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Independent publishers call for public support to tackle ‘unequal’ relationship with platforms

Opinion Feature 

We are at a turning point for journalism in the UK. The digital revolution has allowed new publishers to enter the market, but they will struggle to grow without public support.

The Cairncross Review was set up by the Government to report on the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK by examining the current and future market environment facing the press. It is looking into the overall state of the news media market, threats to financial sustainability, the role and impact of digital search engines and social media platforms, how content and data flows are operated and managed and the role of digital advertising.

As a press regulator designed for the digital age, IMPRESS now regulates 110 publications. In June 2018, we conducted a survey of our members, which provides a unique snapshot of the experiences and views of independent news publishers in the UK.

The survey revealed that every single IMPRESS member uses social media to distribute their content. But only 8% believe that their financial arrangements with platforms are fair, and 96% do not receive any income from platforms whatsoever.

One of the independent news publications that we regulate described their relationship with social media platforms as ‘unequal’. Others said that they ‘struggle to keep up to date with changes to platforms that have a significant impact on our readership’, that they ‘are completely at the whim of opaque changes to algorithms with no direct contact with the platforms’, and that ‘the power is with the platform’.

When we asked publishers what could be done to support independent news publishing, they called for ‘measures that would see a more equitable revenue share between social media platforms and content creators’. They also told us that ‘politicians could and should do more to make sure the provincial press not only continues to play an important role in our democratic society but can also do so without the increasing financial and legal obstacles’. Several publishers called for ‘subsidies’, or ‘public funding for independent high-quality journalism, with a view to creating more media plurality’.

We drew on the feedback of our members, as well as our regulatory experience, when we made our submission to the Cairncross Review. Our submission in full is available on our website. It boils down to five recommendations:

  • Firstly, we recommend that the Government should launch a Digital Accountability Review to help ensure that digital intermediaries such as social media platforms and search engines are operating in the public interest.
  • Secondly, we recommend that media regulators should be adequately funded to promote media literacy, so that news consumers can recognise high-quality journalism.
  • Thirdly, we recommend that the Government should establish a News Funding Council (NFC) to support the sustainability of high-quality journalism by making grants to publishers. The NFC should be operationally independent of Government and Parliament and should set its own strategic priorities.
  • Fourthly, we recommend a review of the tax regime for news publishers to ensure that any tax benefits flow to the publishers of high-quality journalism and not to the publishers of low-quality journalism, misinformation or disinformation.
  • Fifthly, we recommend that the Government should define a new legal status – ‘Public Interest News’ (PIN) – for the publishers of high-quality journalism. This identity would be distinct from charitable status, so that publishers could still publish political news and comment, but it would have some of the benefits of charitable status.

Our proposals are designed to support a vibrant news sector that can hold the powerful to account and represent the views of all sections of the UK public. In this way, we believe that we can turn the digital challenge into a fantastic opportunity for publishers, journalists and their audiences.

The IMPRESS submission to the Cairncross Review is available in full on the IMPRESS website.

Jonathan Heawood, CEO of IMPRESS

About IMPRESS

IMPRESS is a press regulator designed to work in the digital age. It offers free arbitration, a comprehensive insurance scheme and a progressive Standards Code. It works in partnership with the public, publishers and key stakeholders to raise the standards of journalism and regulates 100+ digital and print publications across the UK. Its goal is to rebuild public trust in the news organisations of today, as a pillar of democracy.

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