THE NEWS is not what it used to be. These days most consumers get most of their bulletins online. Since online publishing is cheap, a profusion of new sources have sprung up. Websites run by established newspapers compete with newer, online-only outlets and professional (or amateur) blogs, not to mention the mix of articles, digital chain-letters and comments curated by the algorithms of social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Established media have struggled. Much of the advertising that used to pay journalists’ salaries has gone to Facebook and Google, the two big technology firms that dominate the market for online advertising. Print circulation has collapsed. Local papers have been particularly hard hit, with many going bust. Social-media algorithms prioritise attention-grabbing clickbait over boring truth, which helps propel nonsense around the world. Collins, a dictionary-publisher, declared “fake news” its 2017 neologism of the year.
In 2018 the government asked Dame Frances Cairncross, an economist (and former journalist on this newspaper) to ponder what, if anything, it should do about all this. On February 12th her report was published. It mostly rejects the idea that journalism deserves a bail-out.
Mostly, but not entirely. Dame Frances argues that public-interest journalism is undersupplied by the market, and that the government should support it via tax breaks or direct funding. Two types of journalism in particular deserve support. One is that which investigates corruption and the abuse of power. Despite its cachet, such work is expensive, difficult and—from a commercial point of view—generally not worth it. The other is the sort of thing local newspapers used to provide: writing up planning meetings, trials in local courts and the like. It is hard to imagine any news less likely to go viral. Yet the report cites research suggesting that a lack of it undermines voter turnout and civic engagement.
The most eye-catching recommendation, though, is that online platforms such as Google and Facebook be given a “news quality obligation”, backed by a regulator, requiring them to promote only news from reliable outlets. “This is really unprecedented,” reckons Rasmus Nielsen of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford (which is funded partly by the press and big tech firms). “I can’t think of another democracy in which there is a call for regulatory oversight of what constitutes ‘quality’ in the news.”
But it fits with growing worries that the ability of a small number of technology firms to amplify and disseminate news may be unhealthy. Politicians have called for the likes of Google to censor everything from fake news stories to articles about suicide and self-harm.
Resistant at first, firms are trying to comply. But they are walking into a minefield. The smartphone version of Edge, Microsoft’s web browser, for instance, now warns users about sites it deems untrustworthy. In January it flagged MailOnline, the widely read website of the pearl-clutching Daily Mail, for “generally [failing] to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability”. After the Mail complained, the warning was removed.
Having governments rate the media would be an awkward policy for a liberal democracy. But the report argues that the alternative—leaving it to the judgment of private companies—is even worse.
Clarification: Website ratings in the Edge browser are provided by NewsGuard, a third-party firm. NewsGuard has asked The Economist to clarify the reasons for the removal of the warning about the Mail Online website. Following complaints from the Mail and a discussion between the two firms, the Mail agreed to add a link to the bottom of its site giving short biographies of its management. For its part, NewsGuard agreed that its claim that the Mail repeatedly publishes false content was itself wrong, as was a claim that the Mail’s headlines were often misleading.