Mattias Hessérus

The Future Power of the Press

The media landscape is changing fast - in an era of dwindling public trust, how can journalism respond?

Journalism is often claimed to be the lifeblood of democracy and in the western world we can pride ourselves with living in societies in which journalism is neither controlled by the government nor to any large extent restricted by law. While journalists have the freedom to scrutinise politicians, sources and whistle-blowers benefit from extensive legal protection.

At the heart of this narrative is the independent, impartial and autonomous journalist, the Woodward and Bernstein type, who “seeks truth and reports it” and reveals the abuse of power by the rich and mighty. The “first loyalty” of this type of journalist “is to the citizens” and he or she serves “as an independent monitor of power”, to quote Tom Rosenstiel’s and Bill Kovach’s modern classic The Elements of Journalism. The idea of the journalist as an impartial and autonomous observer has become a centre pillar of Western democratic thought and a widely accepted norm within media companies worldwide.

The historical development of this ideal of autonomy is often described as an almost teleological process where the professionalisation of journalism has gone hand in hand with the advance of democracy and the modern welfare-state. However, in this story of gradually evolving press freedom one important figure tends to be absent: the media owner. Why have owners accepted autonomous journalists? It is an important question to ask since the media business might be the only type of enterprise where the employees’ loyalty is supposed to be with someone other than the company.

Undeniably, there might be some media owners who fully believe in the ideal of a free and independent press and who therefore never would interfere with editorial decisions even if they themselves or their families were in the crosshairs of a damaging investigation. Yet, there are other franker explanations to why journalistic independence has been won – and why it today might be under threat.

Paradoxically trust in journalism has diminished significantly. For example, in 1976, 72 percent of Americans said they trusted mass media, according to a Gallup poll. In 2019, that number was down to 41 percent.

The motives to own, for example, a newspaper are more compound than the motives for owning most other types of businesses. The explanation for this is that a newspaper owner can count his or her profit in two types of currency; money and/or political influence in society. Of course, many newspaper proprietors would probably like to gain both, but the fundamentals of newspaper economy have made that goal more unattainable than one would think. Yes, looking at the history of newspaper ownership there may even seem to be an exchange rate between money and direct influence of opinion.

To make a newspaper is expensive and the cost of the first copy of each produced newspaper is the highest. For every copy thereafter that is printed and sold, the cost goes down until it reaches a level where it starts to make a profit. In this respect a newspaper is similar to a mass-market product like an iPhone or an electrical toothbrush. To take home the initial cost of engineering and design you need to sell a lot of product.

In order to simplify, one can say that the expensive newspaper has been financed through two different models: Funding by the many vs. Funding by the few. And one model seems to be of the past and one is of the future, which has implications for journalism as we know it.

The funding by the many model is what built the highly successful omnibus press of the 19th and 20th century with its wide mix of content. In simple terms the model is built on effective cost sharing between the parties who want something from the newspaper. The readers, who have different preferences, share the total cost of the product through buying a full newspaper. It doesn’t matter if they only want to read the culture section, the commentaries or the sport pages, they still have to share the cost of the total product.

In turn, the readers are subsidised by advertisers who want their product seen by the readers. If the cost sharing between readers and advertisers is effective enough, the owner, who is the financial risk taker, can make a profit.

This funding model with its reliance on mass audience and advertising has over the years been heavily criticised by media scholars for leading to commercialisation and the dumbing down of the press. There might be some truth to the criticism, but it’s also the model that to a large extent has granted journalists their autonomy and independence. The funding by many–model has in reality meant a separations-of-power system where no single actor can inflict their will on a newspaper because their contribution to the whole is too small. This even applies to the owner who even though he or she has the right to appoint editors and managers is still dependent on readers and advertisers to make a profit.

The funding by the few–model is the basis of a variety of ownership forms developed to sustain news outlets that fail to attract mass audiences. Political parties, unions, NGOs, trusts and non-profits have been prepared to cover the costs for companies that otherwise couldn’t carry their costs in order to get a certain message out. The profit in this model is measured in influence and in setting the political agenda. For journalists this also means that they are expected to stay on message.

It is easy to see by which funding model journalistic autonomy has thrived the most. In its healthy incarnations the funding-by-many-model lets media companies make respectable profits in providing a public good. Media owners were making enough money to give extensive liberties to their employees. They could afford to keep sound separation between their advertising divisions and editorial desks. They could let reporters waste time on projects that were often futile but sometimes gained them Pulitzers. They could afford to let journalists cultivate an idealised image of themselves as independent pillars of democracy. And perhaps more importantly, in guaranteeing journalistic independence, owners avoided draconian media concentration laws that enabled some of them to build vast media empires.

Diminishing autonomy for journalists from owners due to structural transformations and an increasingly more partisan news media will be a challenge for traditional journalists.

In the past two decades the media industry has grappled with the structural transformation caused by digitisation. This has been described as a crisis of media but should more accurately be defined as a crisis of a business model. The funding-by-many-model that created the newspaper industry that Warren Buffet once described “as easy a way to make huge returns as existed in America” has collapsed due to advertising going to companies like Google and Facebook. The sensitive balance of cost-sharing an expensive product can now only be sustained by the largest newspapers who benefit from the winner-takes-all logic of the digital media market.

The implications of this transition can in the short term look grim. When one type of profit for owners – money – is falling, the allure of the second type of profit rises: influence. For journalists this might mean that they have to realise that their independence was never more than a credit from their employers. The age of pure independence might be over.

Still, this new situation can also in the long term prove to be an opportunity for a more honest journalism and a revival of democratic conversation. The funding-by-many–model was pivotal in creating journalistic independence on a structural level. However, the argument from journalists for autonomy and independence was always that it was needed in order to ensure the public’s trust - the first loyalty was to the citizens. Journalism as a profession has over the past forty years been increasingly professionalised and standardised through journalism programmes at universities. Studies also show that journalists, working in Western countries, perceive themselves as having high levels of autonomy in relation to employers and owners. Yet, paradoxically trust in journalism has diminished significantly. For example, in 1976, 72 percent of Americans said they trusted mass media, according to a Gallup poll. In 2019 that number was down to 41 percent.

Last year, when Ipsos Mori studied trust in the media globally a negative trend in trust across all types of news sources was apparent. Except for one: news from “people I know predominantly in person”. Here trust had risen in all surveyed countries apart from Chile. Yes, 70 percent of consumers globally rated personal relationships as a good source at “providing relevant news and information”, matching the trust in mass media in America in 1976.

So, what do these numbers tell us? Maybe more about ourselves than the quality of news today. We trust our friends because we know what they stand for and where they come from. They are part of our tribe and we are partisan. And as a group of psychologists - Cory J. Clark, Brittany S. Liu, Bo M. Winegard, Peter H. Ditto - showed in a recent paper “tribal bias is a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition, and that no group–not even one’s own–is immune”.

Diminishing autonomy for journalists from owners due to structural transformations and an increasingly more partisan news media will be a challenge for traditional journalists. The media situation they might face in the future can be summed up in the words of Bob Dylan: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. But strangely, standing for something, accepting that everyone is partisan, can prove to be the road back to trust in the media. An openly partisan, diverse and honest media might be a good recipe for better democracy.

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