The Panama Papers: For people who love journalism, it’s a “good-news bad-news” story. It’s a good news story because this work demonstrates that despite declining newspaper revenues, shrinking television audiences, and a global, hyper-competitive business environment, excellent investigative journalism can still be done, and be done across borders of employment, medium, and nationality.
But the Panama Papers are also bad news because the rise of consortiums like the ICIJ (itself a project of the Center for Public Integrity), are the result of mainstream news outlets suffering under rapidly declining revenues and being unable to fund large-scale reporting ventures by themselves. The success of the Panama Papers represents the failure of a business model, and it’s the model that has paid for most of the serious journalism we in North America have relied upon for most of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Here in Canada when Postmedia slashed 90 jobs and merged competing newsrooms in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, the word everywhere was “business.” Implicitly or explicitly, we heard: It’s a business decision. Specifically, Postmedia must think of its bottom line. The situation in Canada’s broadcast world is similar. As viewership declines, television newsrooms are cutting staff. For reasons of economic efficiency, Global News now routinely partners with the Toronto Star for investigative pieces. So broadly speaking, the news business is in trouble.
But we need to stop having this discussion, as if the only thing at stake is company profits. Yes, journalism is a business. For most of our recent history, it has been a part of a capitalist enterprise. However, a true democracy needs tough, independent, outspoken media—regardless of platform—to hold publicly elected officials, and publicly funded institutions, to account. Journalism is more than big business; it’s a sacred trust.
To Subsidize or not to Subsidize
Many Nordic countries have subsidized newspapers for most of the 20th century because they recognize that papers play a unique political and social role that’s invaluable to their democracies. Instead of throwing up their hands and expecting the market to solve the printed press’ waning readership, countries like Sweden are actively searching for effective ways to maintain support of news media and the social benefits they provide.
Over the last year, the Swedish government held an inquiry into the conditions of its daily press, and introduced a new bill to its Riksdag. To be clear, it’s not that Sweden supports only its newspapers; public broadcasting had a monopoly until the early 1990s, but the current focus of inquiry is on newspapers. Riksdag’s website outlines how the bill contains proposals aimed at creating greater incentives for daily papers with operational subsidies to increase readership revenue, while promoting technological development and the innovative business models, so the functions vital to democracy are sustained over the long term.
The Way Forward
The kind of journalism that ICIJ is doing, through the Center for Public Integrity, is paid for by donations from foundations and individuals. The ICIJ does not accept money from governments. Generally, these journalists publish their work on ICIJ’s website, and distribute to NGOs and other interested outlets. Because of the size and impact of the data from the Panama Papers, the Center interested a consortium of newspapers and other media outlets, including the CBC, which were willing to commit staff and resources, and publish the results of the investigation.
While the Panama Paper collaboration offers one positive model, and a future for investigative journalism, it’s not without its drawbacks. Because of the project’s magnitude, Robert Picard of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford noted that many people and media organizations were interested in being involved, and in funding this particular work. “But for work that’s theirs and theirs alone,” he said, “they [ICIJ] need more funding. Until you have endowments in place, and they are earning their own income, you have to spend money on what your funders want you to spend it on.”
This might mean that stories that are equally important, but less popular, may not get covered. Again, the model is one that can be motivated entirely by profit and not by considerations of what is in the best interests of the public in a democracy.
Here at home, we need to stop blaming the Internet and harkening back to a golden age of consumer support for news that never was. Given media’s singularly indispensable role, we must acknowledge that other factors besides media demand can influence their profitability and stop pretending that they’re just another business. We need a policy whose purpose is not to shore up existing enterprises, but only the ones that ensure our democratic needs are met.
While newspapers are on the decline, journalism doesn’t have to be. This is an idea that those of us who teach journalism need to push because declining newspaper and legacy media opportunities have led to declining enrollments.
While none can predict the future, the Reuters Institute published a study in 2014, outlining the results of what a sample of news professionals from the U.S. and Europe imagine their profession will look like in years to come. Picard notes sadly, “There is a lot of fear.” The report itself suggests that as institutional employment diminishes, there is a rise of entrepreneurial journalism—where journalists establish small or medium-size enterprises that produce and distribute their own content through websites, or sell syndicated material to other outlets. Usually, these undertakings support one person, or a small co-operative of people, and are focused on local coverage or highly specific topics.
While this model is clearly having some success, as J-Source outlined recently in a piece titled, “journalism startups carve out niches for themselves,” there are concerns about the precarious nature of this labour. “Many people believe the future of journalism is one that will be practiced part-time, or by people who have a partner or a spouse with benefits,” said Picard, about the musings of those in the Reutersstudy.
(This posting is an excerpt from an artcile published in the Spring 2016 issue of Media Magazine published by the Canadian Association of Journalists. You can read read the whole artcile at this link)
Romayne Smith Fullerton is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and the current ethics editor for J-Source. Along with Chris Richardson, she is the editor of Covering Canadian Crime: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Question (University of Toronto Press, 2016). At present, she is working on a book that compares crime coverage practices in North America with those of select Western European countries.