Time for a citizens’ solution to Scotland’s media crisis

by Jack Ferguson The recent news that the editor of both the Sunday Herald and The National, Richard Walker, is to resign as part of an effort by owners Newsquest to cut costs is a sobering one for anyone who takes seriously the future of Scottish democracy. Tributes to Walker poured in after the announcement, with figures including Pat Kane, who said he had shown “powerful blend of principle, and business acumen,” in first making the Sunday Herald the only mainstream commercial newspaper to support independence, and in the aftermath of the referendum launching The National, giving the ongoing Yes movement a national daily paper.

Both of these titles have been a huge success, with the Sunday Herald seeing a consistent bump in its sales as compared to 2013. Which is why the news that Walker is to leave is so disturbing—these are the newspapers that are meant to be Scotland’s commercial success stories. What hope then for other titles?

The media is in crisis, both globally and locally. Around the world we have seen the collapse of numbers working as professional journalists. Politics, business and all institutions of society are as a result at historically low levels of public oversight, enabling corruption and plutocracy to go unreported.

The roots of the worldwide crisis in journalism lie in two factors. Firstly, corporate greed. In common with industries across the economy, there has been a massive trend towards corporate mergers, consolidation and cost cutting in the news industry leading to far smaller staffs than a generation ago, leaving the remaining staff grossly overworked, important events going unreported, and the pressure is constantly on to provide sales friendly, cheaply produced soft news.

Secondly, providing society with the news it requires for democratic self-government is simply no longer a profitable investment for capitalism. This is the reason that the internet has damaged traditional media organisations—not because there is so much free content online, but because the internet makes traditional advertising obsolete.

Facebook and Google are just two of the thousands of commercial entities examining your every move online, have built some of the world’s most successful corporations by marketing personal data in such a way that advertisers can precision target their demographics in their homes at will.

In the past, it made sense for large companies to subsidise journalists jobs, and a thriving multifaceted media environment, because this brought in the audiences they desired to see their ads.

Now this is no longer necessary—they know exactly who their customers are, and what they might buy, usually better than they know themselves. As a result advertising revenue are collapsing across the industry, and papers have been left desperate scrabbling for new business models.

The vision represented by citizen journalism and alternative media is compelling, and has much to offer in the way of solutions. However, across this sector there remains an irreducible problem of resources.

Crowdfunding and relying on philanthropy will never provide the number of paid journalists with the long term stability to investigate the news that were considered essential for democracy 20 years ago.

If we must accept as a brute economic fact that the internet has removed subscription or advertising as realistic revenue streams for the majority of organisations, then what are journalists to be left to other than charity crumbs?

Society needs a multiplicity of independent media outlets that are not dominated by commercial interests or the mouthpiece of their wealthy owners. This is a basic democratic need—people cannot rule themselves without the information required to do so, and for this we need professional journalists to assist us in finding what we need to know.

The case of WikiLeaks is instructive here—after they posted thousands of leaked US embassy cables, it took Guardian journalists to go through the publicly available data and highlight salient and interesting information before they made their impact on the world.

This kind of media is something that the private sector has now been failing to provide to society for decades. Given the factors mentioned above, it could be considered a classic example of market failure.

If a democratic media is valued by society, then it must be recognised as public good which requires public funding to sustain.

Dean Baker and Robert McChesney have developed a specific proposal for how this could be implemented in the US, which is nonetheless well worth considering as part of the debate in Scotland.

In summary, it would involve a voucher being given back to all American citizens, that would allow them to donate $200 of their taxes to non-commercial media outlets of their choice. This would allow the proposal to circumvent obvious complaints of state control from opponents of public funding.

Proposed new media organisations seeking access to this funding would have to certify themselves as non-commercial and accept no advertising. All material they produced in turn would be public domain and available to all online.

The result would be an intensely competitive media environment, but without the corporate dictation of coverage that comes with a commercial system. A way to create a true democratic meritocracy, and an expansion of who can make themselves heard.

Here in Scotland, the undemocratic, biased nature of much of the commercial media compounds global trends, and even the public service broadcaster the BBC shamed itself with its referendum coverage.

While the flowering of Scottish alternative media, such Bella Caledonia, Common Space and The Ferret, shows a path to a more diverse and interesting media, we need many more such outlets.

That is why it is timely to begin researching and adapting the idea of a citizen’s news voucher to be implemented in Scotland. A nation democratically reborn can point the way to a post-capitalist, public solution to the crisis of democratic journalism.

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