left with less choice and less access to information if this trend continues.

In an era of increasing uncertainty around which information to trust, it’s even more essential that everyone has access to reliable sources.

A sustainable future

So, which way should we turn to ensure the future of the free press? Some may wince at the thought of a government funded press, but if it works for the BBC, could the benefits be spread more widely?

Should the press be granted charitable status, as the Cairncross Review suggests? If so, how will we decide where to draw the line, and do we really want to be labelling the Daily Mail as a charity alongside Shelter or Oxfam?

Viewed in this way, what the Guardian has achieved to turn around a £57m loss is pretty amazing.

By asking for a contribution from those who can pay, they’ve managed to keep high quality journalism available for everyone. And the sheer volumes raised prove how much the public still value a free press.

Let’s hope that as news outlets get comfortable in digital, they’ll begin to increase public trust in journalism, ensuring that we’ll never risk the loss of our press freedom again.

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