Do you still buy a daily newspaper? Or maybe a Sunday newspaper? If you do both, you’re probably in your 40s and in a dwindling minority in most parts of the world. You can still watch the news on your phone and maybe check out the “snippets” that Google News offers you for free. You can watch the news on TV or listen to the radio. But you’re far less likely to pay for news that your parents were — let alone your grandparents.
In a way, this is a golden age for news. Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and of course Google all offer news. Facebook encourages friends and families to chat about it and share how local news is developing. Why spend a lot of money buying a newspaper or subscribing when you can get the gist of the main stories for free?
For all the latest news, follow The Daily Star’s Google News channel.
The obvious answer is that none of these sites employ professional journalists who know how to capture the essence of a story and package it for a large audience. Take the amazing performance by Robert Moore and his team at Britain’s ITV on January 6, 2021. After suspecting there could be trouble ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration and suspecting the Capitol could be involved, he pulled it off with a cameraman into the building and a producer, the only group of journalists breaching the perimeter. Or take the harrowing news from two Financial Times journalists who, in October 2021, surprised US intelligence with a story that China had tested a new hypersonic missile with devastating space capabilities. Full-time trained journalists were needed for both news items – with expertise and luck on their side.
TV news thrives on advertising – and large amounts of advertising, which once paid much of the cost of news gathering, have now migrated to Google and other online sites. Newspapers like the Financial Times need paying customers just as much as they need advertisements. Many newspapers are now free online – although they still charge for their paper versions. But this cannot be a long-term business. In 2019 I issued a report to the UK Government on ‘A Sustainable Future for Journalism’ which looked at both the plight of the news business and possible ways forward.
The report argued that while there is certainly no reason for blanket government subsidies for news, there are some types of news that are particularly important to maintaining honest government and well-informed citizens. The report called this “news of public interest” and argued that it was particularly important at the local level. Good government—and especially good local government—needs trained reporters who can follow not only local decisions about public spending, but also the administration of schools and hospitals and court rulings. Without coverage by trained reporters, these local government functions can suffer from management problems and wasteful or unfair spending decisions.
Any mechanism to provide financial support to news organizations must be carefully designed. But the best financial help is the payment that citizens willingly make to subscribe to an online (or physical) news source. Subscriptions to quality online news are increasing – for example The Economist and The Guardian, both of which have increasing numbers of international readers. But the UK’s more populist news sources – the Mail or the Sun, for example – have been reluctant to ask online readers to subscribe (although they still charge for their printed versions). This split is troubling, if only because publications like the Sun and the Mail have often been adept at sandwiching serious news between more salacious stories. They were important sources for improving media literacy. And local newspapers have often been the glue that holds communities together over the years. The survival of these news sources is even more important to good government and vigilant citizens than the future of the high society press.
About the author
Dame Frances Cairncross is a British economist, journalist and academic. She is the author of The Cairncross Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism. She was formerly senior editor at The Economist and business columnist at The Guardian.
She is a senior fellow at the School of Public Policy, UCLA. She is a former Chair of the Executive Committee of the UK Institute for Fiscal Studies. From 2004 to 2014 she was Rector of Exeter College, Oxford
World News Day is a global newsroom campaign to highlight the value of journalism. It is organized by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) World Editors Forum in partnership with the Canadian Journalism Foundation.