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How will we pay for news we can trust? I hope to find out

The British government has ordered a review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism. Its chair explains the challenges she faces.

Pediment of neoclassical building with 'Journalism' carved into it. Needs maintaining. Image: Richard B. Levine/SIPA USA/PA Images.

Newspapers are in a bad way, and it is not easy to see how to rescue them. But finding a way to ensure a continuing supply of high-quality journalism is clearly essential to the health of democracy: it has been the press, through the past two centuries, which has provided the main challenge to behaviour that threatens the public interest, good government and robust public institutions.

The challenges to newspapers have increased over the past two decades, and the papers have not always responded wisely. Most took the decision early to make most of their content available free online, without any clear idea of the business model that would allow them to benefit. But the gigantic wave of technological change has swamped them. Specialised classified advertising web sites have siphoned off the staple income source of local papers (and part of their reader content too); the replacement of the iPad with the mobile phone greatly increased the alternative ways for readers to use their time; and most damaging of all, the relationship between reader, advertiser and publisher has been disrupted by the rise of Google, Facebook and other digital giants.

The press review that I am undertaking for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with the support of an expert panel, has found plenty of evidence of the accelerating threats to the traditional press. We recently conducted a survey which found that more people are now regularly accessing national newspaper content online via apps and websites (28%) than in print (22%).

We have also come across a number of online start-ups, often supported by a mixture of donations and subscriptions, providing local and national news in niche markets. Newspapers have been developing new approaches, such as the Ozone project to provide a single marketplace for online advertisers created by The Guardian, News UK and The Daily Telegraph. And we have talked to entrepreneurs with ingenious schemes to help newspapers improve online revenues, such as Agate, a start-up which is developing an online ’wallet‘ to allow readers to make micro-payments across a number of newspapers, and Rezonence, which aims to provide proof that readers have paid attention to an advertisement, in exchange for offering them free content.

From this wealth of experiments (and many more in the US, which I visit at the end of this month), new ways will undoubtedly emerge to allow newspapers to make more money from readers and advertisers. They will almost certainly require newspapers to collaborate to an unprecedented extent. But the pace of change is now so fast that government may need to step in. There is an obvious difficulty here: if high-quality news is a public good, there is a good case for public support – but the very nature of newsgathering makes it dangerous for government to become its paymaster.

So, with the help of the panel, I am reviewing a wide range of possible interventions. None is likely to reverse a trend which is much more pronounced among younger readers. The newsgathering industry will look very different in a decade, whatever the review recommends. But without plural trustworthy sources of high-quality news, both local and national democracy will be weakened.

About the author

Frances Cairncross is a former economics journalist, author and academic administrator. She is currently chair of the Court of Heriot-Watt University and a trustee at the Natural History Museum. She was Rector of Exeter College, Oxford University; a senior editor on The Economist; and principal economics columnist for The Guardian. In 2014 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for services to education. She is the author of a number of books, including The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution is Changing our Lives and Costing the Earth: The Challenge for Governments, the Opportunities for Business.


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