Publishers and media organisations need to innovate faster to fight off competition and survive in a digital age, Dame Frances Cairncross warned at the PPA Festival (9 May 2019).
The author of the independent Cairncross Review into a sustainable future for journalism added that the industry has been slow to work out how best to survive in the digital world, partly because there are no easy answers.
Her report concluded that publishers need to find new ways to monetise content in a digital marketplace.
"There’s only one publication that’s clearly making money and doing so without taking advertising and entirely by subscription, and that was The Athletic, which was set up by a venture capitalist with no journalistic experience."
Katie Vanneck-Smith, co-founder and publisher of slow journalism start-up Tortoise, agreed with Cairncross’s thoughts, adding that Tortoise’s different approach could provide a solution for other publications, in particular, local newspapers.
"Our model is very different, but I think the fundamental point of Tortoise that’s different in the future of journalism is that we haven’t just got to innovate the business model, we’ve got to innovate our processes."
Tortoise reaches out by going on the road and hosting 'think-ins', an open news conference, to make people feel more involved in the content the team produce.
"We open up our journalism. We invite people into our room every day to be part of the conversation so that before we publish our journalism, we’ve heard from other people," she said.
Mike Soutar, CEO of ShortList Media and board member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), said that the amount of data held by platforms, such as Google, means that publishers hold little of the negotiating power.
"Without some changes within that relationship, it’s very difficult for content makers to credibly threaten to withdraw their content," he said.
Welcome intervention, he suggested, could happen by having the Competition and Markets Authority, a UK governmental body, look at how the digital marketplace has been "distorted".
Taken together with the copyright reform recently enacted in the European Union, he said it will initiate a discussion with platforms about how licensed content might be distributed.
"It will give much greater bargaining strength to content makers," Soutar said.
However, the government is not the answer to every online problem, he added, including the ever-present concern of fake news spreading online. He expressed concern that the UK Government's Online Harms White Paper could amount to regulation of the press by the backdoor.
"It invites a government-sponsored regulator to start to make decisions on what is right and accurate and what is not."
Instead, industry regulation provides a better remedy, demonstrated by the 'kitemarks' introduced by IPSO in 2017 to pinpoint reputable news sources.
"Because IPSO is independent, and because it is not funded by the government, there’s no ambiguity about what its mission is or whether there’s any political motivation behind it," he said.
"The kitemark is a really strong indicator that this is a publication which follows rules and believes in free speech but also accuracy and protecting privacy."
Ultimately, action to ensure the sustainable future of journalism needs to be taken now, said Cairncross. Despite her report being well-received, she said the findings have been put on the back burner amidst the relentless media attention given to Brexit.
"What is happening, particularly to local papers, is happening at a pretty fast clip. This isn’t something that can wait on the shelf for five years," she said.