In last weeks post “Do You Consider Yourself Informed”, I diagnose some of the major problems in our current media landscape. This is part two where I discuss solutions to those problems.
Any meaningful plan to rebuild trust in journalism has to start with two things. If I had to distill all the complex problems down to two main priorities, they would be funding and accountability. While the financial incentives in newsrooms have always been misguided, the expansion to digital media has exposed and accelerated that problem. Today, news companies have never had more information on their readers, and that data is constantly being refined and weaponized to prey on our emotional engagement for profit. In 2020, presenting unbiased fact and informing us of the relevant information of the day is woefully unprofitable, so how do we change that?
How can we make it so that well-researched and objective presentation of fact is economically viable in an age of character limits, short YouTube clips, and viral Facebook interactions?
Any answer to that question starts with the money. The way that news organizations are owned, funded, and deemed successful, has to change. There is this perception (or resignation) that advertising revenue and rich philanthropists are the only ways to reliably fund news, but some organizations are proving that wrong. Organizations such as the American Journalism Project. The American Journalism Project is fighting the rapid death of local news by investing in Civic News Organizations or CNO‘s. CNO’s are made up of members of a local community, with a mission to “serve the critical information needs of the community”. That may sound great, but it also sounds similar to a regular local news outfit, and those failed. The American Journalism Project knows that CNO’s need to be different. They obviously need to make enough revenue to thrive, but it is essential that financial success does not come at the expense of their main mission. The mission is paramount.
The real question then is… how do you prioritize profitability in news without sacrificing quality and transparency?
The Cooperative Model
Luckily there are a few options here, each with its own set of challenges. The cooperative funding model or Co-op has made a resurgence in many local communities. Most of you have probably heard of a local grocery Co-op. Co-ops are member-owned and its members vote on the affairs of the company. Cooperative funding models are varied but mainly focus on a basic set of principles.
- Voluntary and open membership
- Democratic member control
- Economic participation by members
- Autonomy and independence
- Education, training, and information
- Cooperation among cooperatives
- Concern for community
Principles that happen to make for a very effective news organization. These co-ops also happen to be much more resilient than many other enterprises, and in some cases by a very wide margin. According to a 2007 study, in their first year only 10% of co-ops failed, as opposed to 60-80% of traditional businesses. Additionally, after 5 years, 90% of co-ops were still in operation, compared to only 3-5% of traditional businesses in the same time frame. That amazing resiliency is due, in large part, to the high amount of community involvement needed to even start a co-op in the first place. That fact presents its largest challenge. Starting it may be difficult, but once it is launched successfully, it has formidable staying power that other enterprises do not. Cooperatives can also serve as broader community hubs, providing classes and miscellaneous resources that are important to their members. This is where a CNO could come into play. An impartial civic news organization focusing on local affairs could easily be a part of those offerings. You just need enough member demand to justify it.
Another possible solution is public media acquisitions of existing news organizations. In recent years public media companies, such as NPR and PBS, have acquired smaller local news outfits. For the CNO’s this has some key benefits. It offers democratic funding, an established business model, and stable resources. However, while this is exciting in certain places, a larger scale may reduce meaningful coverage in rural areas. In addition, it is only a practical solution where there are organizations available to acquire.
The third option would be more direct government funding. Local news is undoubtedly a public good and should be classified as such. Many other countries financially support their media far more than the United States, which is confounding. After all, a functional democracy is completely reliant on an informed electorate. While government funding can be extremely helpful, this method has its issues as well. The concept of “government funded news” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence or seem as trustworthy as it should. Additionally, the problem with government funding being a top income stream is that it is not as stable as one would hope. Over the years, Congress has continuously threatened funding for even the small amount allocated to public broadcasting. With politics being so partisan, funding would be threatened with every major and mid-term election.
So which one should we focus on? Honestly, all of these funding methods should be on the table nationwide, and should be used in areas that make the most sense. To be successful, a news organization cannot rely on any single revenue stream. For news to be effective it needs to reflect the community it covers and unique communities present unique challenges. Funding options in these situations should be considered on a case by case basis. One thing is for certain, the current funding methods cannot continue. The consolidated media giants and ultra rich donors create glaring conflicts of interest. The pay per click model continues to push overly emotional headlines and vapid content. With that said, its still here because it works. Unfortunately, the best and most reliable revenue stream is still advertising and while it definitely needs dramatic change, it will undoubtedly play a big part in the solution.
Advertising revenue can work effectively only when the proper means for accountability are present. There needs to be a method for readers to reward beneficial articles and penalize sensationalist misrepresentations. That accountability currently does not exist. By the time you realize that an article is useless, you have already clicked and therefore already contributed. Accountability is key.
Clicks and advertising have contributed to the toxic state of media we see today, but why does it have to be so toxic? What if we could stop manipulating people based on their data and stop manufacturing erroneous headlines to con people into reading? What would be the metrics and measurements that would incentivize quality journalism as opposed to empty junk?
A Simple Change
These were the questions that Tony Haile (CEO of Scroll) asked himself while working at his previous job. He was the CEO of a company that provided data and analytics to global publishers. His answer to those questions became his current venture, “Scroll”. Scroll is an app that makes the media publication sites you visit run twice as fast, limits the amount of data collected by 80%, and most importantly, pays those publications based on engagement as opposed to clicks. That sounds amazing, but how do they do it?
In our conversation, Tony Haile told me that relying on any algorithmic or combination score is less transparent, and therefore less trustworthy. We can see these issues playing out in real time at the Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube offices, where there are daily grievances about free speech and faulty algorithms. So he said that it was imperative they find a single core metric to measure. They landed on “total engaged time”, which is a measure of how long you are actively reading an article. While he admits this metric is not perfect, it is the best available for measuring the quality of an article. Measuring engagement rewards publishers for what happens after the click, which is a MAJOR distinction.
This small change can fix issues like clickbait headlines, as well as overly long stories about a simple subject. Readers are more likely to just leave when they realize the article is not beneficial. Measuring total engaged time also has the benefit of serving a wide variety of media diets. If you are someone who religious read every article from CNBC, or some one who take their time once a week with the New Yorker, the time is measured all the same.
The business is simple. The funding mechanism is a subscription model. You pay Scroll’s monthly subscription fee and most of that fee is paid out to the publishers you read. They already are partnered with many prominent media publishers and those partnerships are expected to grow because Scrolls’ model pays them at least 40% more than traditional advertising models. Its a win-win for the publications. Regardless, I am just excited to see someone innovating in this space. These are big problems and I’m glad some companies are actively working to address them. Using Scroll sends a message to publishers that you demand informative and meaningful content. It gives you the power to choose where your money goes based on what you find important.
What else can we do?
So aside from signing up for Scroll, or starting a local co-op news organization, what else can you do? Well if you are interested in starting your own CNO, you can apply to the News Revenue Hub. The News Revenue Hub provides resources and advice to help local news organizations become financially stable. You can also apply for grants at The Lenfest Institute, which is focused on providing capital to innovative news startups. Another, less immediate, way to help is to support politicians that promise to protect existing public news funding. They should also strive to increase that funding to combat this information crisis we find ourselves in.
At the very least, we must be more aware of our media diets in general. That includes a study of what we are contributing to, and how we are contributing to it. We must judge an article based on the extent of research done. We must judge a publication on if and how it presents opposing viewpoints. News people should not be praised for constantly confirming readers beliefs, but in the bravery to challenge them in service of the truth. We have to understand that most news stories are not adequately represented in 180 characters or as a meme. We must be better. Improving supply starts with demand and we need to start demanding the right things from the things we read and watch.
Once we can clearly see the media landscape for what it is, we can start to envision what it should be.