Emily Bell, head of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, is one of a vanishingly small number of people who really gets the bigger picture of technology and journalism.
In recent months she’s been at the forefront of the so-called ‘fake news’ debate, and has provided especially cogent commentary on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s protestations that his company isn’t a media organisation.
Her most recent foray into the Future of News debate is inspired—as far as it goes.
Mr Zuckerberg recently penned an opus on how to save local reporting and story-telling (it’s 6000 words long, so I’ll forgive if you haven’t read it). “Many of us,” she writes, “are still digesting” the piece.
But Ms Bell chews it up and spits it out: “’Building Global Community’ neatly sidesteps the constitutional niceties of the nation-state in favor of an extension of the big blue benevolent dictatorship of Facebook.”
Rather than trying to revive the media industry in a cloying corporate hothouse like Facebook, she argues, why not give it a room of its own?
“America needs a radical new market intervention similar to that made by the UK Government in 1922 when it issued a Royal Charter and established the BBC. Remaking independent journalism requires funding that is independent of individuals or corporations, has a longtime horizon built into it, and offers complete independence and as much stability as possible.”
Using the national broadcaster model, she argues, and untying it from the government’s purse strings, should be enough to ensure a renaissance in responsible and meaningful news reporting.
She’s not wrong.
The Bell op-ed points onward to a New York Times piece by Steven Waldman, published on the same day—and one suspects, inspired by the same conversation. Mr Waldman makes a similar point: Facebook owes us.
“Of the $59 billion spent on all digital advertising in 2015 — across millions of web sites, by millions of advertisers — $36 billion went to those two companies. And their share is rising: Most of the increase in digital advertising in 2016 went to them.”
A mere 1% of revenues over 5 years would generate a pool of US $4.4 billion.
They’re too polite to come out and say it, but the strong implication in both pieces is that Facebook and Google are eating the news media’s lunch, and they should remember whose content they’re making money from. The moral argument seems to be: If you’re going to… er, do this to us, the least you could do is buy us dinner.
Emily Bell argues that an endowment composed of even a small fraction of digital advertising revenues could, in a short period of time, create a “new type of engine for independent journalism.”
Mr Waldman harks back to the seminal philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who “built almost 3,000 libraries. All Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Laurene Powell (widow of Steve Jobs) have to do is fund 3,000 journalists.”
My only quibble here is that 3,000 is way, way too few.
But Ms Bell’s modest proposal is more ambitious. She sketches out an organisation with a mission to redefine not only what goes into the news, but how it’s made.
“The new world has to rethink technology as a part of journalism. Much of the promising civic tech ecosystem of the mid-’90s has also been similarly steamrolled by the rise of the commercial social mobile Web.
A new public media organization could reconsider what a digital public media organization might look like, with funding and expertise at the core, and a focus on what it could offer independent journalism everywhere—rather than what it might keep locked up in corporate IP.”
This not just an ideologically-driven leap into a Brave New World of progressive orthodoxy; there is much to like in this quite practical call for a Renaissance in American journalism.
But part of the problem with American journalism, I respectfully submit, is that it ignores that there’s an actual world out there beyond the border.
And that, I also submit, is a good part of the reason why we are currently witnessing the rise of a latter day Know Nothing movement in the United States.
Emily Bell’s vision is appealing, to say the least. But it features an unnecessarily short and sharply-drawn horizon. What possible benefit could Google and Facebook derive from limiting the scope of such an independent media organisation to North America?
Every news organisation in the world is facing the same challenges. Even tiny little rags in a fly-speck nation like ours are fighting tooth and nail to remain relevant. And watching Facebook burgeoning and growing on the backs of stories that we put our health and safety on the line to tell is probably more galling to us than it is to a Manhattanite who, truth be told, could probably find another job if it came to it.
If Google, Apple, Facebook and co. really are serious about saving journalism and actively fostering the same civic engagement that makes it possible for them to flourish, then they’ll build not just a broadcaster, but a globecaster.
How would it work? Models exist. Successful ones, too: The Internet Society, or ISOC, is one such global organisation that manages to assist with the running of the very thing that makes our communication possible. It is neither fish nor fowl where state control or profit motive are concerned. But the fact that you’ve probably never heard of it—in spite of the fact that your internet connection arguably wouldn’t exist without it—is testament to how smoothly and efficiently it runs.
I, for one, am perfectly fine with ignoring the constitutional niceties of nation states in a few key regards:
A global broadcast body, free of the shackles of punitive royalty, copyright and distribution models that currently make the developing world a rabble of pirate nations, would be a supremely Good Thing.
A body that made top of the line funds, tools and talent pools available to everyone—and one which recognises that the continental United States is NOT where the bulk of that currently resides—would benefit everyone.
A body that could pay a reporter a living wage would be kind of cool as well.
So here’s one vote for the Google—or should I say the Global—Broadcasting Corporation. I’d sign up in a heartbeat.