Where the news industry went wrong: it got hooked on advertising

The thirst for eyeballs to feed the ad monster has killed ethical reporting
It seemed like such a good idea at first…

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years and hearing big publishers argue for ancillary copyright “because it helps journalists” makes me very angry.

I know I will now be accused of biting the hand that feeds me, but I got into journalism because I believed in its value to society. Sure I also thought it would be exciting and interesting, but I fundamentally believe that ethical, responsible, independent news reporting is the fourth pillar of democracy. We speak truth to power, hold the powerful to account — as the old saying goes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That might seem dated now, but my generation of journalists believed in it. Ethical — even, moral — journalism is vocational. I’m not saying we are priests or doctors — we don’t take a hippocratic oath, but many of us do take our responsibility that seriously. And back then “Journalist” was a decent job, you could get a mortgage, raise a family. Now? Don’t bet on it.

Newsrooms have been decimated, word rates have been cut and cut and cut. And that’s if you get paid at all — “exposure” won’t pay my mortgage, but it is shocking how often I am asked to work for free. Of COURSE I want to be paid, but shall I tell you who pays me more, niche publishers with an interested readership who don’t rely primarily on advertising.

Journalists, — and I am referring specifically to text reporters, on or offline — and especially freelance journalists’, bargaining power is NIL. You either accept the paltry amount you get offered or you don’t get published. And anyone who thinks journalists grant non-exclusive rights, is in cloud cuckoo land. That is NEVER up for discussion. Either you are sent a document granting exclusive rights to sign, or it is just assumed.

I would LOVE to get paid multiple times for the same article, but that is not how it works.

Especially not when there are dozens of 20-somethings willing to work for free. The wage market level for reporting is now so low, that it will take a sea-change to raise it. Of course I still value news reporting, in fact I think we need it more than ever. But it is in crisis. There is a huge lack of trust and our work is no longer valued.

So, who do I blame? Not the armies of interns who will knock you out 20 listicles of things to do in Firenze on a Friday — number 14 will astound you — they are just trying to find a route into an industry that doesn’t know what it IS anymore.

And sure, the rise of sophisticated fake news is scary, but propaganda and biased or partisan reporting has always been around.

Nor do I blame the Internet — I write about tech after all and many of the great publications I have written from are digital native. Added to which it’s the best way to get read and spread the great work we do.

But 15 years ago news publishers made a big mistake. They gave away content for free online. They lacked the vision to see where the internet was going to go and how it was going to change the media landscape. Imagine any other industry giving away its product for free?!

I know that print circulation was already declining and advertising was already in the ascendancy, but publishers approach to online made the situation exponentially worse.

Certainly some publishers are now going behind a paywall, but trying to persuade people to pay for something they have become accustomed to getting for free is like trying to shut the stable door after the horse has long since bolted — just ask the music and movie industries.

Over time reporting became increasingly devalued — even by our own publishers. We work hard to expose corruption, wrongdoing, celebrate success, inform the public. Valuable work that is now seen as nothing more than a backdrop for advertising.

I didn’t work 20 years in journalism to become a marketeer. So when I hear publishers say that they need ancillary copyright because they want to compete with Google for advertising my heart sinks. News publishers have lost their way. They are no longer the Fourth Estate that we can be proud to be part of, they are advertising agencies.

I’ve nothing against advertising businesses per se, but don’t stand up in front of lawmakers and claim that giving them additional copyright will make life better for journalists! Media companies are beholden to their shareholders, not their reporters. If they really cared about the ethics of news and public reporting, they would be delighted to be on a news aggregator.

Reporters love being listed because it means we get read — which is fundamentally what we want. So make no mistake, this is not about supporting rights for journalists, it’s about competing for advertising revenue.

Start forcing news aggregators to pay for snippets, and they’ll either up and leave altogether, like Google News did in Spain, or they’ll prioritise the publications that are most recognised. Either way, the result is the same small, niche news publications go out of business. Resulting in fewer jobs for journalists and living wages further decreased, and — more importantly for everyone else who isn’t trying to make a living doing this — reduced plurality and news diversity.

So sure, neighbouring rights might benefit of a few larger players, those that already have name recognition, or the backend to build functional apps and bypass the news aggregator and browser altogether. But there’s a reason it’s always the big publishers — sorry advertising agencies — pushing for ancillary copyright and not the small independents…

So what should the next model for news reporting be? I personally don’t know — as I said some news organisations are going behind a paywall, others are looking at direct micropayments to journalists. Maybe we realise that independent reporting is something we want as a society in the public interest and fund it directly from taxation.

But I do know what it’s not — it’s not advertising. We’ve seen where that addiction to eyeballs to feed the advertising monster has got us — 15 puppies who look like Madonna, Hillary Clinton is controlled by aliens, etc — and continuing to rely on it is incredibly short sighted. It might make some people a lot of money, but those people will not be journalists. I can live with that, so long as some of us are working to find a new model. But don’t add insult to injury by using my metier, the hard ethical work of journalists, as justification to destroy the very industry we want!