How taxing web giants could save local journalism

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Internet giants like Google should pay to support local news organisations to safeguard regional journalism, according to experts at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Academics say that a levy should be placed on the advertising income of web firms to help sustain provincial outlets.

And they add that this public subsidy would in turn help boost local democracy by giving news organisations the means to hold councils to account.

The proposals form part of a submission to the Government’s Cairncross Review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism by academics from Goldsmiths School of Journalism.

They welcome the review as “shining a welcome light” on the future of journalism in the UK. Professor Angela Phillips said: “News journalism provides a public service to democracy, but it has never paid its way.

“It has always been subsidised either by political parties, by wealthy individuals, by public levy or by advertising.

“Today the advertising subsidy is under threat and democracy requires that we seek another way of supporting the news we need.”

In a four-point executive summary, the submission says:

  • The Internet has not supplied an alternative form of journalism because all news providers are equally affected by lack of advertising cash and only the biggest or most specialised have found ways of surviving. This shift has been particularly hard for local journalism where the number of journalists has more than halved since 2005 as news organisations cut jobs in order to maintain pay-outs to share-holders.
  • Local reporting is the soil in which the national news organisations should be rooted.  When the necessary nutrients are not provided the national suppliers are also affected. They fail to see changes taking place in the regions and localities and turn in to reflect only the metropolitan elite.  A healthy news eco-system should be the aim of the review and the means by which its success is judged. 
  • Against this background we believe that local news now requires some form of public subsidy to ensure its survival into the future. That subsidy should be provided via a levy on the advertising income of the major Internet platforms. These are the organisations that have destabilised news reporting and it is right that they should be asked to contribute a very small share of the vast profits that they currently divert away from the countries in which they are earned. 
  • Stringent regulations should be incorporated into the provision of subsidies to ensure that money is spent only on the direct provision of genuinely local reporting within defined geographic areas. Preference should go to independent local news providers that can demonstrate that they already attract a certain number of readers in the locality, or that they enhance the news supply to other publications locally and nationally.
    The income should also be tied to a commitment to ethical standards in the form of membership of a Leveson-compliant complaints service. Monitoring of jobs before and after should ensure that subsidy has not been used to substitute for existing journalism roles.

The full submission can be found here: Cairncross Review

The Cairncross Review is being led by Dame Frances Cairncross, former economic journalist, author and academic administrator. Among the advisory panel members is Goldsmiths journalism alumna Polly Curtis, who is editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK.