Commentary: A view of the future for "quality journalism"

In a speech for the Austrian think tank, the Alpbach Forum, our CEO tried to answer the question: who will save the future of quality journalism

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[This is an edited version of speech given by Center for Public Integrity CEO Peter Bale to an audience at ORF, the Austrian state broadcaster in Vienna last month, as part of a panel for the Alpbach Forum. The event posed the question "Who will save quality journalism]

Who will save quality journalism? It’s a big question with many assumptions behind it: particularly the idea that quality journalism, if we can define that, is in fact at risk.

I would argue it is flourishing. And that indeed is the argument I made late last month to forum organized by the Austrian think tank, the Alpbach Forum, in Vienna. But that doesn’t mean it will flourish forever. And finding the business model that will allow it to succeed is a quest we must attack with intensity.

But first let’s go back to quality, and just how to define it and let me also explain why it’s me delivering this message.

I’m the chief executive of the Washington-based investigative news organization, the Center for Public Integrity, which also houses the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

I am also president of a news industry organization, the Global Editors Network, which promotes innovation in newsrooms.

So, I am intimately involved in this theme after a long time in journalism in newspapers, as a foreign correspondent and editor, and roles in television and online.

But don’t let me suggest I have the answers. I have thoughts about the question and I do believe there is more high quality journalism around now than ever before – so I am an optimist.

I also mistrust certainty among journalists and those who comment with absolute certainty instead of doubt.

As CP Scott, the legendary editor of The Guardian wrote:
'Comment is free, but facts are sacred'

I’d like to use some examples from the Center and the Consortium to address this question of quality journalism and raise some questions about the role of journalism in civil society. I’ll also address regulation of the media, the protection of the right to free speech and a little about the influence of technology, social media and advertising.

The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, a charity news organization funded by philanthropic groups and individuals.

Our backers support the fundamental role of journalism in civil society – something I think we often forget or have taken for granted.

There is a truism in the world of American journalism that the purpose of a newspaper, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

That isn’t a bad mission statement but I wonder how many of us can honestly say our publications achieve that standard.

Do they challenge the status quo or are they part of it?

I have always felt that it was the journalist’s job to give the underdog a voice.

To me, deciding what you as a journalist or as a journalism brand stand for is part of deciding what your future is.

These issues of fairness, observation and calling out society’s ills have arguably grown in importance with the focus on inequality in our society since the 2008 financial crisis.

It often surprises me when I look at the work of journalists at the Center for Public Integrity, how much of our work comes back to issues of inequality and the influence of money in politics.

Our work in Environment and Workers Rights exposes the influence of lax regulation, watered down at the behest of powerful business interests, that leaves tens of thousands of people exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Our work on Broadband Internet access – which some countries have asserted is a human right – shows that a duopoly of two of the most powerful companies overcharge most Americans and deny the poorest decent access.

Even our work through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – huge exposes on tax avoidance by dictators, companies and household names -- is ultimately about inequality.

In February the ICIJ broke the Swiss Leaks story – the revelation that the Swiss branch of HSBC had been engaged in harboring tax avoidance on an industrial scale.

The French economist Thomas Piketty, famous for his treatise on inequality and its dangers: Capital in the 21st Century, told the ICIJ: “The offshore industry is a major threat for our democratic institutions and our basic social contract…Financial opacity is one of the key drivers of rising global inequality.”

Shining a light on dark corners is what we, and I believe most, quality journalism is supposed to do.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, said.

So now we must turn to a related but crucial question: what is the business model that will allow quality journalism to not only survive, but thrive as well?

One answer may be non-profit specialist organizations—like the Center for Public Integrity or ProPublica here in the States.  

You’re starting to see some of these emerge in Europe as well—the German investigative group Correctiv and Netzwerk Recherche are trying to promote the same idea of tax-advantages for journalism.

I’d also argue that the mainstream media industry has to work harder on multiple fronts. No one owes us a living and no one owes newspapers a reason to keep publishing. Too much of the debate concerns the method of publishing, and we lose sight of the objective, which is to keep funding great journalism no matter how it is consumed.

So we will have to work harder to understand the forces that are changing our industry, primarily the technology, and figure out how to harness those forces in order to connect with the audience and understand its needs.

Social media companies have done that better than we have by listening to their audiences, and reacting.

When Facebook realized the world was moving to mobile it moved with it, even ahead of it, investing heavily in mobile ahead of the curve of advertising— but just in time, as it turned out.

Facebook made $2.9 billion from mobile in just the second quarter of this year – 76 per cent of its total revenue.

The media brands that are thriving, or at least achieving high valuations, are those breaking the link between the printing press or the studio and the product; they are technologically minded and ruthlessly focused on the needs of their audience and its consumer experience.

Buzz Feed is now valued at more than $1.5 billion after a $250m investment by NBC Universal.  Vice Media is said to be worth $2 billion and have revenues of $1 billion.

It’s easy to criticize these outlets, but important to remember that each is investing in quality journalism: Buzz Feed is funding major investigative work as well as popular fare. It knows what its audience is doing moment to moment, what headline works best, which story is most read or most shared or rated highest.

Vice has committed to coverage in Ukraine, Libya and every hot spot including an amazing series from a reporter embedded with ISIS in Syria – something more conservative media groups would have baulked at.

In Europe, POLITICO – a fixture in Washington and one packed with advertising aimed at policy makers – launched POLITICO  Europe in Brussels, in a joint venture with the German publisher Axel Springer.

Axel Springer—along with Schibstead of Norway – is arguably one of the few truly innovative European media companies.

Why? Perhaps because Axel Springer systematically sends executives for lengthy spells to Silicon Valley where they learn to think differently, faster, to take risks, and in the jargon of the Valley to “Fail Fast”.

Axel Springer also bought Business Insider – an upstart business media brand taking on the likes of Forbes and Bloomberg with a sassy recipe of aggregated content and speed. Springer paid $343 million for Business Insider – valuing the group at $450 million.

What Buzz Feed and Business Insider have is a combination of cutting-edge technology and a Silicon Valley attitude of moving rapidly to achieve scale. Employing that recipe has allowed them to produce both profits and quality.

And these tools have proven vital when they compete against the real behemoths of the modern media industry: Facebook and Twitter and Google. In the winner takes all world of the Internet it really is a matter of dealing with those three.

In 2011, research from the Pew Center in the US reported that 11 per cent of US news consumers got their news from “Facebook or Twitter”. In 2014, that rose to 30 per cent, nearly triple in three years.

An alternative to the power of the big social and search platforms is to close off the rest of the Internet and accept that your site or property is niche, a beautiful high-end asset you are prepared to share for a price with like-minded souls.

To some extent that’s the approach of the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, which have accepted limited growth in exchange for a high-quality audience prepared to pay for the  product. There is profitability in a subscription model for the well heeled.

These are properties of high quality in journalism and audience, and thus advertising as well. They are luxury products and there’s no surprise they are filled with advertisements for Louis Vuitton or Rolex.

Brand advertising, the least transactional perhaps, can be thought of as doing well and several media brands are doing well at it, particularly with what is known as Native Advertising, where the same quality of storytelling goes into explaining brand stories as the news itself.

An illuminating example of how this can co-exist and with quality journalism is Quartz.com, the business-advertising site which practically invented “native advertising” and in the work of the New York Times.

Outside those specialist, club-like environments, scale is now king.

Which brings us full circle. Will Google and Facebook or Twitter “save” quality media?

Each is adamant it’s a platform and that neither is a creator or editor of content.

But what is a Like or Heart or a Google+ share but an endorsement, a filter, a stamp of approval?

What is an algorithm that chooses what surfaces on my Facebook feed but the most powerful editor in the world? It’s tuned to me, my network and the judgments made not by editors but by hidden software writers in Mountain View and Menlo Park.

Like it or not,  they are making editorial judgments without the ethical training and experience of journalists, something Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at Columbia, is investigating.

That’s why with the Paris attacks Facebook was filled with ill-informed criticism that the Western media was somehow ignoring terror attacks in Kenya or Beirut. They hadn’t, it’s just you don’t have friends there and nor did your associates and so when Paris broke it was inevitably stronger within the Facebook algorithm in your feed.

It is also true that social media dominance – and therefore the immediate future of media -- is being built in the United States, not in Europe.

Why are there no serious European rivals?

Why is Europe utterly failing to provide the climate to create world-beating news media or social media companies?

I suspect it has a lot to do with different attitudes about the use of technology, the sort of utopian can do spirit of Americans and their readiness to break with tradition, to disrupt the existing order.

I believe Europe’s struggle for media success and its ambiguity towards big data and freedom of expression also has something to do with the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the absence of any similar protection for free speech on the European  continent.

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” This simple addition to the US Constitution is, I would argue, more relevant now than at any time since it was added in 1791.

The Internet – an American creation – is arguably a First Amendment space and I would argue we should fight to keep it that way, free from the interference of governments in less free societies and even in Europe.

We should celebrate this freedom and protect it. Not easy in a society worried about terror that seems to be accepting more and more secret surveillance from its governments.

With no constitutional protection for journalism or freedom of speech in the UK or most of Europe, we have more at risk than we may realize.

And lastly in terms of business models, what of national broadcasters like [Austrian national broadcaster] ORF and the BBC in the UK?

I watch what is happening in the UK where the BBC is under attack from a Conservative government that has wrongly but without much uproar started to treat the BBC like an arm of the government, changing its budget and purposes almost at will.

While it is true that a fee based on the ownership of a TV may no longer a viable model for long-term funding, to focus on that and not on the public good the BBC generates, the immense “soft power” in its creative output, news coverage and global footprint creates seems to me to be a crime.

Anyone considering the future of a state or other form of national broadcaster should look at the consequences of getting rid of it: listen to National Public Radio or watch PBS television in the United States. They do brilliantly but their constant appeals for support are exhausting and their output a fraction of their commercial competitors.

Also remember that it was only in 1987 that the Federal Communications Commission in the United States cancelled a nearly 40-year-old Fairness Doctrine, requiring television news be “honest, equitable, and balanced”.

Can anyone really believe as they watch Fox News that the dialogue in the United States has been improved by letting the market have free range to ignore accuracy or fairness in favor of partisan, inflammatory and just plain wrong information? Are we countering ignorance or feeding it?

Who is questioning the explosion of nonsense, whether about immigration, China, climate change, or Islamic extremism?

When I was young people who wanted to change the world chose journalism. Now they choose computer science, coding.

It’d be great to combine those two choices into a single world-changing view. Thankfully some are doing just that.

Indeed, amidst all the listicles and cat videos are multiple models and indeed some quality journalism. There is great work out there coming to a digital device if you choose it. You have more access to more information from more sources than ever.

The social and search engines are the gateway and the publisher en masse.

But beneath them are tens of thousands of high quality outlets, many thriving. Some will find a niche market, some will get their readers to support them, and others will gain philanthropic support.

Jeff Bezos spent $250 million of his own money on the Washington Post – now undergoing a major technology-led revival. Pierre Omidyar, billionaire founder of e-Bay, says he will put a similar sum into his journalism start up.

There’s never been greater access to more diversity of opinion and more access, yes, even to quality.

As consumers have our own role to play. We need to defend the quality proposition and be prepared to pay to support it: to defend civil society by funding journalism to keep shining a light on dark corners.

Journalism and media companies have to show they are up to that job as well. They have to fight and innovate on new technology, embrace new methods of delivery, and connect with their audience: with consumers who have more choice and greater access to the truth than ever - with you.

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