The price of free news

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Report by NewsroomPlus.com

Contributed by Olexander Barnes

Once when asked about what the role of Journalism was in society, Robert Fisk the most awarded foreign correspondent of the past 100 years replied “To challenge authority, all authority”, he then added “especially so when governments and politicians take us to war”.

But it is the first part of that quote that provides a journalistic mandate that all news outlets should strive to achieve. Many well respected news outlets have taken great pride in their endeavours to live up to this goal by developing a strong and independent editorial line.

Back in the days when people brought their news – Toronto 1938 Credit: Wikicommons

Pre-internet, when only printed media existed, this strong editorial independence was easy to maintain because news outlets were able to count on the knowledge that if they produced quality and informative articles for their newspapers, people would buy their papers, preserving the status quo all round.

But with the move to online where content is mostly freely available, resulting in the news agencies having to look elsewhere for revenue streams, notions of editorial independence have been put under increasing pressure.

News outlets that are state funded such as the BBC present an exception. In recent years many news outlets such as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz have taken the decision to place their content behind a subscription paywall. There remains a tension or fear that if they put their content behind a paywall it will reduce readership, and so the search for other sources of income continues.

Given one of the major models for advertising revenue being calculated by page views, where an advertiser will pay out a set amount after a certain amount of people have visited the page, it’s not surprising news outlets are under pressure to create content brings people to the page.

This brings with it pressure for pieces known as ‘puff pieces’ – in other words clickbait – to predominate. Whether it’s designed as prime reading fare or note.

Another tactic being used is to drastically increase the quantity of articles produced. This tactic aims to increase revenue by increasing the page views over the entire site rather than a single article, but many times this tactic sacrifices the quality of the articles for the sake of quantity.

Then there is a development that shows the new closeness of relationship between the advertisers and the news agencies, with many now hiring out their expertise in article writing to the advertisers themselves. The result of this new arrangement is a not unknown type of ‘copy writing’ that blurs the line between advertising and article. Euphemistically called native advertising, these new types of ‘copy’ are crafted and formatted in the same fashion as a news story, at its extreme leading people to believe that they are reading an actual news story but in fact reading an advert that is written to sell a product or act as PR for a company.

In a stealth-like manner, this latest closeness between news outlets and their advertiser base risks not just affecting what the adverts look like and the quality of the legitimate articles published, but also what what gets published to begin with.

To ensure that that they have the revenue to function, news outlets would – under this scenario – find themselves more concerned with keeping advertisers on-board – a slippery slope that opens up the risk of editorial decisions being made to ‘self-censor’ in order to keep advertisers happy.

Earlier in the year it was revealed that the online news agency Buzzfeed had allegedly removed several articles that were critical of Dove and Monopoly when their respective companies complained.

In another case in point while many papers were posting the HSBC scandal as front page news, The Daily Telegraph relegated the story into the middle of its paper, in such an obvious example of protecting profit margins over public interest that it saw the paper’s chief political commentator Peter Osborne tender a public resignation. In the statement that he used to announce his resignation she said “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril”.

The migration online has placed many news outlets  who decided against charging to pursue subscriptions for their news and to offer it for free online, in the situation where relying on their advertisers for the lost revenue has resulted in advertisers gaining what unsightly control over the editorial decisions of those papers – be that a perception only, or not.

Eventually this level of control ends with readers not being able to distinguish whether they are reading an article or an advert.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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