Dr. Courtney C. Radsch is a journalist, author and advocate working at the nexus of technology, media and policy, and is a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy and the Center for Media Data and Society (CEU). Michael Karanicolas is the Executive Director of the UCLA Institute for Technology Law & Policy, and an affiliated fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.
After decades of shrinking revenues, and an increasing expectation among consumers that the news should be free, the global news media industry has reached a crisis point. The importance of the press to maintaining democracy means that, as the financial models which underlie the news media industry have come under increasing pressure, both emerging and established democracies have seen a steady erosion of trust in institutions of knowledge and governance.
Evidence of the problem can be seen in the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which blur the line between fantasy and reality, from politics to public health. As the electorate loses faith in our political and governance structures, extremism and political violence become normalized. Even worse, as structures of public accountability degrade, autocrats and would-be autocrats have grown skilled at manipulating the online discourse to suit their pursuit of power.
While there is no single cause underlying journalism’s long-term decline, much of the blame points to shifting markets for information, and the increasing reliance of news outlets on online platforms to disseminate their product and to generate revenue. As the major platforms have grown to dominate our political and information ecosystem, the already tenuous funding models underlying news media have been stretched to a breaking point. The leading platforms not only claim a sizable share of both the publishing and advertising infrastructure, but also possess a formidable grip on audience access, content moderation, and data, allowing them to set the terms of their engagement with the news media industry, and to claim the lion’s share of revenue generated by their content.
The demands of following a platform-specific logic for how news is generated and distributed has added technical complexity and instability to their operations. News is constrained by the policies, conventions and fluctuating algorithms that determine visibility and viability. Content moderation systems are opaque in their rule-making and enforcement, and this in turn governs visibility, monetization, and outreach of the content published by journalistic organizations. In this environment, journalists must remain vigilant not only of the legal and ethical standards underlying their work, but also the community standards and engagement metrics that determine their audience and viability. When virality governs the news industry, the public interest suffers.
In less developed countries, or those with poor press freedom records, the situation is often even more dire. Although platforms can be a lifeline for media outlets in places where the airwaves are restricted, government intervention is prevalent, and journalistic independence is limited, news outlets have an even more difficult path pursuing sustainability and predictability in their engagement with platforms. This is due to the latter’s overwhelming focus on their English-language, and specifically U.S., operations. The experience of Ukraine’s largest independent media outlet, Ukrainska Pravda (UP), illustrates this challenge perfectly. Amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a global news event, the outlet’s 100 million monthly page views soared 900% in the first month of the invasion. However, erroneous content moderation decisions by the platforms meant that native ads on its website dropped to nearly zero over the same time period, while programmatic revenue dropped 90%.
As democracies around the world have watched this problem unfold, and experienced the ancillary impacts of journalism’s decline, they have begun to implement a range of solutions aimed at supporting long term sustainability for news media. Among the most high profile interventions have been the European Union’s Digital Copyright Directive and Australia’s 2021 News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, but similar initiatives have been pursued in many other countries, from Indonesia to India to Canada. In the United States, there have been a number of legislative proposals aimed at tackling the problem, most notably the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.
These initiatives have faced a range of challenges and criticisms. In Australia, Facebook infamously shut down news in the country for four days in response to the new Code, though they reversed course on this after public outcry and early results from that country appear promising. Subsidy or tax credit schemes create challenges related to determining who is or is not worthy of support, or the even more fraught question or who even qualifies as a “journalist”.
There are concerns that whoever controls these levers of funding, whether it is a government or a company, may abuse this power to punish disfavored perspectives or to silence critical reporting. But if the threshold for qualifying is too low, it could result in channeling resources to the worst purveyors of misinformation and hate, further degrading the political discourse. Some journalists have also raised concerns that these programs, even if administered fairly, could further erode public confidence in their reporting, by creating a perception that they are beholden to their government or Big Tech paymasters.
There is also a tension between calls to harness the resources of major platforms to support journalism and ongoing antitrust and competition inquiries that view the platforms’ market power as the heart of the problem. There are concerns that a licensing model that ties the future of journalism to the profitability of Big Tech will make it more difficult to break the companies up and further entrench the surveillance-heavy business model they are built around.
Every proposed solution involves trade-offs and challenges. However, given the foundational importance of the press to a functioning democracy, and the existential crisis facing newsrooms around the world, inaction is not an option.
Fact-based journalism is essential to populations in conflict and crisis, as well as to public health, development, and accountable governance. The increasing dominance of online platforms over the public sphere has led to an uneasy relationship between news organizations and large tech companies. While the latter have generated new opportunities to connect journalists with audiences, evade censorship, and engage in influential cross-border collaborations, they have also forced journalists to contend with shifting algorithmic priorities, warped incentive structures in the online economy, and an increasingly complex array of technology policies that shape the environment in which they work and the business models for sustainability. Perhaps most urgently, the platformization of journalism has contributed to a crisis in funding in which quality journalism, particularly local and investigative journalism, has struggled to figure out how to navigate sustainability in the information age.
Public interest news media are rarely viable economically, and it is no different in the platform economy. But platforms have undermined the entire market for fact-based, reliable information that is at the core of journalism as a public good that is fundamental to well-functioning democracies. Rebalancing market dynamics and seeking to address information asymmetries is critical to not only ensuring the future viability of the news media industry, but the future of democracy.
This article is an excerpt from a new research paper published by the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy on the trade offs and challenges of legislation which aims to support sustainable journalism by leveling the playing field between platforms and the press. You can read the full research paper here.