Prevent a news desert

Information isn’t a commodity for big businesses to profit but a right that should be available to all

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 22nd Jun 2020   12:05 am Updated: 21st Jun 2020   10:23 pm

The growing concentration of media power in the hands of a few rich global technology companies is rapidly changing the media landscape across the world. And now, the pandemic has hit the media business quite hard. Many media houses have been laying off staff and cutting salaries. Many of them, particularly newspaper houses, have stopped publications.

The lifeline of media companies is advertisement, without which it is impossible to survive. As production crashed due to the pandemic, companies started cutting costs by stopping advertisements. Though the electronic and digital media too bore the brunt, the already fragile print media is gasping for breath.

In India, while big newspapers have reduced pages, axed editions or merged titles, several small and medium publishers have shut shop. Many news channels have cut programming. Only the Hindi channels have some business. All the English channels are either incurring losses or surviving on dividends from their Hindi channels or are simply there for other purposes.

Cheap Subscriptions

Since subscription of news channels is dirt cheap, they are dependent on ad revenues. A TV channel subscription generally costs Rs 2-3 a month, whereas newspapers costs are comparatively higher. The digital news industry too hardly gets any subscription from its readers and is solely dependent on advertisements.

Tech giants and distributors like Facebook and Google take away most of the advertisement revenue, leaving hardly anything for smaller organisations. Entertainment and sports channels attract a decent amount of advertisements, chipping away from the marketing budget for news channels. Economic factors arising out of the pandemic have made the advertisement market more volatile.

India has nearly 900 TV channels and half of them are news-oriented. It is not difficult to understand how these channels run their business if we look at the shifting of their ownerships through acquisitions by big business houses, mining companies and influential politicians.

news desert

Tech Takeover

Tech giants distribute a vast amount of content from news publishers on their platforms without paying to produce the contents. Multinationals like Apple, Facebook and Google are leveraging their tech prowess to monetise news for their own profit, but at the expense of journalists and news publishers who produce the content.

Google and Facebook dominate the digital advertisement market, consuming over 61% of all ad revenues. While local media is starving, Facebook alone made over $20 billion in profit in 2018. Its 2019 revenues topped $70 billion. The growth of media audience, especially during the pandemic, has only contributed to the fattening of the tech giants while sounding the death knell for all other media, including digital.

The monopoly of the print media on local information distribution has slowly eroded by the introduction, first, of radio and then television. The final blow came from the internet. Supporters of tech giants argue that the print monopolised the world media for centuries and, therefore, criticism against the tech companies for monopolising the world media market holds no water.

Strategic Taxation

Though within print, concentration of ownership created a monopoly in the hands of a few, thereby narrowing the scope of dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources, myriads of small and medium newspapers and journals played an important role in resisting monopoly in print by ensuring diversity of media content and coverage

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has urged governments to immediately open negotiations with Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM) to collect a tax on revenues generated within their national territory. The IFJ said this strategic taxation should be used to support journalism in the aftermath of the pandemic. The big six US tech firms have been accused of “aggressively avoiding” $100 billion of global tax over the past decade. The tech giants should be construed as news publishers and regulated and taxed as news publishers.

Australia, the European Union and several European countries are contemplating allowing newspapers to bargain collectively with digital platforms. However, such a move may help the survival of big corporate media chains at the expense of smaller media and does little to build new media.

Nixon’s Move

In the United States, Congress during the tenure of President Richard Nixon enacted The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, authorising the formation of joint operating agreements among competing newspaper operations within the same market area. Its drafters argued that this would allow the survival of multiple daily newspapers in a given urban market, where circulation was declining.

However, the passage of the Act was less about protecting editorial diversity within community newspaper markets than about inflating the profit margins of national newspaper chains. The large newspaper houses were able to sustain artificially high profits while driving independent newspapers out of business or forcing them to sell their stake to big publishing houses.

Global Fund

In the present scenario, media observers are apprehending growth of news desert where not only matters of corruption, fraud, incitation of communal or racial passions will be buried, vital information on climate, health, education, etc, too will be covered under the veil of darkness.

Advocates of civil rights, activists of freedom of speech and concerned citizenry should assert that information is not a commodity to be bought and sold by big business houses and corporations but is a right, which should be available to all communities. Cannibalism in the media business has globally reached its peak and a bizarre media ecology is vitiating the world media landscape, which would only serve authoritarian regimes and political bigots.

Creation of a global fund with a remit to promote public interest media can create a sustainable future for media and guarantee citizens their rights to an independent pluralistic media. It would guard against hedge funds, which globally maximise returns, eliminate risk and prevent tech giants from gobbling other media. Such a sustainable media scenario would also provide decent work for journalists and hold power to account.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)


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