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To Pay, or Not to Pay, That is the Question

Emma Townsend

A short summary of the wise words of BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan on the future of the media, and why there’s a revolution, not just an evolution, afoot. Amol Rajan was guest speaker at Prosek’s most recent Corporate Communicators Roundtable in London, which convenes senior marketing and corporate communications professionals to discuss and debate issues facing our industry.  

Fresh from an exclusive interview with Jimmy Wales on the launch of Wikitribune, Amol commenced his address by outlining the battle lines forming between technology and traditional media, and the no man’s land in between that PRs are left to navigate.

Starting with a healthy but pessimistic dose of reality, Amol proclaimed that technology’s idealistic aim to democratize the media has failed. Tech has, instead, become the media’s ‘handmaiden of death’. This handmaiden is reliant on two distinct methods: the suffocating pressure of the advertisement-based model on editorial principles, and the propensity of technology platforms to accelerate and encourage the prevalence of fake news. 

Firstly, let us consider the perils and limitations of the advertisement-based model. It stands to reason that if you are reliant on advertisement-based revenue, then your business model and subsequent loyalty will lie with your advertisers as opposed to your readers. This ‘click bait’ bias will not only undermine the editorial integrity of the publication, but it is also a business model with a limited shelf life. As Amol argues, Facebook and Google are dominating digital advertisement budgets, and the intense competition for spend is unleashing unsustainable pressure on traditional publications and their editors. Just this Wednesday, Facebook announced that its digital advertising revenue had increased yet again, to 98% of its quarterly revenue.

The second issue at play is the propensity of technology platforms to accelerate and encourage the prevalence of fake news. Whilst these social media and internet giants vehemently deny the responsibility of publishers and seek to reaffirm their status as platforms, their role in the distribution of both authentic and fake news cannot be ignored.  Facebook has recently announced the launch of the News Integrity Initiative and the introduction of a new education tool to help counteract the fake news phenomenon.  However, despite the honorable intentions of such endeavors, as Amol points out, this is yet another example of technology giants or philanthropists (depending on how you choose to view them) controlling and shaping the future of news consumption. This is a future where the media is dependent on charity as opposed to a committed customer base. The Guardian is one such example of the flaws of this model, with falling profits and readership, their donation-based model looks to be running out of steam.  

However, there is still hope! The growing subscriptions to, and circulations of, The Spectator, New Statesman, and The Economist demonstrate that readers are willing to pay for quality journalism.  The Financial Times' annual results across both digital and print show that the infamous salmon pink newspaper has increased its readership by eight per cent this year, moving it closer to the ambitious 1 million by 2022 set by Chief Executive John Ridding. A similar resurgence in subscriptions has taken place across the pond at The New York Times. Ironically, Trump’s contention of hard fact and assertions of editorial bias seem to have reasserted the critical importance of quality journalism and the fundamental nature of truth.

Amol concluded his argument with a simple assertion ‘make news pay’ -  if you invest financially, you will invest emotionally.  It is his belief that profit is the ‘ultimate’ and ‘best guarantee’ of editorial independence and integrity.  Reliance on the ad-based model and on the whims of charity is a short-term fix which will not sustain and support quality journalism. So, next time you question whether it’s really worth paying for your content, remember the future of the media rests on your decision…

Amol has just been announced as the new presenter of The Media Show, Radio 4's weekly review of the latest stories and trends emerging across the global media industry. Amol makes his debut on 10 May. 

About Amol Rajan
Amol Rajan embarked on his career in journalism whilst studying English at Cambridge where he edited the student paper Varsity. After two years working as a presenter and researcher for Channel 5’s Wright Stuff Rajan started as a reporter at The Independent. Rajan spent almost 10 years at The Independent working across multiple desks supplemented in turn by a stint as a columnist for The Evening Standard. In 2013 aged 29, Rajan became the first non-white editor of a national newspaper. When The Independent announced it was retiring the print edition in February 2016, and continuing as only an online operation, Rajan was retained for the transition period as "editor-at-large".

Rajan accepted the role as the BBC's first Media Editor in December 2016.  He is a regular guest commentator on ITV, Channel 5 and across the BBC roster of news programmes and is the host of BBC Asian Networks Big Debate, Weekdays 10am-1pm.

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