28th September 2018
By Tom Law

Supporting quality journalism in the digital age

Tom Law

At last. All across Europe publishers, editors and journalists are coming together to tell governments it is time to make the technology giants pay. Facebook and Google, should be obliged to support the journalism from which they profit but don’t pay for.

In response to Europe-wide and individual governmental inquiries, the media are pinpointing the evidence of a crisis in journalism: so many journalists have been laid off that the European Federation of Journalists has stopped keeping a running total as they couldn’t keep up with the scale and regularity of the losses. Just last week Danish public broadcaster DR announced it will cut up 400 jobs.

The loss of journalists, closure of newspapers and troubling low levels of trust mean that many areas of public life are going unreported. This lack of scrutiny is leaving a democratic and accountability deficit.

In the UK the Grenfell tragedy – where 71 people died in a tower block fire – triggered debate other whether the council and its contractors might not have made the series of bad decisions that led to the disaster if there had been a vibrant local press holding them to account.

The decline in print circulations and ad revenues led Ireland’s newspaper industry to demand VAT relief for newspapers earlier this week. Some of the UK’s biggest publishers, the main trade body, the largest regulator and journalists union have submitted evidence to a government-appointed review led by Dame Frances Anne Cairncross, a British economist, journalist and academic, into the sustainability of quality journalism, warning that Google and Facebook are pushing news publishers out of business.

In its submission to the Cairncross Review, Press Gazette said:

“If a way can be found to siphon some of the billions in revenue made by the US digital giants into supporting high-quality local journalism we argue that would provide a huge social good.”

Many others echo these sentiments.

Chris Elliott, the Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, in his submission to the review also argued for a levy.

“Technology giants, so skilful in adopting international tax-avoidance measures, would find it harder to turn down an initiative designed to improve the experience of their users, especially when they are under huge pressure to remove the high levels of hate speech and disinformation that abound on social media. A twin approach of removal and helping their users towards an effective media literacy that encourages them to recognise the true from the untrue would be hard to resist.”

Elliott also argued that “any plan to ‘sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism’ must have at its heart ethical journalism. This is not just a moral and societal imperative but crucial to any new business model.”

As Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said, when addressing a group of ombudsmen last year: “If you don’t trust it why would you pay for it?

Nielsen was commenting on a fall in trust in the UK media from 50% to 43% as outlined in Reuters’ 2017 digital media report. This year’s report found some reasons for hope but note that ‘consumer trust in news remains worryingly low in most countries’.

The findings of the 2018 report were at the centre of discussions of the Council of Europe’s committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age, which met for the second time in Strasbourg this week.

A favourable environment for quality journalism

The group, of which I am also a member, is working on a wider recommendation to the Council of Europe’s 47 member states on “promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age”.

This recommendation is due to be finalised by the end of next year but the urgency of the financial crisis facing journalism means that the group has also drafted a declaration on the “financial sustainability of quality journalism in the digital environment” which is expected to be put to the Committee of Ministers by the end of the year.

The EJN has made a strong case that ‘high-quality journalism’ should not be given a narrow definition of investigative journalism or foreign news; it is public-interest journalism in the broadest sense. In our submission to the Cairncross review, Elliott wrote:

‘High-quality journalism’ should be seen as the timely delivery of accurate, fair and transparent reporting of the facts citizens need to make informed decisions in a democracy. Such reporting is an indicator of the health of that society. On any reading of the evidence – the loss of journalists, the loss of newspapers and the loss of trust – we are suffering from a ‘democratic deficit’. Key areas of British public life are going unreported and unscrutinised.

Many on the committee have welcomed the notion of journalism as a public good, one that the EJN has been advocating for some time.

The focus of both the Cairncross review and the Council of Europe committee has largely focused on how state actions, through tax and other policies, can create a favourable environment for quality journalism.

This rightly focuses on enabling news media to regain some of the advertising and sponsorship money that had been sucked up by internet intermediaries.

But news media still have work to do to persuade the public, policymakers and philanthropists that quality journalism is worth paying for, whether that be through subscription, membership, donations, or targeted forms of public and private money to organisations that can demonstrate that they work to a set of ethical core values.

Read the EJN’s Trust in Ethical Journalism report from earlier this year.

I came across an innovative version of the latter on a recent visit to Prague where I met with Josef Šlerka, head of the New Media Studies program at Prague’s Charles University and director of the Fund for Independent Journalism. Set up and funded by business leaders who were unhappy that oligarchs, either in government or with political interests tied to their business, own the majority of mainstream Czech media, the fund is supporting independent publications, some of which are founded and run by journalists forced out of more-established media houses, or who left in protest against the lack of plurality of ownership and the detrimental effect this has on their independence.

The fund played a large role in the upcoming launch of a new online daily, Nový deník. It will work closely with the independent Slovak daily Denník N, which was created by 45 journalists in 2015 who resigned from their previous employer after a financial group bought it. The journalists own 50 per cent of the company meaning that they take a keen interest in which articles are profitable. Eighty per cent of their revenue comes via subscriptions. Denník N is profitable and prides itself on producing quality journalism.

Nový deník reached its crowdfunding goal of 3,000 subscribers within about 12 days, 20 days before the end of the campaign; that means that they will begin to publish regularly from 28 October.

While in Prague, I also met with Jeremy Druker, the founder of Press Start, a crowdsourcing platform to help relieve the financial burden of journalists in repressive countries.

According to Press Start:

“Unlike sites such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter, it is designed for a group of people with less access to the typical donor community: journalists working for the domestic press in non-English-speaking, and often poor, countries.”

Press Start has received support from the Google Digital News Initiative. This is, of course welcome, but the funds available from Google and Facebook to support journalism is a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of their profits versus the shortfall in advertising money that is crippling journalism.

Google’s funding for journalism

In the past three years, Google’s Digital News Initiative has given 115 million euros to journalism-related, while Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is thought to be worth more than 800 billion US dollars.

Yesterday, the European Journalism Observatory published an excellent piece analysing where Google’s money goes and whether it might explain why “Google is the internet platform most respected amongst publishers, while Facebook is often criticised.”

The full report is a must-read but this section stood out to me:

“We found that a large part of Google’s money goes to the media establishment. 54% of the funding in Europe went to long-standing commercial publishing houses, including projects at Trinity Mirror, the Telegraph Media Group and Thomson Reuters in the UK. […] More than half of recipient organisations were founded in 1997 or before. Most (83%) are based in Western Europe. The typical recipient of Google funding is a legacy institution, Western European and for-profit. Comparatively, the DNI Fund is much less generous to non-commercial journalism. Only 10% of projects in our data set went to non-profit or public-service media.

As part of the EJN’s Cairncross submission and in the Council of Europe’s recommendations to members states we have also argued that rules need to be changed to allow and to make it easier, for independent media that deliver quality public-interest journalism to register for non-profit or cooperative status.

Principles for funding journalism

It is also essential that if states do choose to place some kind of levy on digital giants some basic principles are applied:

  1. Governments should play no direct role in decisions over who should benefit from these funds. The allocation must be independent of government.
  2. These new funds should not be used an argument for decreasing or replacing funding to public service media.
  3. The funds must be distributed to areas that need it most — such as regions, towns or inter-city areas not well served with local news.
  4. The funds should, wherever possible, reward success rather than prop-up businesses that have not demonstrated a commitment to public interest journalism, high ethical standards and good governance.
  5. An open attitude to funding non-profits and cooperatives as well as private news organisations.

A levy on tech companies by itself will not solve journalism’s funding crisis. The Council of Europe’s committee’s recommendations will hopefully provide some guidance to states but the future of journalism will largely lie in media’s ability to adapt and adopt new business models based on trust and deeper engagement with their audience.

Council of Europe committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age



  1. Mr Zoran Bojarovski – Media Reforms Adviser to the Prime Minister – The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
  2. Ms Olha Herasymiuk – First Deputy Chair, National Council of Television and Broadcasting of Ukraine – Ukraine
  3. Ms Helena Mandić – Director of Broadcasting, Communications Regulatory Agency – Bosnia and Herzegovina
  4. Mr Tarlach McGonagle – Senior researcher/lecturer, Institute for Information Law, Amsterdam – Ireland
  5. Mr Markus Oermann – Policy Consultant, German Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Department for general issues of the media and media competency – Germany
  6. Ms Katharine Sarikakis – Professor of Communication Science (Media Industries, Media Organisation, Media Governance), Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration; Director at Media Governance and Industries Research Lab, Department of Communication, Vienna – Greece
  7. Ms Inge Welbergen – Senior Legal Officer Media, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science – The Netherlands


  1. Ms Nadia Bellardi – Project Consultant and Media Expert specialising in Journalism, Community Media, Media Diversity, Transcultural Communication, Migration, Integration, Islam and Gender Issues
  2. Ms Alexandra Borchardt – Director of Strategic Development – Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
  3. Ms Martina Chapman – Communications Professional specialising in Media Literacy and Digital Engagement
  4. Mr Pierre François Docquir – Senior Legal Officer – ARTICLE 19
  5. Mr Tom Law – Director of Campaigns and Communications – Ethical Journalism Network
  6. Mr Darian Pavli – Expert on Media and Human Rights Policy

Sources and further reading:

Main image: On 24 -25 September 2018, the Committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age (MSI-JOQ) held its second meeting in Strasbourg. (Photo: Council of Europe)