Journalists are easy targets for mockery. Partisanship, clickbait, glorified PR, institutional bias… there is a lot to dislike when it’s done badly, and individual journalists are easy enough to find and dog-pile on social media. Anti-media fervour is rife right now. Still, it’s worth remembering quality journalism is essential to free and open society. The really good stuff holds power to account, shines light in the shadows, and generally keeps us from burying our heads in the sand while the world falls apart. It challenges readers with ugly truths, and often puts itself mortal danger to unearth and publish information in the public interest. Like any sector, there is good journalism and bad journalism. As easy as it is to get indignant about the bad stuff — which absolutely should be called out — the focus should ultimately be constructive. In other words, what can be done to protect and grow media that cares about its readers, viewers, and listeners? A good start is supporting outlets yourself.
It’s not written down anywhere, it’s not engraved in stone outside the head office, but most of us understand the dynamic. It’s the same reason a huge majority of Americans support getting money out of politics. As Upton Sinclair said, “it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Money has a funny knack of creating blind spots. This is absolutely not to say media outlets in the brackets described above can’t produce superb reporting. They can and do. As an at best competent journalist myself I’m in no position to throw stones. Tarring everyone with one brush does no good. Still, we could stand to have a little more journalism funded directly by those it’s supposed to serve — the people.
News has been tied to advertising and wealthy owners so long that the idea of grassroots, crowdfunded alternatives is still pretty novel to some. The Internet has its fair share of problems but one thing it has absolutely made possible is direct connections between creators and audiences. The platforms that make this possible sometimes need their own scrutiny, as I’ve written about before, but by and large it has never been easier to support independent media.
Let me use a personal example. For most of last year I worked at a hyperlocal east London magazine called Roman Road LDN. Although our coverage area was small it has a strong and growing readership. During my time there I started and pushed a reader patron scheme, asking those who valued our work to chip in what they could. Today it has hundreds of donors giving an average of just a few pounds each month. I love that. Is such a model enough to cover all operational costs of a publication? It’s possible. Even being a major pillar changes the dynamic. Every new supporter a publication earns makes it that little bit more accountable to its readers. Not to advertisers, not to governments or or wealthy owners or special interests. To readers. Not everyone can afford to support the media they read, watch, and listen to. That’s absolutely fine. I’m not here to chastise those unable to help. I’m not even here to chastise those who don’t want to help. I do, however, think that if you care about quality, independent journalism there’s no substitute for putting your money where your mouth is.
The first step could be as little as a dollar a month. More and more outlets are adding donor/subscription options. There are some great resources for sites like this. The Centre for Community Journalism has a brilliant directory, for example. You might be surprised just how many publications are running in your area. Of course on the other end of the spectrum there is The New York Times, Quillette, The Intercept, The Federalist… I could go on and on. Everything you see online has to be paid for. If the money’s not coming from you it’s coming from somewhere else, and that somewhere else doesn’t always have the public’s best interests at heart. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on newsrooms across the world. The industry had its own pre-existing conditions to contend with; COVID just sped up the decline. The old models of ad revenue and media barons weren’t only unsustainable, they had created a mass media viewed unfavourably by the public. I’m under no illusions of a sunlit journalistic utopia where crowdfunded outlets are perfect. Mistakes will still be made — some innocent, some malicious — but that’s the price you pay for believing in people and the work they do. Well, that and a few dollars a month. Start small, take ownership of the media your watch, read, and listen to. Instead of the product, you become the client. You become the boss.