Some thoughts on News & Democracy

The Reuters Institute published their 2024 Digital News Report. It’s a great resource. Today I want to use it as an occasion to talk about some structural considerations.

To anyone who has been following the state of news media and/or the overall health of democracy over the last two decades it’s well established that we’re in a certain amount of trouble: Journalism budgets are down; democracy is under pressure both from a rise of authoritarianism and from eroding trust in institutions.

Some numbers from the Reuters report jumped out at me, both for Germany, where I’m based:

  1. 13% paid for any online news in the last year
  2. 43% trust in news overall (down from 60% in 2015)

Now, some things to consider, in no particular order:
Journalism needs funding. Online advertising — controlled largely by just two platforms, Google and Meta — has not provided the necessary funding. AI-generated summaries of search results likely mean less monetizable traffic to news media sites. Media sites use Paywalls as one of the very few monetization mechanisms they can control to drive subscriptions. By definition, search engines do not reliably index information behind paywalls, so they amplify freely available information. Freely available information often either rips of or summarizes news sites, or is SEO-optimized commercial content, including but not limited to spam and disinformation. A healthy democracy needs informed citizens. Without access to quality journalism and news, citizens cannot be informed well and hence are likely to be ill-informed. Trust in societal systems — institutions, media, journalism — erodes accordingly.

We see a vicious cycle play out: Bad information (and more importantly, bad faith information) aims to undermine trust in the pillars of democracy, which are in a downward spiral of their own, journalism lacks the resources for investigations, and democracy grows weaker as a result.

Apparently not all is lost. One (again from Reuters):

Our data also show persistent winner-takes-most patterns. A few big upmarket newspapers – such as the New York TimesLe Monde, and El País – have done best in recent years, having a strong presence in their respective markets. Industry data show a similar picture, with the New York Times reaching 10 million subscribers as of the start of 2024.

So there are niches and custom content bundles that can keep the biggest publishers alive. (Local journalism and media in smaller languages, not so much.) Journalists also tend to be a tenacious lot who’ll fight for their profession, and we should all be grateful for it. Especially since (Reuters once more)…

there is an increase in attacks and hostility towards journalists, often linked to investigations into right-wing extremism

We need more accessible news, which needs funding. But the current business models are increasingly not working, and are likely to come under even more pressure through AI-generated/summarized content.

So: More free news, and also more money for news? The tricky bit here is that these are absolutely legitimated interests that are — or at least appear — to be mutually exclusive.

I don’t have a solution for it, but I know that we need those news to spread more widely than to the 13% who pay for them.

For some niches, individuals or small teams could offer great reporting in an “independent creator” type model, like Platformer‘s amazing work around tech & platform accountability. There is certainly room for a small number of giant publications like the New York Times, which have a theoretically global market and a broad and deep catalog of offerings including subscription modules around cooking, consumer tech and games. Independent investigative journalism organizations like Correctiv could be funded through donations, memberships and philanthropy. And so forth.

So maybe it’s a massive fragmentation. But it still doesn’t add up. This opens up avenues for the funding side of the story, but the distribution/access side still comes up blank. So how can we make news more accessible? Some public or philanthropic money? A meta-subscription akin to cable TV bundles? Pay per click? None of these have worked so far. I’m coming to believe that we honestly don’t yet have anything we could scale out just yet, so we’ll need to experiment more.

But we have to hurry and experiment, because not just democracy as a system is under attack by authoritarians, the media are, too. I’m glad there are new media funds that try to do just that, like the Media Forward Fund in Europe and Press Forward in the United States.

For now, let’s keep experimenting. Because this is one of those things we really need to get right, and soon.