Press freedom is all very well, but where’s the business model?

It’s World Press Freedom Day and Twitter (aka the place where journalists talk to each other, while fondly believing they are talking to Their Readers) is busting at the seams with opinion pieces and calls to action.

I had no intention of adding my voice to the fray, but a piece by Glenda Daniels, Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, collided in my brain with a thread I admired on Twitter recently, and demanded some opining of my own.

Professor Daniels notes how hard it is to discern the real news from the “fake”, and says that one of the threats to the public’s trust in the media is the decimation of senior staff in newsrooms. She mourns in particular cuts in the ranks of sub-editors, who she says play a key role in fact-checking. She talks about the creation of sub hubs: centralised sub-editing services, where “one sub-editor will end up contracted to two or three or even more titles”. She writes:

“Many of the sub-editors in these set-ups are not particularly senior, lacking the institutional memory that would allow them to detect factual errors. And those who do remain have no particular loyalty to one title, so feel less pressure to thoroughly, rigorously check facts – a process that takes enormous time, especially when you are editing scores of stories each day. What should replace those full-time, dedicated sub-editors? I believe that fact-checkers could be employed instead.”

There is nothing to disagree with here. I support the importance of fact-checking and its role in keeping the trust of readers alive, but I think there’s a deeper issue that needs unpacking too.

If media companies can no longer afford dedicated sub-editors, where will they find the money for teams of fact-checkers? Even if they could find the money, I’m not sure that fact-checkers are the way to go.

I was a print sub-editor for the best part of a decade and then in management in online journalism, and my experience tells me that sub-editors are more cost-effective than fact-checkers: subs perform many functions in addition to fact-checking and give more bang for buck, to put it crudely.

(And really, in my view, fact-checking should be part of the process of creating and writing and news-editing a story. It’s a fundamental aspect of newsroom management and shouldn’t be outsourced to external teams).

The fundamental issue, rather, is journalism’s crippled business model. Teams of fact-checkers are not going to fix the fact that public-interest journalism has no apparent means of paying the bills. And if you can’t pay the bills, all efforts at promoting press freedom are merely rearranging the deckchairs on the proverbial Titanic.

The recent Twitter thread by Derek Wallbank (whose Twitter profile describes him as “Breaker of News for Bloomberg. Former Chairman of the Board at the National Press Club”) summarises the issue masterfully.

He says: “The greatest threat to a free press in the U.S. is the business model itself. And press freedom organizations, which are generally geared up for other fights, need to refocus.”

He notes that reporters are taught to not get involved with the business side at all.

“Which is a good lesson… up to a point. Wherever the line is, and J-school ethicists can debate that, underlying business model to me is 100% fair game,” he says, adding: “Press freedom groups largely haven’t joined this fight. Most are focused on other things. That needs to change, urgently.”

He is speaking of the United States but his conclusion: “Business model is press freedom” (my emphasis) should be the slogan of journalists and press freedom advocates everywhere.

We have no press freedom until we have a sustainable way to pay journalists (and sub-editors and fact-checkers). There will always be repressive governments and shady characters with bags full of cash and dodgy spies and fake news farms in Russia – and the fight against all of those is important and must continue to be fought.

But strong independent media houses with their own secure sources of income are the crucial foundations for that fight.

Organisations and academic institutions in the field ought to make this their first order of business, research should be undertaken urgently and intensively (and all credit to everyone who is already doing this).

Locally – and I mean this suggestion quite seriously – there should be a South African National Editors’ Forum award for any publication that manages to break even or make profits in a given year.

Every journalist knows that the key to many stories is the money (“follow the money” is the mantra). We need to find a way to apply that to ourselves, and we need to do it urgently. Or we have no hope of press freedom.

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