The landscape of journalism has radically changed over the past 20 years, recently accelerated by COVID-19: print circulations have declined while online journalism has grown; new technologies and innovative models have presented new opportunities; the dividing lines between print and broadcast have blurred; advertising revenue across print and digital has declined; the nature of journalists’ work and their demographics have changed; and publishers’ relationships with platforms have become increasingly important and contentious. However, the fundamental role that journalism should play in a healthy democracy has remained constant.
The UK is in a strong position to take advantage of this changing environment. The UK has a developed media infrastructure and good levels of funding. The most successful forms of innovation in the UK have included targeting a specific audience. To achieve this, innovation has involved new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and engagement and collaboration with audiences, for example by audience involvement in the production of journalism. Engagement with audiences in turn may increase trust in journalism.
Building media literacy is crucial. This should go beyond simply identifying ‘fake news’; rather, media literacy is about understanding journalistic processes and their value, how news is presented, how it is funded and to what degree funding is transparent. This should be a key part of young people’s education. Levels of media literacy in the UK vary, with people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the elderly generally having lower levels. Coordination between the many media literacy bodies is important in remedying this.
Improving the job prospects of those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds who aspire to go into journalism is also important to building confidence in the media. Aspiring journalists face a range of barriers, including often having to complete several internships—which are frequently unpaid or low paid. Journalists are now generally expected to have at least a Bachelor’s degree. While universities can be a valuable route into journalism, they should be one of several routes available. The Government should reform the Apprenticeship Levy to make it work better for young people and the industry.
Although online platforms have created new opportunities for publishers to distribute content, they have challenged established funding models and disrupted the relationship between publishers and consumers. There is a fundamental imbalance of power between platforms and publishers. Publishers need platforms far more than the platforms need them; and publishers are disadvantaged by a dysfunctional online advertising market. It is essential that the Government acts swiftly to remedy this and sets aside legislative time to establish a Digital Markets Unit. In the meantime, the Online Harms Bill should include a mandatory bargaining code to ensure that publishers are fairly compensated for platforms’ use of their content.
Addressing these structural problems should be the priority. It is essential if the news industry is to survive and thrive. However, the Government should also look to help to bring greater coherence to the various initiatives which financially support journalism. There are many promising schemes, both publicly and privately run, but there is scope for a more joined-up approach. It should also be possible to expand the opportunities for philanthropic support for journalism. In September 2020 public interest journalism was recognised as a charitable purpose by the Charity Commission, a decision which has helped the sustainability of the industry.