BRUSSELS - The question of stimulating quality journalism is almost automatically a question of funding quality journalism, too. With that in mind, Journalismfund.eu will run a number of articles, comments and thoughts on alternative funding for quality journalism in the next few months. First up: a summary of the research article The Third Way – Why We Need Foundation-Financed Media, by Stephan Weichert.
“There is one thing that an orientation of journalism toward the purely commercial cravings and preferences of media consumers seldom has as a result: journalism.” German journalism professor and media researcher Stephan Weichert has strong views on the workings of the media in today’s market-dominated media landscape in Germany, a landscape the country has in common with many other European countries. Weichert says we should move to a more foundation-based media system.
Weichert wrote The Third Way – Why We Need Foundation-Financed Media as a contribution to media and communication scholar Leif Kramp’s book Journalism in the Digital Modern Age (Springer VS, 2013). The article looks at journalism and news outlets in Germany, whose innovation standards, according to Weichert, are “lagging behind that of the international media landscape”.
In fact, he argues, the publishing and broadcasting companies in Germany acknowledge the existential economical, structural and technical challenges that journalism is facing in the digital age. However, they do not seem to see it as a ‘digital imperative’, a concrete media policy tool, but rather, as Weichert describes it, as a “fairy tale creature of the digital mythology”. The low willingness to innovate that characterises the media sector makes for an immobility that could eventually result in a system-wide unsustainability in the future.
While the market-driven media system has worked well for years, the need for alternative revenue models is growing in order to cope with the challenges ahead.
Supporters of the ‘third way’ believe that journalism is a democratically relevant institution, a public, collective good to be used by democratic societies. In their view, the alternative revenue models the media sector needs should consist of rather diverse forms of public and / or civil society money. For that to be possible, changes must be made within journalism, but those can only be made if the government sets out the right conditions.
Thus, this means that journalism is not seen as a commodity that has to be sold on the market, nor as a merit good that needs to be subsidised by the state. The third way strives for a journalism culture carried by civil society.
The autonomous formation of such a journalism culture, however, raises the question in how far our democracy is willing to trade in a form of journalism dependent on market and commerce for one that depends more on public institutions, the academic world, philanthropists or foundations. And even if that turns out not to pose any problems, it calls for a specific framework established and moderated by government and legislators.
But all things considered, says Weichert, the main question is “not about the future of publishers’ sales processes or mercantile sensitivities”, but about how the fundamental principles of a responsible, challenging profession can be maintained and its financial resources safeguarded in the digital age. Weichert and Kramp therefore propose five resolutions towards third-way, sustainable financing for the media landscape.
1) The civil society solution: crowdfunding
This is the solution that is least recognisable as ‘third way’, because small payments from the consumer in the end only help compensate the sale of journalism products on the market. At the same time, it is probably the innermost honest form of civil society support for journalistic content.
2) The foundation policy solution: patronage
What almost automatically comes to mind when considering this form of solution is the practice of media companies financed through patronage working as nonprofits through a spin-off foundation.
3) The media policy solution: public finances
Another solution lies in the launch of a ‘foundation for quality journalism’, supported by tax money. Interested individuals or organisations such as journalists, newsrooms, bloggers or online platforms would be able to turn to such a foundation for funding for time-consuming research projects, grants or stays abroad in the field of quality journalism.
4) The economic policy solution: cultural flat rate
A fourth solution is a regulated access fee paid by Internet service providers and cable operators that would ideally be distributed by a central cross-industry authority representing both sectors.
5) The educational policy solution: public institutions
Finally, there is the solution of linking existing public educational institutions, public institutes, independent initiatives and organisations together to guarantee journalistic plurality. That would lead to mutual and cross-generational learning effects between e.g. newsrooms and colleges.
Additionally, Weichert points out that media journalism, as watchdog of its own branch, will gain in importance. In the past, it has not always been able to do its job properly. He suggests some developments in media journalism or media criticism that are worth working toward: net-based portals interconnecting civil and media-related topics, moderated complaint and ombudsman platforms, high-value stipends and fellowships for young media innovators and journalism labs developing R&D-based ideas or proposals.
Weichert concludes his article with a call to action, because, as he puts it, “a possible phase of ‘creative destruction’ that could have been used as an experimental vacuum, fizzled out during the crisis. So now is probably the right time to act.”
By Rafael Njotea