The concept of a “free press” comprises
- free, as in free speech
- independent, as in free from conflict of interest
- pluralistic, as in free marketplace of ideas
Take away any of those elements and the system is weakened. Authoritarian states always restrict free speech, and the results are well known. If your press consists of multiple, free-speech publishers all dependent on the government, for example, then you would have to read their publications with heightened scrutiny. And if you take away pluralism by gating access to journalism through a single large content distributor, for example, then your views become colored by the biases of the distributor. This is all old news, of course (pun intended).
As the “press” has moved online, people have come to expect another “freedom”: free as in beer, no charge. That’s eroded publishers’ traditional revenue streams, as many have written about already, and now the news has become a tough business to be in. This is also not a new observation.
What happens if, in a worst-case scenario, high-quality investigative journalism becomes financially unsustainable and collapses? Previously I’ve imagined this leaving behind a news vacuum, to be filled with clickbait rotgut. (Maybe some think we’re heading into that territory already.) This would be an Idiocracy-style tragedy, to be sure. But now there’s something new on the horizon.
In this US election cycle, attempts by foreign governments to influence American thought through reporting with particular biases have become higher profile. (Or you might call it “propaganda” if so inclined.) Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s something we should eagerly welcome into a pluralistic free press; at best it provides another perspective to consider, and at worst we can roll our eyes and ignore it. And, it’s a big middle-finger to authoritarian regimes who would, and have, banned the same at home. The challenge comes from the fact that, when financially sustained by those foreign governments, those news outlets don’t face the same revenue-generation constraints as independent outlets.
Not to dabble in tinfoil-hat paranoia, but now imagine the worst-case scenario above again, but with foreign-government-controlled news outlets, with their own ulterior motives, ready to fill the vacuum. By remaining free-as-in-no-charge and presenting the semblance of traditional journalism, they might be able to exert a real influence. That would have been completely unthinkable thirty years ago, for a variety of reasons.
What’s the solution? We have to financially support good reporting. With the way online news is evolving, it’s almost a patriotic duty now as well; that’s not a thought that had occurred to me before. I don’t want to get too sidetracked on the mechanics of financial support since lots has been written about it too. Subscriptions are fine but have some flaws; crowdfunded journalism is interesting; micropayments, for example as implemented in the Brave browser, is a new idea that might have potential. But really it can be all of the above. The important thing is,
Please, pay for our free press!