Media in the United States are not alone in struggling to find a new model for sustainability and profitability. Anne Nelson, author, lecturer and a research fellow at the Saltzmann Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, surveyed more than 220 individual newspapers and media executives in more than 60 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Her report, “Financially Viable Media in Emerging and Developing Markets," described how they were dealing with the problem. Newspapers around the word varied in their tactics based on local literacy, stages of economic development, and strength of their digital infrastructure. Nelson was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the New York Institute for the Humanities. Her most recent book is Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.
“Prestigious news organizations in the U.S. and abroad gravely underestimated the challenge presented by digital platforms as they emerged over the past two decades, especially their capacity to blow up the traditional advertising,” Nelson says.
Click here to read her report.
How did you become interested in this topic and this research?
I spent the early stage of my career as a reporter in Latin America, covering the war in El Salvador and Guatemala and elections in the region. From there I became the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (1988-1992) and the director of the International Program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (1995-2002). I also served as a board member and advisor for various international training programs for journalism. I became keenly aware that U.S. institutions were investing in improving the quality of journalism abroad, but there was often not a market or a political culture to sustain high quality professional independent journalism. I was lucky to find organizations such as the World Association of Newspapers and the Center for International Media Assistance that shared my concerns and commissioned my research. The problem is more urgent than ever, as the business model for professional print and broadcast journalism has continued to weaken in the U.S. and abroad.
What were some of the major research findings in the academy or industry that preceded your work?
I'd say that the industry and the donor communities were ahead of academia in this field. I found that academics involved in journalism and media studies fell into two camps -- either engaged in a noble pursuit of quality, believing that the "church and state" divide with the business side was an immutable truth, or building a sociological model of mass communications that was equally dismissive of business models. Part of the problem was that the business model began to fall apart just as newspaper and broadcast profits reached their apex in the 1990's. It seemed unlikely to them that the new digital world would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but that's what happened. Institutions such as the World Bank, the World Association of Newspapers, and the Center for International Media Assistance were more prone to look at the eroding business models, and I drew heavily on their previous research that showed which news organizations were struggling. I also benefited from the International Center for Journalists, which sent U.S. journalists abroad to train international partners and where I sat on the selection committee. They made a practice of sending people from the business side as well as editorial, and they came back with valuable insights, although these weren’t always published.
What did you learn from your research?
- Prestigious news organizations in the U.S. and abroad gravely underestimated the challenge presented by digital platforms as they emerged over the past two decades, especially their capacity to blow up the traditional advertising model. Therefore, they didn't seek ways to shape regulation that would have helped protect journalism as a public good at a time when the new laws and the norms were in formation.
- The erosion of the newspaper industry differed greatly in different regions, based on factors such as literacy, stages of economic development, and speed of creation of digital infrastructure. When U.S. and some western European news media were suffering major decline, newspapers were earning robust profits in less developed markets such as India and Colombia. This could often be attributed to populations with growing literacy rates and blue-collar or middle-class employment -- people who could buy a paper on the way to work, but couldn’t afford much of a data plan for their mobile phones. Tabloids and other mass-market products were often the beneficiaries.
- The biggest mistake of the newspaper industry was to fail to understand the power of digital advertising and its ability to micro-target the consumer.
- Quality professional journalism is a necessary pillar of democracy, on both a national and a local level. In the U.S., local and regional journalism have suffered the worst, and the news deserts have had a visible impact on state-level political culture. The countries that have managed this crisis the best, such as Sweden, have offered state financial support for local journalism without editorial influence.
What are the implications of your research?
As the United States crossed the 200,000 mark in COVID-19 deaths, we saw the dolorous effect of misinformation on our public welfare. A robust news media would have gone far in averting this disaster and the additional casualties that await us. Areas of the U.S. lost the benefit of fact-based reporting with a respect for science and informed public policy. This has left their populations prey to flawed and malicious misinformation emanating from partisan sources and bad actors from abroad. (See https://washingtonspectator.org/anatomy-of-deceit/). One voice that addresses the question of solutions is Victor Pickard in his book Democracy Without Journalism? There he demonstrates the need for the public good of journalism in a democratic society and points to models such as Sweden, where government support has preserved its benefits. In my new book, Shadow Network, I describe the “news deserts” in the U.S., and the highly politicized media outlets that are exploiting them in the guise of “news” operations.
Interview conducted by Bill Arthur[caption id="attachment_5765" align="alignright" width="250"] Anne Nelson, research fellow at the Saltzmann Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs[/caption]
Media in the United States are not alone in struggling to find a new model for sustainability and profitability. Anne Nelson, author, lecturer and a... -->