What do we want from the Cairncross Review?

THE CAIRNCROSS Review was the subject of a recent public meeting of the Media Reform Coalition. It included a summary of the NUJ's position on the Review as put in its submission. (See our report on LFB's own recent meeting on "Cairncross".)

Natalie Fenton, the Coalition's chair and Professor of Media at Goldsmiths University of London, introduced the event. Speakers were the NUJ's General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, Martin Moore of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communications and Power at King's College London, Professor Angela Philips, ethics chair of Media Reform Coalition and also of Goldsmiths, and James Cusick, editor of openMedia, part of OpenDemocracy.

Most of the Cairncross panel, noted Natalie, are managing editors or chief executives rather than journalists. Their remit is to look at "how to sustain the production and distribution of high quality journalism in a changing world". This includes an examination of "search engines" and social media, as well as the role of digital advertising. The Cairncross people "say they are giving equal weight to industry and consumers".

Martin reported asking Review Chair Frances Cairncross what she meant by "high quality journalism" as the Cairncross panel doesn't seem to define the term. The Review also states that it is working in the interest of "consumers," not citizens.

Broken business model

The Review, Natalie observed, is looking at what the panel describes as the "broken business model for the newspaper industry", with all that print advertising having gone to Ebay, Amazon, Facebook and Google and the like.

Natalie noted the job losses that have resulted and "a lot more space to fill in a digital environment" in much less time and with ever fewer resources, leading to what Angela Philips described as "faster and shallower" journalism that follows, and fake news as well.

Natalie noted that in 2007 there were 23,000 full time journalism positions, this is now down to 17,000. There have been 136 regional newspaper closures since 2012, and 228 since 2005 according to NUJ figures.

There is a crisis in the relationship between news and democracy. There's a widespread feeling, even held by the big newspaper groups, that the digital giants - Facebook and Google - "should bear some of the cost of the bottom falling out of the newspaper industry".

The Cairncross panel are looking at how to somehow put a levy on digital mega-organisations, and put the money raised back into quality journalism. There is a pervasive anxiety, though, that the money will just go into the established model of "proper old journalism" as practised by the newspaper groups, a model that's been - as Natalie put it - flawed.

The Cairncross panel is considering the evidence submitted: its final report is still eight months away. So there's "plenty of time" still to influence its outcome.

NUJ's submission

NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the "consolidation that's happened in regional media" that has "led to decisions made in remote boardrooms" that have "made local papers... ever less relevant." These have been "hollowed out," making it "impossible for local journalists" to do their jobs properly. The NUJ's 19-page submission to the Review is linked from here.

The Union's been campaigning in this area, with its Local News Matters campaign, and has long been calling into such an investigation into the Press. Michelle noted that on the day the Cairncross Review was announced, "we were hit with a load more job losses at Newsquest" - a major local news group.

The NUJ's submission to Cairncross tells "the story... from our members' perspective" with testimony from journalists on local papers on "precisely what working in the newsroom at the moment is like," including the "poverty pay". One Newsquest trainee told the NUJ's submission "I wasn't expecting that the buzzing newsroom that I joined would become full of empty chairs." Others described editors making them cut corners, so the paper failed to hold local politicians to account.

With "digital," the boundaries between commerical and traditional editorial functions have become blurred: there is now often a "click-bait mentality" rather than any concern about whether the story they're producing is accurate.

The BBC should remain an "important plank of the media landscape," believes Michelle; it shouldn't be "raided" to fund the industry. The NUJ "are not supportive of the Local Democracy Reporting scheme as it stands". The scheme uses licence fee money to fund Local Democracy reporters to cover such activities as court reporting and Council meetings. But this cash has a habit of ending up in the budgets of the big local news groups, whose mismanagement led to the decline of such vital local reporting in the first place.

The NUJ have organised "among Local Democracy reporters," some of whom are "paid up to £6000 less than the person sat next to them in the same news room" on the big news group-owned locals where they work. Some Local Democracy reporters have told the NUJ of others made redundant while they have been hired. Michelle reports that the "BBC have got concerns about how some of these (Local Democracy reporting) contracts have been handled."

While Michelle feels there isn't "one magic bullet for this", a "range of different initiatives" could provide solutions. Any subsidies should be used to find work for journalists who have been laid off, and to train "community journalists" to hold power to account locally.

Those outlets with a reputation for heavy use of content provided for free shouldn't be in receipt of subsidies. The NUJ wants "to see a lot of new things happen" as a result of this Review. It should "not just prop up the failed business modesl" for local news that just about manages to exist at the moment.

Levies? Yes, these would work if they genuinely "ensure the Googles or Facebooks of this world" support the industry "on the backs of which they've been making such significant profits".

Other possibilities are grants or loans along the lines of the many lottery-funded initiatives that have allowed communities to take over pubs or shops that weren't surviving commercially. Communities could be given incentives to "take over newspapers locally that the big groups have retreated from", said Michelle. She pointed to flourishing parts of the Press that have been set up locally in recent years, from the Camden New Journal to the Bristol Cable.

Michelle concluded by saying that ensuring the sustainability of the local press is "a very difficult gig" but that Cairncross presents "huge opportunities". Whatever emerges "can't be money that's made available for more of the same", the should be "stringent" criteria on where any subsidies go.

Light-speed advertiser bidding wars

Martin Moore focused on "digital dominance" and the intricacies of how digital advertising works. Much of this is covered in his recently published book Democracy Hacked.

Advertising, says Martin, was "never the best way for subsidising public interest news," but "digital advertising... is a far, far worse way... it's actively corrosive and undermines our ability to create public interest news". The worry is that any levy on the tech giants will "consolidate... and enhance the digital domiance" of the digital advertising giants.

Ad tech "relies on ubiquitous, highly intrusive and constant tracking of individuals", it's only profitable on a "phenomenal, gargantuan scale", using AI and stuff, so news organisations "don't matter" to the giants of digital advertising.

When the ads take time to load on a new webpage, it's not the basic technology that's taking time to do it. Your personal details have been thrown into an "ad exchange" where a super-high speed bidding war starts between advertisers for who gets to put an ad on the page you're viewing. It "all happens in about a split second". Advertisers who want to save money "don't really care" where you are", on the Guardian site or wherever. The whole digital advertising model "diverts money away" from trusted news sources towards "low-cost sites".

Advertisers would rather "wait till you've finished on the Guardian... and go the next [website] you go to: it's cheaper for them". The only way the advertisers can find you to do this "is by huge amounts of constant and invasive tracking", from the likes of Google and from the sites you visit, which feed details to the ad exchange. Only "the giants" like Google and Facebook can do this: "no one else has scale or the ability or the technology to compete." To make "public interest news sustainable in the long term", we "shouldn't be looking for policies that support the exisiting structure - which I think is corrosive". We should be looking at new methods of supporting quality journalism "that are not reliant on ad tech".

Public interest search engines

Angela Philips called for a "public interest, publicly-funded search engine," driven by "algorithms... designed for public interest rather than for selling socks". Such ideas are not as fanciful as they may sound. Search engine Duckduckgo, "which is not dependent on personalised advertising... makes a profit... simply by providing ads alongside search" results, without the intrusive data tracking of Google. She pointed to "European solutions" to media tech monopolies - "we nationalised the telegraph... we created public broadcasting. We can move forward to public interest search engines." Meanwhile, said Angela, "levy the tech giants... Getting some money back in the medium term is not something we should shy away from."

The solution, though, "cannot be simply giving money to the News Media Association" - which represents the newspaper groups - says Angela. She points out that "when they were given money to experiment with local television broadcasting", they took these subsidies and created outlets that exploited students and people on work experience. Journalism "should be a job not a hobby... they have to be paid."

Unless we "make a very strong case," any levies raised will "simply go to existing incumbents". Angela described a Media Reform Coalition proposal for "community hubs" organised like news agencies, producing news for other organisations but completely separate from local papers. "We need to ensure that any money that goes into this is not wasted and poured down the bottomless pit" of the exisiting local and regional news groups.

Sponsored content alert

James Cusick surveyed some of the "sticking plasters... what has been happening in the short term" as the big news groups try to deal with a crisis in profitability.

Newspapers are turning increasingly to "native advertising... sponsored content". Ads are now "assimilated" into news and features. Most nationals now have an agency in-house that does sponsored content. At the Evening Standard it's ESI Media, which has pitched its "project" for guaranteed "favourable" coverage (for a six-figure sum) to potential clients including Uber, Google and Starbucks. Their package comes with a promise that "we expect every campaign to generate numerous news stories, comment pieces" and the like.

James pointed to a survey of newsrooms in Europe which found that a third said they had been "instructed not to criticise a company" with which the newspaper had commercial ties.

Charitable status?

Also present was Will Perrin of the Carnegie UK Trust, who observed that the Charities Act excludes newspapers and local media from charitable status mostly for "historical reasons" and that the Trust are looking to run a test case with the Charities Commission - so any local community news outlets who'd like to try to get charitable status should get in touch with them. Will noted there are plenty of "charities for big media" in the US.