Opinion

Here's an Idea to Make the News Media Better

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

No news media organization is entitled to funding. We should all have to earn it by giving our readers or viewers or listeners something they think is worth paying for.

We should not create a new system to take money from successful internet giants like Facebook and Google, and give it to poor old newspapers, as some have proposed (more on that later).

That would just make the newspapers more out of touch with their readers, and cosier with the government apparatchiks who would be divvying up that fund.

We should be going the other direction, by abolishing the legal requirement that the 99 percent fund the fat pay packages of RTE’s top 1 percent.

Here’s an idea: we should eliminate the TV licence system as we know it, and replace it with a news media voucher system. I imagine it could work something like this.

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You’d still have to pay your €160 a year (sorry). But you won’t mind as much — because you’d get it right back in full as a €160 news media voucher.

Then you could spend it on any eligible news media outlet in Ireland. Eligibility would be decided by an independent panel with a remit to get as many outlets on the list as possible.

You could give your €160 to RTE so they could spend it on outrageous pay packages for presenters, while continuing perhaps to complain that they’re broke and asking the government to force us to give them more money.

Or you could give it to any number of other news organizations, from the Examiner to the Sunday Business Post, the Journal to UTV, Dublin City FM to Rabble. Or, ahem, even Dublin Inquirer.

TV licence fees brought in €214 million in 2014, according to the Irish Times, and 84 percent of that went directly to RTE. They then paid Ryan Tubridy €495,000, Joe Duffy €416,893 and Marian Finucane €295,000, according to RTE.

(I’m not saying that RTE don’t do great journalism too, of course – just that no one needs that much money to do it.)

To put this in perspective, Dublin Inquirer has estimated that its annual budget to cover three paid full-time staff, a circle of paid freelancers, an office, a website and a print edition, is about €70,000. That’s still a giant pile of money, but it’s only 14 percent of Ryan Tubridy’s salary.

That is to say, the fund available through the news media voucher system would be real money. The prospect of getting a piece of these riches — to add to their other, existing revenue streams — would focus most media executives’ minds a bit more on readers.

And that’s what we need these days, if we want better journalism. Which we should.

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Some argue that the news media is being strangled by Facebook and Google.

These internet companies are too big, and have been too successful in positioning themselves as intermediaries between readers and publishers of journalism. They are sopping up all the advertising revenue that news organizations need to survive, the argument goes.

These internet companies and their kin, “will have to be subject to some sort of regulation, their advertising yield will have to be made subject to specific taxation to cross-subsidise other media, or they will have to be broken up under anti-trust legislation,” John Horgan argued in the Irish Times recently.

For support, Horgan referenced a recent essay by University of London media lecturer Justin Schlosberg. That essay included a prescription for distributing this money levied from the internet companies: set up an independent government board, or maybe just route the money through the arts councils.

This is not the answer, any more than the TV licence is. The successes of Google and Facebook are not causing the ills of the news media. We have been causing them ourselves with our business models, and we need to change our ways.

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Let’s start from the premise that high-quality news journalism is a good thing, which helps our society and our government work better.

The content of our newspapers, websites and broadcasts is profoundly shaped by the business models of their owners, and only gently polished by ethics and journalistic ideals.

A website that depends primarily on advertisers for revenue will seek to maximize clicks. So then there’s an incentive to get readers to click, but less of an incentive to ensure that they find value in the article they get as a result.

A newspaper that depends primarily on advertisers for revenue will seek to make its content more advertiser-friendly. So there’s an incentive to produce content that companies would want to see their ads next to: we’ve been told by companies that they don’t want to advertise with us because our articles are too gloomy – can’t we be more like Lovin Dublin, they ask?

A broadcaster that depends primarily on the government to deliver funding (from us) will seek to make its content more government-friendly.

Notice that what readers and viewers want doesn’t really figure in here. And it is the readers and viewers who are the ones who have an interest in the production of high-quality news journalism, the kind that benefits to society.

Sure, readers don’t always want to read serious articles about corruption in governments and charities, or reports from war zones or analyses of housing regulations. They want articles that will entertain them too. But advertisers almost never want the serious and gloomy stuff, and it’s hard to believe that the government wants properly critical coverage of itself.

So if we in the news media want to improve ourselves, improve the journalism we are producing, we need to give ourselves the right incentives, instead of giving ourselves the wrong ones and then trying to fight back against them with our good intentions.

Most of us are well-intentioned but weak-willed. We need help if we are going to stay focused on our best instincts. An expensive gym membership might guilt us into exercising; an Internet blocker might help us keep our vow not to be distracted from our work.

If news organizations want to do good journalism, the kind readers and viewers and listeners want more than advertisers and the government, then they should force themselves to rely on readers and viewers and listeners for most of their revenue.

And, I believe, if we focus on what they want, then they will read and watch and listen to us more – and they will be willing to pay for what we’re producing.

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For too long, news organizations have been giving away their journalism for free, and sucking up to advertisers and the government.

For news organizations with an online presence, Google and Facebook and Twitter have become popular intermediaries between us and our readers, so these internet giants are peeling away some of the clicks and some of the advertising revenue we wish we could depend on. And this is just one of the many challenges news organizations are facing.

Still, many news organizations are making money. It’s just not as much as they’d like. I once worked in a newsroom that announced staff cuts because its profit that year was “only” 15 percent.

The parent company of the Irish Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday recently reported a €1.98 million profit for 2015, according to the Irish Times. Independent News Media had profits of €37.4 million, according to the Sunday Business Post.

RTE recently announced a deficit of €2.8 million last year, but come on, they paid their top ten earners €2.6 million in 2014. They could probably turn a profit by cutting back 20 or 30 salaries to terrestrial levels. So a few stars leave — that’s fine, give some new talent a chance.

The problem is that some of the people who are running media organizations are not doing it because they believe journalism is a public good, an important contributor to a healthy society. They are doing it to make as much money as possible — and hundreds of thousands a year in pay, or millions in profits, is never enough.

When news organizations are so focused on pleasing advertisers and the government, and on lining their pockets, no wonder readers and viewers and listeners aren’t particularly fond of them.

But we can change that, by refocusing.

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The best way to maintain a real connection with readers and viewers and listeners is to depend upon them financially. Then you have to care about them — or they’ll leave and you’ll be broke.

Many news organizations are headed that way, thankfully. They’re beginning to punch holes in the dogma that people aren’t willing to pay for decent journalism.

People will pay for what they value, articles or programmes that they want to see or hear, and also articles or programmes that they think they should see or hear – or want others to see or hear. (These are categories that do not always overlap.)

After decades of free news, media organizations are retraining us. Months of annoying pop-ups finally convinced me this week to take out an online subscription to the New York Times. Sky’s success shows that a subscription model works for TV. And there are subscription radio stations out there too.

There’s no reason to stop working with advertisers entirely. Some ads really are informative and useful to readers, and some advertisers are great, ethical people. But they should not be our primary focus, because they are only a small part of our audience.

So if readers and viewers and listeners will pay if we give them what they want, then why do we need the news media voucher system for? Because the transition from free news to paid news is likely to be relatively long, and if we believe in journalism should be a paid profession, then there are bills to pay today.


These are issues we’ve been thinking about a lot here at Dublin Inquirer. If you’re interested in them, our managing editor, Lois Kapila, will be discussing the question of whether Irish publications are ignoring their readers, with Jim Carroll of the Irish Times, award-winning freelance journalist Gemma O’Doherty and Niamh Kirk of DCU at the Beatyard festival in Dun Laoghaire on Sunday 31 July at 2.30 pm. We’d love it if you’d drop by and join the conversation.

[Update: Here’s a podcast of that discussion.]

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

  2. Dave Fadden
    27 July at 11:58

    “To put this in perspective, Dublin Inquirer has estimated that its annual budget to cover three paid full-time staff, a circle of paid freelancers, an office, a website and a print edition, is about €70,000.” Is the figure of €70k correct?

  3. Lois Kapila
    27 July at 12:09

    @Dave Fadden: Hey Dave, yep that’s about what we think it is. We have two full-time reporters and one business side person, each paid €1,550 a month — which adds up to about €55,800 a year. Plus, we pay about €500 a month in payroll taxes, our rent for the office is a bit over €300 a month, and then we have a freelance fund for columnists and other freelancers, accountants’ fees and bits and bobs. I’m planning on posting up our accounts at some point, so people can see where the money goes. Obviously, we’d like to be paying people more but it adds up as it is and we’re very much month to month at the moment.

  4. steve white
    27 July at 12:11

    whats the pay packages for other TV/Radio stations

  5. Fi
    27 July at 12:47

    Paying journalists/editors minimum wage or slightly above it (€1,550 per month for full-time work) is not the answer either! That seems unsustainable in the longer-term, and too dependent on passion / independent means. It might be more helpful to include reasonable salary estimates into your pitch? (I’m not a journalist myself but believe good journalism should be both valued and paid for.)

  6. Lois Kapila
    27 July at 13:28

    @Fi: Hi Fi, of course we’d love to pay ourselves more. 🙂 If you have ideas for how to make that possible, we’d love to hear them! At the moment, we’re doing absolutely everything we can think of that doesn’t compromise our independence. It also takes time for a start-up to grow and develop revenue streams, and we haven’t been around that long.

  7. Darragh
    27 July at 22:33

    I think that Tubridy and Co.’s pay scale is considerable. However, I do think that it can be justified as they are public/household figures, at the forefront and in the limelight of irish media on a daily basis as opposed to the generally unknown freelance journalist, working at their kitchen table in a studio apartment . They also bring with them a mass of returning audiences which in turn boosts revenue from advertisements considerably I’d imagine. This is where I see a major issue with RTE and the TV licence – they are already receiving massive revenue from advertising and shouldn’t receive as high a percentage.

    Overall I think the quality of homegrown content is very poor and should be much better considering the amount of funding behind it.

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