There is widespread agreement that a thriving, diverse and independent media landscape, at every level from the hyperlocal to the global, is an essential part of democratic culture, providing citizens with the steady stream of information and debate they need in order to make informed choices and play a full part in democratic decision-making.
The growth of digital and mobile communications technology over the past 20 years has created much bigger audiences for trusted, quality journalism but also destroyed the revenue streams on which that journalism previously relied. Lucrative classified advertising quickly migrated to free, non-news related, online alternatives, and display advertising became dominated by social media and search, as the 2019 Furman Review explored in detail. The Cairncross Review of the Sustainability of Public Interest News (2019) showed how online subscriptions could not replace the loss of cover price revenues in a digital market with significant free-to-access services. Meanwhile, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has revealed that only seven per cent of online adults in the UK currently pay for digital news services, whilst 50 per cent have said that they are unwilling to pay.
News publishers have responded to the technological challenge with new digital services, and their content now reaches far more people than their print editions ever did. However, defending advertising revenue in regional publications and indigenous Scottish national titles has proved virtually impossible in the face of the growing power of overseas technology companies, unencumbered by editorial costs or regulatory concerns but benefitting from free user-generated content and data.
News publishers' abilities to meet the needs of their audiences, and to provide employment for professional journalists, will diminish without urgent intervention. The sector has already contracted and consolidated: staff numbers have declined sharply, offices have closed, editions and titles have merged, and freelance income has declined. The same pressures have been felt by television broadcasters, which are trying to manage competition from on-demand channels and live streaming. The challenges facing all news producers are reflected in Ofcom's 2021 media plurality consultation.
Local news publishers were particularly hard hit by the loss of classified advertising. Over 250 titles across the UK closed between 2005 and 2020, many of them free titles which grew from lower production costs in the 1980s but relied entirely on advertising revenue. Some small English dailies switched to weekly publication. In the USA, generally regarded as being ahead of UK media trends, an estimated 1,800 local newspapers closed in the same period, 60 of them dailies.
In Scotland, the Dunoon Observer and the Turriff Advertiser were both bought out, and the Nairnshire Telegraph closed at the end of 2020. Both Johnston Press and Scottish Provincial Press went into liquidation but re-emerged quickly as JPI Media and Highland News & Media. Digital native publishers have not been immune to these pressures: Buzzfeed closed its UK and Australian newsrooms in 2020, having lost nearly £23 million in five years, and earlier this year announced editorial job losses in the UK operation of the recently acquired HuffPost.
A lack of public interest journalism to hold authorities to account and provide a voice for local communities can have catastrophic consequences. The decline of the local press has been cited as a factor in the Grenfell disaster, which claimed 79 lives. In 1990, the borough was covered by the Kensington and Chelsea News and the Kensington and Chelsea Times, which employed 15 journalists, but in the year before the disaster, only one journalist was serving 160,000 people and failed to pick up consistent warnings from residents of a potential catastrophe. Concerns about the decline of local journalism have been voiced for some time, and in 2015, experts at King's College London published a comprehensive analysis of this democratic deficit.
Perhaps emboldened by the promise of fairer digital competition through UK legislation, publishers have started to invest in localised digital services. However, success could be years away, and the danger of a depleted media landscape remains, in which local stories go unreported or are not followed up, and national publications are less able to sustain the range of specialist correspondents that are essential for scrutiny and democratic accountability.
Non-broadcast journalism remains the bedrock of newsgathering. One striking example was the 2012 baby ashes scandal which was first uncovered by the Edinburgh Evening News, eventually made national television and led to changes in national regulations. The difference between news provision and news origination has now been recognised by Ofcom. Of course, broadcasters also originate news stories, but, as the Cairncross Review found, print and online news organisations 'still play the central role in financing the creation of original journalism, accounting for as much as broadcasting and online put together.' Any further decline in independent news publishing activity could thus have a knock-on effect on the news agenda of broadcasters, limiting the range of stories covered.
At the same time as disrupting revenue streams, digital technology, smartphones and social media have made news publishing more accessible than ever. This has allowed a new range of organisations to enter the market, including local and hyperlocal publications, investigative journalism non-profits, and sites serving communities of interest and identity.However, the digital economy poses similar challenges to independent news publishers as to traditional newspaper groups and major digital publishers. Recent research has shown how difficult it is for such enterprises to become economically sustainable. At the point where an enterprise could consider taking on more staff and acquiring premises, the financial commitment required for office rent, business rates and other costs can disincentivise growth.
Community news publishing may depend on individuals working from home, often part-time and reliant on other work for income. Community publishers struggle to provide either the training or the full-time paid work that is essential for attracting new entrants from the whole range of our diverse society. Providing an attractive, varied and sustainable career structure is essential if trusted news provision is not to rely solely on those who can afford to work for little or nothing.
At the same time as allowing a new generation of public interest news publishers into the market, the digital revolution has also made unreliable information readily available. So-called "fake news", promoted by self-interested or destructive groups ─ at best unconcerned about the public interest and at worst hostile to democracy ─ makes it all the more essential that open societies find ways of supporting genuine journalistic activity that keep the public properly informed.
It is essential for the choice of media to be as wide and varied as possible. Strengthening public interest journalism should be about protecting established publishers, with their strong record of serving audiences and employing journalists, and enabling diverse new publications to thrive, even where their target audiences are small. The working group believes that a dynamic market, sustaining differing voices, perspectives and business models, will enrich Scottish society by increasing access to informed debate.
In response to the twin threats of market failure and disinformation, democratic governments around the world are taking action to support public interest journalism, sometimes through arm's-length arrangements designed to avoid any suggestion of political interference and sometimes though direct market intervention. During its discussions, the working group considered the following examples:
- the Danish Government provides subsidies for editorial production and innovation through the Danish Media Board
- the Norwegian Government provides subsidies for editorial production, distribution and innovation through the Norwegian Media Authority, with a focus on small and local media
- the Dutch Government provides subsidies for local journalism, investigative journalism and innovation through the Dutch Journalism Fund
- in February 2021, the New Zealand Government launched a subsidy for 'at risk' journalism, to be administered by NZ On Air
- also in February 2021, the Australian Government launched a News Media Bargaining Code, which aims to compel Google and Facebook to negotiate fair terms with publishers for the news content they host on their platforms
- in June 2021, the Canadian Government launched a range of fiscal measures to support journalism, including an income tax credit for journalists and a digital news subscription tax credit
- in the United States, there are growing calls for a federal support package for public interest news, to complement the existing culture of philanthropic funding
- in 2019, the Welsh Assembly piloted a funding scheme for independent community news providers
Having considered the strengths and weaknesses of these international examples, the working group recommends that the Scottish Government should develop a hybrid model of support for public interest news, using its powers wisely and selectively to create the conditions for a renewal of Scottish news publishing, whilst working in partnership with private enterprise, media companies, third sector organisations and higher education institutions to deliver change on the ground.
At the heart of our recommendations is the establishment of a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute (SPIJI), an independent body with a range of funding sources that would represent the full range of Scotland's public interest news publishers, administer grants where appropriate, co-ordinate existing and new initiatives in journalism training and media education, and act as a forum for continuing debate about public interest journalism.
We also see a significant role for the Scottish Government in guaranteeing advertising and marketing investment in public interest news publishers, whilst strongly encouraging the UK Government to introduce advertising tax incentives and accelerate the legislative framework necessary for the Competitions and Markets Authority's new Digital Markets Unit to create a fairer and truly competitive digital publishing landscape.
We recognise that promoting diversity and plurality is a goal in itself and our recommendations aim to provide a strong framework for diversity to flourish and to ensure that as many people as possible – particularly children and young people – develop and maintain a habit of consuming reliable information about the subjects in which they are interested.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity here to build on Scotland's proud 250-year history of strong local, regional and national journalism. The alternative is to watch this tradition collapse, as publishers struggle to make ends meet, journalists are forced to seek other employment, and audiences are swamped by fake news.
We do not want our proposals simply to generate debate about the future of journalism in Scotland. We want to see prompt and bold action to sustain the flow of accurate and trustworthy news that is essential to our shared democratic life, to community cohesion and to our common future.