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Issue #1789      August 9, 2017

Crisis facing public interest journalism

Governments can no longer stand on the side-lines but must step in to support independent journalism to preserve democracy, the union for Australian media workers has urged in its submission to the Senate inquiry into the future of public interest journalism.

In the submission, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance explains that public interest journalism is at a crossroads. “The digital disruption that has transformed the media has shaken everything we knew about our industry. There is no certainty. The audience is fragmented. That fragmentation has savaged revenue streams whether that revenue comes from advertising, subscriptions, circulation or eyeballs.

“Distribution and production of media has been separated by the internet with social media becoming a useful distribution tool, albeit one that effectively robs revenue. Social media uses news media’s editorial content to lure advertising from news media to news “aggregators”.

Media organisations, public and private, have largely abandoned investing in their product and have resorted to seemingly never-ending cost-cutting. At the same time that our industry and its established business models have been under attack, our profession is too,” MEAA says.

The MEAA submission examines the current state of public interest journalism in Australia and provides many examples of government support for public interest journalism being utilised in other countries including Canada, Ireland, the US, France and others.

The MEAA series of recommendations to the committee include:

  • Restore and increase funding to public broadcasting.
  • Tax incentives and other forms of support for rural and regional news outlets.
  • More rigorous taxation of news aggregators.
  • Consideration of a levy to raise funds from “digital disruptors” to be invested in public interest journalism.
  • Consideration of direct and indirect government subsidies to media, with safeguards to protect editorial integrity from being compromised.
  • Creation of a media diversity fund.
  • Tax deductibility for news subscriptions.
  • Industry assistance to retrain and re-educate journalists, along with innovation grants and other forms of assistance to maintain editorial staffing levels.
  • Funding for counselling and assistance to media workers as they transition out of secure work.
  • Extension of charitable or tax-exempt status to public interest journalism.
  • Encourage the establishment of foundations or not-for-profit media outlets.
  • Further investigation about how to extend workplace protections and collective bargaining to freelance journalists who work as independent contractors with poorer pay and less job security than permanent staff journalists.
  • Defamation law reform.

In summary: “There is no magic bullet to restoring the media to the position it was in just six years ago. Digital disruption has and will continue to reshape the industry. There is no going back.

“But it is true that, unless something urgent and comprehensive is done the media will continue to collapse, redundancies will continue to reduce the number of journalist ‘boots on the ground’, audiences will become increasingly dissatisfied with media outlets and more susceptible to ‘fake news’, and the public will become less informed,” the MEAA says.

“Access to information is a human right. The media plays an essential role as the fourth estate in a healthy, functioning democracy. Government has for decades played a role in the structure and regulation of broadcast media. It is a major advertiser. It is time for government to foster, encourage, promote and support the media so that it can continue to function for all Australians.”

Next article – Themis Speis – A free man

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