Sometimes professional communicators are the worst communicators. The British news industry, for instance, has a terrible communications problem, which it ignores at its peril.

There are many fascinating details in the pages of the 2018 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. None are more important than these:

  • 18% of Britons would consider donating to a favoured news organisation that was “unable to cover their costs in other ways”. Currently, only 1% of Britons do donate to any news organisation
  • The number of people who would make a donation of this kind doubles to 36% among people who are very highly “news literate” (i.e. they understand a lot about the value of news, who makes it, how they choose news topics and how the process is financed)
  • News literacy among Britons is low: only 68% said they did not know the news industry was having financial problems with their websites or believed they were making a profit; just one in 10 correctly identified that almost all sites are loss-making or subsidised

In simpler terms, the British people said to the news media: Oh, you’re broke? Why didn’t you say so? Of course, we’d like to help!

There are complexities, naturally. People who say they might give probably won’t. It’s hard to plan based on the fluctuating generosity of crowds. Some news organisations are considered more worthy of support than others.

But one part of news media life not measured by the Reuters Institute is the degree to which we in Britain have lost the sense of the newspaper as a part of our identity. Many people in their 30s and older will know what it means to have grown up in a “Daily Mail household” or a “Daily Telegraph family” or “We were Sun readers” or just “my Dad still buys the Times for the crossword”.

As Ed Williams pointed out at the launch of the Report on June 14th, news organisations working in this centrist country of ours could do worse than seek to occupy the middle ground, to make what he called “Macron Media”. It is certain that identification with a brand’s values generally increases trust in a brand enormously, as our own Edelman Trust Barometer findings repeatedly show, and trust in news brands increases willingness to pay for news, the Report says.

In other words, donations and membership need not work only for The Guardian.

A nation divided by its news?

Some people are very worried by the prospect that a two-tier information market will emerge from all this. They imagine a dystopian future in which news companies split between those supported by some form of payment, be it subscription, donation or member-scheme, and those still relying on digital advertising revenue, a future in which there will be one class of news for the rich and another for those who won’t or can’t pay.

In this scenario, a division in society would emerge, separating the well-informed from those who subsist on a diet of misinformation, disinformation and fabrication. Pessimists imagine a society in which the “informed” become a sort of Illuminati dominating professions and well-paid jobs while the rest gradually fall victim to redundancy as their low levels of education and enlightenment make them vulnerable to replacement by machines and AI. Either that, or the abuse of news by demagogues and others of bad intent create even more disruptive populist movements than we have seen in the past few years.

If such apocalyptic visions actually did emerge – and it is worth pointing out that people have always had a choice to pass up opportunities for education which are provided for them free of charge by the state, and that many people in the pre-internet age chose to inform themselves only from TV and radio that was available at little or no cost – then we should ask ourselves if we should “pay for free news”. That is, should we subsidise news that continues to be provided free on websites, but which does not pay its way through advertising? This might be particularly important for local news.

Countries like France and Sweden already subsidise their news industries and we already do this with the BBC with its licence fee system. In the interests of plurality, perhaps we should do the same for more mass-market news that seems likely to struggle with its business model in the future.

In my view, the mass-market national news organisations have to make their own minds up and have historically proved highly resilient. Yet I do think there is an argument to be made for state subsidy for local and regional papers that provide real information and investigation about local communities, their councils and courts and country fairs.

In the end, what will keep all news organisations solvent is being relevant, being of use and value to their readers and viewers and listeners. Most of all, what they need is for those audiences to hear about their social value as well as to know about their financial struggles.

For that, the news business very much hold the tools of survival in their own hands.