The long read: Cash-for-clicks journalism?


Journalism across the globe is going through an upheaval, with much of the familiar giving way to an uncertain new. But its ability to make a difference will endure

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 25 Mar 2021, 10:12 PM

Dog doesn’t eat dog. This has long been the unwritten rule on Fleet Street; in other words, news organisations and journalists do not usually criticise each other publicly. The rule has not always been followed, particularly in recent years, with messengers increasingly becoming the message, as journalists take on rivals and focus their investigative skills on questionable news-gathering practices or reporting on ideas that may be considered dubious. If journalism is supposed to hold a mirror to society, British journalists have also been holding a mirror to journalism, and what is reflected is not always inspiring.

Nick Davies, the award-winning investigative journalist who broke the phone-hacking scandal in 2011, has been lifting the veil on unethical practices in British newsrooms in a series of articles and books over the years, prompting several inquiries, besides the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s 168-year-old tabloid News of the World. He documented and highlighted the phenomenon of ‘churnalism’: the practice in the most respected media outlets in the UK to routinely recycle unchecked second-hand material mostly sourced from public relations activity promoting commercial or political interest. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported on the idea at the rival The Daily Telegraph to link journalists’ pay to their output’s popularity verified by online metrics, which sparked a debate among journalists and media scholars, even as the latter’s editor, Chris Evans, denied considering the cash-for-clicks idea.

Davies’ examples of ‘churnalism’ and the cash-for-clicks row are symptomatic of a wider churning in the world of journalism, in Britain as well as across the globe, as new technology and social media disrupt earlier business models, newsroom practices, the viability of journalism as a career/profession, ethics of reporting, audiences, and, most crucially, the news media’s key role in a democracy: to hold power to account, speak truth to power and provide voice to the voiceless. The churn has particularly picked momentum since the early 2000s, leading to what might be called a phase of ‘Darwinism in journalism’, or the survival of the fittest based on financial resilience or quality of content. The text and the context of the upheaval are equally significant: there has been a proliferation of the ‘hardware’ of journalism (enabling aspects such as technology, wider reach, laws, rising literacy, training centres), which offers new opportunities for the ‘software’ of journalism (the quality of editorial content that empowers citizens, holds power to account, and strengthens democratic institutions) to flourish. Online journalism has opened new spaces for the margins and the marginalised, but the mismatch between the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ of journalism is for all to see, with mainstream legacy journalism facing a crisis of credibility and worse — for example, in India.

One aspect of the current churn accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic is thousands of journalists losing jobs, titles closing and news organisations devising new strategies to remain afloat. In Britain, there is ‘Fordism’ in many newsrooms: journalists churning out stories as part of what Davies calls the ‘news factory’, with its ‘workers, suppliers and the rules of production’. He writes in his book Flat Earth News: “This is churnalism. This is journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch. This is journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real events or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.”

The landscape of journalism in democracies today presents a congeries of contrasts and disruptions. Many have been unable to deal with the extent and speed of change, while others have been devising newer ways to drive revenue. There has never been such a vast audience as now, but the credibility of journalism has never been so tested; the technology that produces journalism has never been better, but the public can see that its ethical foundations has plumbed new depths (the Leveson Inquiry in Britain prompted by the phone-hacking scandal offered a snapshot of the dire state of affairs); the impact of the news media on public discourse has never been so instant and its reach so pervasive, but many wonder if the impact has been for good or ill. It is unquestionably the best of times, and it is also, unfortunately, the worst of times for journalism.

Mimmy Jain, editorial consultant and blogger based in Swansea, says: “Social media has been the great disrupter of revenue streams and journalistic practices. It bypasses normal filters of journalism, and journalists are forced to abandon quality control due to everyday newsroom compulsions of speed and response to competition. Earlier, legacy journalism represented settled facts of the day, which were also elite facts; now we are in the era of counter-facts thrown at journalists all the time. It is an attention economy now, not a knowledge economy, reflected in the cash-for-clicks idea. We have been in the UK for over a decade, but like many, hardly ever purchased newspapers. We access news from websites of newspapers and social media.”

The cash-for-clicks idea is at the heart of the discourse of political economy of news, a key theme in academic research, often encapsulated in the term ‘Murdoch-isation’ after Murdoch’s bottom-line oriented approach to news. The idea itself is not new. It has been in place for opinion and other pieces ever since online journalism grew into 
an increasingly vibrant space, but has major implications for the public sphere when applied to news journalism, since journalism in the 
public interest often differs from what members of the public are interested in reading or clicking on. The public sphere in democracies needs information to circulate freely in a culture in which wrongdoing, corruption, incompetence and injustices can be investigated and brought to public attention.

Notwithstanding strong denials, the cash-for-clicks plan is a reflection of the nebulous state of the news industry in Britain, where the decline of local newspapers has been particularly stark in recent years. Writes John Naughton, professor at the University of Cambridge: “Citizens of most UK towns and cities now have much less information about what’s happening in their localities than their grandparents did, no matter how assiduously they check their Facebook or Twitter feeds. And the quality of local democratic discourse has been accordingly impaired.” The circulation of national and regional print newspapers, and monthly consumer print magazines, has fallen dramatically, according to a new report of the Communications and Digital Committee of the House of Lords. In 2019, only 38 per cent of UK adults accessed news via print newspapers and 11 per cent via print magazines, compared with 75 per cent via television, 66 per cent via the internet and 43 per cent via radio. In parallel, digital subscriptions have risen, yet these have not offset a steep overall decline in advertising revenue.

The committee said: “This change in the business model of journalism has created an existential threat to the industry, particularly combined with a host of other challenges ranging from a surge in ‘fake news’ to the ability of giant technology platforms such as Facebook and Google to undercut the power of publishers and their revenues.”

Roger Dickinson, professor at the University of Leicester, notes the pushback by journalists at The Daily Telegraph to the cash-for-clicks idea, and places it in context: “The fact that the idea has been voiced as a possibility is yet more evidence that the established newspapers are struggling to find a way of staying afloat. It’s a consequence of choosing the subscription model for survival: the need to attract more and more subscribers — the captive audience for advertisers — was bound to lead to the micro-management of content and the performance management of individual journalists. In a sense though, nothing has changed fundamentally since the birth of the mass press at the end of the 19th century. That moment in history established journalism as an occupation firmly oriented to the market and the pursuit of profit. In the century or so that has passed, what was until only very recently the vast profitability of the mass newspaper industry meant that owners and managers didn’t need to micro-manage the content of their papers. The sharp decline in readership and, therefore, profits mean that now they do. It’s the economic logic of the paid-for news industry, facilitated by the counting and accounting technologies of the Internet.”

The economic logic of the digital age has led to a new, widely-watched model currently being rolled out in Australia, and is likely to be replicated in France and the European Union, with suggestions that Britain should also follow suit. A new law was passed in Australia in February that makes giant tech platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter pay news organisations for using their content. The law was driven by growing evidence that the platforms using content from news organisations have been cornering the vast majority of advertising revenue online. The law and subsequent deals between Facebook and News Corp Australia has much potential as a model for sustaining journalism in the digital age, but also bewildered experts in Silicon Valley, who believe it is absurd to expect the platforms to pay for the privilege of directing traffic to one’s site, when it should be the other way round.

There are indications that Britain will tread the same path. The committee stated: “Although online platforms have created new opportunities for publishers to distribute content, they have challenged established funding models and disrupted the relationship between publishers and consumers…There is a fundamental imbalance of power between news publishers and platforms. Due to their dominant market position, Facebook and Google can stipulate the terms on which they use publishers’ content…”

The Boris Johnson government responded to the committee’s report earlier this month that it had already announced plans to introduce a new code of conduct to govern the relationships between powerful online platforms and businesses which depend on them. “It will cover the relationships between publishers and platforms to ensure they are fair, and help support the sustainability of the press,” it said.

Another interesting model is that of The Guardian, which is published by a trust. Unlike many major newspapers, its content is not behind a paywall. Underpinned by a left-liberal ethos, it announced a significant milestone in 2017: its readers or ‘Guardian supporters’ paying at least £5 per week became its main source of income, bringing in more revenue than advertising. Katherine Viner, its editor-in-chief, wrote at the time: “The Guardian is now funded by more than 800,000 supporters from more than 140 countries. Half a million readers are subscribers or members, or give to us on a monthly basis, while over the past 12 months we’ve received another 300,000 individual contributions from readers all over the world. In the last year alone, the number of readers who support us regularly has more than doubled; and we now receive more income from our readers than we do from advertisers. This is a significant step.”

The figures have improved since 2017, as Viner wrote in December, at the end of the pandemic year: “When we asked people why they signed up to support us, the same responses came back: we need truthful, independent reporting, now more than ever.”

The current churn is throwing up new possibilities for journalism to endure, but also raises key questions. Stuart Allan, professor at Cardiff University, whose field-defining books include News Culture, says: “Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see new funding models emerge. The journalistic world is watching what is happening in Australia very closely. Google and Facebook are now recognising, however reluctantly, they are going to have to pay for news content shared across their platforms. Modest steps so far, but important principles are being established, and there will be no turning back. Quality journalism tends to be expensive, which means all of us need to be prepared to pay for it, either directly or indirectly. This is especially true where local news is concerned.”

He adds: “We need to see an array of different funding models in operation, in my view, so as to help ensure sufficient diversity in public spheres. Journalism defined in commercial terms has its place, but needs to be both complemented and challenged by journalism supported by alternative, public service-led resources. Any textbook definition of democracy is likely to recognise the central of journalism, but recent years have shown us why the integrity of either cannot be taken for granted. Why is angry, hyper-partisan news reporting and commentary so popular with certain audiences? Do journalists’ professional conceptions of ‘impartiality’, ‘balance’, and ‘fairness’ need to be recalibrated for a digital age? How do we best equip journalists to sift through swirls of disinformation, unravel conspiracy theories, and make the case for facts and evidence in their reporting? There are no easy answers, so let’s create inclusive spaces for dialogue and debate to help envision positive ways forward.”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a London-based journalist.)

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