Media Viability: A Precondition to Journalism as a Public Good

UNESCO has launched the third global edition of its flagship series of reports on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development (World Trends Report). The 2021/2022 World Trends Report places a special focus on understanding the role of journalism as a public good. It includes a special chapter that unpacks the existential challenges posed by the economic crisis of news media viability. This news post is based on the report and summarizes arguments made for media viability as a precondition to journalism as a public good. 

Journalism in times of crisis

In many countries today, journalism is in crisis. Over the last years, digital companies have disrupted journalism’s traditional economic model, which was based largely on advertising revenues. As the revenues have dramatically shifted to digital, many media organisations were forced to reduce staff or shut down altogether.

The pandemic dealt a further blow to the economic viability of already-struggling news outlets. It triggered an initial decline in global advertising spending that further eroded the viability of many media companies. And, ultimately, strengthened the position of the major internet services in the advertising market. 

Besides the aforementioned challenges, in some countries, governments nowadays are monitoring, censoring and imprisoning journalists. The safety of reporters online and offline continues to be precarious.

The times of crisis, however, also gave professional journalism a renewed vote of confidence and support from audiences anxiously seeking trusted sources of information. Therefore, journalism nowadays is needed more than ever.

Understanding journalism as a public good

UNESCO’s recently launched World Trends Report is making a case for journalism as a public good.

Traditionally, public goods are defined as services or commodities available to everyone in society without exclusion. These include health care and education, roads, street lighting, and parks. All citizens have access to and/or benefit from public goods.

In most cases, public goods are expensive to produce and provide little financial return. Although, while the provision of accessible public goods is normally not financially profitable, society as whole recognizes and values their intrinsic benefits. 

Like other public goods, UNESCO explains, journalism plays a critical role in promoting a healthy civic sphere. It does so by providing citizens with trusted information and facts they need to participate in a free and open society. Journalism simultaneously acts as an independent watchdog and agenda-setter. 

At the same time, journalism is an essential service. Fact-based information is vitally important, especially in times of crisis, and when reporting on wars and conflict zones, on environmental and climate issues, on natural disasters, and on public health emergencies.

Media viability: a precondition to journalism as a public good

For journalism to function as a public good and an essential service, it needs to operate in a viable environment. If the viability of media is under constant threat, journalism as distinctive communication in the public interest cannot be sustainable. 

Media viability is what gives journalism the institutional strength and autonomy to perform its role as a public good. It provides journalism with the environment, resources, and means to produce independent, high-quality news. It helps resist pressures to replace journalism with editorial content produced for reasons such as favouring particular products, political parties or politicians, or specific religious groups. 

Although, it is key to understand that the necessary conditions for media viability are not only financial, but also socio-political and technological. 

News organisations benefit from a political and social environment that enables journalism to perform its role as a public good. Normally, obstacles to this are corruption in government, state interference and influence in the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression. 

Furthermore, news producers must be able to operate in an enabling technological environment that allows them to be sustainable in the digital sphere. This requires efficient infrastructure through which an independent media ecosystem can operate and thrive. When these conditions converge, news media can achieve longer-term sustainability.

According to UNESCO, this complex nature is what makes media viability a matter for policy-makers. 

Efforts to save journalism as a public good

The existential threats to news media require proactive efforts to support journalism as a public good. 

The report claims that new policies and measures are urgently needed – including public financing for trusted news outlets, enhanced support for public service media, and a redoubling of donor aid and philanthropic investments in news production – to ensure that journalism can continue to function as a public good.

Adopting policies and practices that promote a free and independent press will not be an easy task. Public authorities will need to acknowledge the crisis threatening the viability of media worldwide and agree that concrete measures are necessary to ensure journalism’s sustainability as a public good.

And, since the winners are mainly big brand organisations in major markets, policy instruments must primarily address the challenges facing the “many losers” in the news media space.

UNESCO concludes that without effective change, the biggest losers will be the public.