Media Commission presages renaissance, or wake

This article first appeared in Village magazine, February 2021 edition.

The first submissions to the Commission on the Future of Media in Ireland suggest that, while everyone involved in journalism knows what the problems are, nobody has any new solutions.

The internet has been eating away at print revenues for years, as both circulation and advertising revenues collapse. More recently, broadcast journalism is under pressure, with audiences spending more time with streaming services and podcasts. For RTÉ, the situation is compounded by the failure to reform the licence fee system as advertising falls, leading to periodic funding crises.

For all that, some of the submissions tackle less frontline concerns. Senator Rónán Mullen, for example, would like more programming about god, and fewer god jokes from the Waterford Whisperers crew.

But for the most part, though the emphasis may shift from broadcast to print, or between the interests of shareholders, management and employees, there is a sameness to the submissions.

Again and again, different media interests recommend defamation law reform, making it harder to bring a case without first going through mediation, or capping damages, or taking the cases out of the hands of juries.

Newspapers groups in particular are fond of demanding increased internet regulation, with demands to “do something” about the digital advertising duopoly of Facebook and Google, and calls for an Irish “digital tax”, usually a sale revenue tax, to be redistributed to traditional journalism.

This raises a new set of issues. Who decides how those funds are handed out? Should the current market shares of existing publishers be frozen in amber forever? Should newer online-only journalism get a share of the pie too? If so, which sources qualify?

One solution proposed is the link licensing laws being rolled out in other countries. Spain was one of the first EU countries to pass a law saying Google had to pay for access to news websites. New copyright laws there said news websites could charge the internet company in order to display a headline and a snippet of text in a search result. The search engine responded by dropping all links to Spanish pages in Google News. Site visits fell, and some publishers announced they would not be collecting any fees.

More recently, France passed a search snippet law which also said the company could not just refuse to link to French websites, since that would be discriminatory. Google Showcase, set up in response, highlights some content in separate news panels, which Google pays a licence for. This allows Google to pay for some content, while avoiding the precedent of paying for search results.

At the moment, Google is threatening to shut down search on Australian news sites as the parliament there considers a similar law.

It is unlikely that licence fees alone – from Google or elsewhere – are enough to rescue journalism. And they would provide a perverse incentives for “search friendly” journalism, driven by the sort of periodic outrages and feeding frenzies that typify much of the social
media experience.

In a sense, it feels like tinkering at the edges. The key issue, identified by Clay Shirky over a decade ago, remains unaddressed. “No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds.”

Take, for example, mundane calls to cut VAT to zero on digital news services. That may give earnings a short term boost, but readers don’t really care about VAT rates. VAT is largely an invisible to consumers. What likely matters more is dark design and stickiness.

Think about how Netflix works. Viewers can join when ever they want. But
just as critically, they can leave whenever they want

Not every reader is a long-term subscriber. Paywalls need to be accessible to casual readers too. There is an audience that doesn’t voraciously consume every issue, but will tune in for a major political story or sporting event. Asking for a twelve month payment up front is a barrier to entry. So is making it near impossible to cancel using “dark design”.

Dark designs leave a bad taste. People eventually find a way through the hotel california mazes designed to prevent them leaving news sites, and once they do, the experience will make it less likely they ever go back.

In the latter days of the Irish Press, it was said that if you checked the obituaries pages, you knew how much circulation had declined that day. Now it feels like the gag applies to the entire industry. It remains to be seen whether the Commission will presage a wake or a
renaissance.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash
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