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Can we fix the media?

Let’s be honest: the media was f*cked, even before coronavirus. 

Right-wing papers with fat cat owners act as offshoots of Conservative Campaign HQ while masquerading as voices of “the people”. During the 2019 general election, the Telegraph reported with horror that Jeremy Corbyn could have acquired details of UK-USA trade negotiations from the Russians, only for Scram News to reveal the paper had been leaked exactly the same documents just a few months earlier.

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Alongside these right-wing rags, which take delight in labelling public servants as “traitors”, we have a litany of free-to-consume outlets that compete to pump out the most sensationalist clickbait in a single day – encouraged to do so by social media algorithms that turn users into wrecking balls of anger and fury. All the while, quality journalism is increasingly hidden behind paywalls.

Oh, and let’s not forget the broadcast media. While they are not plagued by the same financial woes as written publications, shouty TV and radio shows give a platform to outrage grifters so lacking in expertise that they more resemble weathervanes than informed commentators.

So the media industry wasn’t exactly in rude health, before the present crisis.

However, coronavirus has been like a tsunami, leering over an already half-sunken boat. 

Newspaper and magazine circulation is down, with circulation of the Financial Times alone down by 39%.

Advertising revenue has also tanked, with some publishers reporting this income stream has been hit by as much as 80%.

And so, hundreds of journalists across the industry – from the Economist to the Daily Mail – have been forced to take a pay cut, or have simply been laid off.

Things aren’t great. In fact, they’re pretty horrendous.

But this current media wasteland provides us with an opportunity to rebuild.

For starters, coronavirus has shown readers the value of quality, trustworthy news. People will remember which journalists kept them reliably informed during the pandemic, and which merely spewed out fake news and xenophobia.

Hopefully (HOPEFULLY), this period has also demonstrated to publishers that the advertising model, at least in its current guise, is dead. Ad revenue has been declining for years, and our over-reliance on this form of income has essentially decimated the media industry.

As the Guardian and a host of smaller publishers have shown, there’s a more sustainable way to fund journalism, which may yet keep the industry afloat: direct reader revenue.

It sounds simple, but publishers are finding a route to sustainability by asking readers to fund the journalism they care about. Whether that’s investigating offshore tax havens, or the shady connections of our pro-Brexit illiberal metropolitan elite.

Writing news that empowers readers (rather than non-dom billionaires), asking the thousands of people who enjoy your work to contribute to your journalism, and penetrating the most pressing issues in modern society. That – I hope – is the route to successful, principled, sustainable journalism.

Gone are the days where we can access high quality, principled, investigative journalism entirely for free. We now all need to invest in the sort of media industry that we want to see.

Sam Bright is the Editor of Scram News.

Scram News is closing its doors, for the time being, from 1st June. Find out more here.