Editors sound warning over future of the press

The downward trend for print newspaper circulation may not come as a surprise to many, but the problems of the fourth estate have been placed in a sharp light by the Cairncross Review, a report that sets out ways of sustaining the future of journalism as the Internet carves away at its dominance.

Institutions, people and communities have all experienced the wave of change brought by the internet, but few are yet to experience the repercussions felt by the journalism industry.

“The ways in which news is provided and the ways people find and read it are changing more rapidly and radically than ever before,” the report, commissioned by the British government, said.

Casting its eye over the state of the news media market, the review mapped out the financial sustainability of publishers, the impact of search engines and social media platforms on journalism, and the role of digital advertising. Some key findings from the study shows that what is most at stake in journalism is investigative and democracy-reporting journalism.

“To be truly effective, investigative journalism needs wide dissemination. The online world provides that in spades, and in time will do so even better. However, investigative journalism needs something else that, for the moment, even the best specialist investigative bodies cannot match: scale and resource.”

The report also said that despite multiple mediums for news in radio and television, written journalism in print and online still supplies most of original journalism, and yet is mostly at risk. “People may search directly for news online, but increasingly news appears in social feeds and search results alongside – and effectively in direct competition for attention with – other online content, including gossip, gaming and family news.”

Additionally, the onslaught of Google and Facebook has turned them into the main channels of accessing news – 53% of UK adults now say they are worried about being exposed to fake news on social media and 24% of the UK population don’t know how to verify sources of information found online.

Such findings reflect a recent Eurobarometer survey conducted in Malta, where results showed that more than half of Maltese people trusted the government, with only one fourth of the population trusting the press.

The Cairncross review proposed new codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms, with the former becoming more and more dependent on the latter for referral traffic. “Online advertising revenue has not grown nearly as fast as publishers had hoped, nor come close to compensating them for the decline in print revenue.”

It also proposed new form of tax reliefs by encouraging payments for online news content, and the facilitation of local and investigative journalism. “The present arrangement actively discourages publishers from developing online payment mechanisms.”

Even the owners and editors of Malta’s most influential English-language newspapers agree that the state of Maltese journalism depends on some form of intervention that keeps democracy-journalism alive.

MaltaToday managing editor and owner Saviour Balzan recently weighed in on the deleterious impact of Facebook has had on Maltese newspapers, and said the country’s leaders had to support intervention instead of just paying lip service to the freedom of the press. “It can only be guaranteed by direct government intervention through financial and legal reforms that can aid the newspaper industry,” Balzan wrote in his Sunday column.

Even the Times of Malta online editor, Herman Grech, wrote on the Cairncross Review.  “One or more of your favourite Maltese media houses/newspapers/websites will cease to exist in the next five years,” Grech starkly warned. “Journalists are a dying breed.”

Grech said action had to be taken to make media houses more economically sustainable. “Almost all media organisations need to take a good look at themselves and see how they can remain relevant and financially viable,” he said, warning of the danger of having a country without a free press. “The day news outlets cannot afford to employ investigative journalists will be the day corrupt and inept public officials sleep a good deal sounder at night.”

The Malta Independent’s Editor-in-Chief Rachel Attard, said the Cairncross findings were easily applicable to the Maltese situation. “I believe that the problem can be largely attributed to the fact that young people are not attracted to the journalism profession… salaries in the industry are not high, and so young people are opting to find careers with higher-paying salaries.”

But Attard mentioned the public’s attitude towards journalists. “The mentality of not paying for online content has to stop. Behind that article, there are hours of research, hard work and man power, and so the mentality of getting everything for free has to stop,” Attard said, who agrees with government intervention.

“If the government wants to protect the fourth pillar of democracy, it must help newsrooms. If we attack the media, we are attacking our own freedom,” she said.

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