Why should the public invest in journalism? Why is the media unable to sustain investigative journalism on its own steam?
The legendary VICE Media, once valued at $5.7 billion at its peak, filed bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year. It was sold to its major credit lenders, to whom VICE Media owed $474.6 million, for a miserly $350 million.
BuzzFeed News, which delivered several Pulitzer Prize winning stories for almost a decade, permanently shut down its newsroom in April, just a few weeks before VICE Media formally filed for bankruptcy.
These are just two of the most prominent names in the media industry which threw in the towel in 2023, a year which has seen massive downsizing operations in several media outlets across the globe.
Both of these shrunken heavyweights made waves at a time when the growth of social media seemed unstoppable. The sensation that this online revolution would bring about boundless possibilities buoyed a sense of false optimism about the future.
Before the internet changed everything, legacy newspapers had their own heyday, too. As the relevance of physical copies of newspapers dwindled and printing presses across the world began grounding to a halt at a rate that was practically proportional to the meteoric rise of the internet, the media industry was faced with a major turning point: adapt and survive, or perish.
Just look at where the legions of formerly loyal advertisers went. The gatekeepers of the internet as we know it today – Google, Meta, X – have hoovered up most of the advertising money that used to go into print.
The advertising revenue generated by Google Ads on a typical news portal’s website is negligible unless it runs into hundreds of thousands of views a month. The real revenue that is generated by those ads is far greater, and much of it goes into the pockets of cutthroat multinationals who have the means to oppose legislation that is meant to curb their excessive power.
Whatever doesn’t get sucked up by the gatekeepers goes straight into the pockets of media outlets who will gladly carve out space from their digital real estate for sponsored posts and glossy features highlighting the virtues of public figures who, for all you know, may as well be a bunch of degenerates who just so happened to pay enough money to make the interviewer magically sing their praises.
Which brings me to the next point – press freedom has been deteriorating everywhere over the years, to the point where it is not sustainable in most regions across the globe.
I quote an excerpt from the latest edition of Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index:
“According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index – which evaluates the environment for journalism in 180 countries and territories and is published on World Press Freedom Day (3 May) – the situation is “very serious” in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, “problematic” in 55, and “good” or “satisfactory” in 52 countries. In other words, the environment for journalism is “bad” in seven out of ten countries, and satisfactory in only three out of ten.”
The main reason why the environment for journalism is so bad is because governments across the world have failed to eliminate the root cause of the issues which lead to this situation in the first place. Governments have failed to address systemic corruption, abuse of power, and the opaqueness of the relationship between public finances and private interests.
This situation allows for the rot of criminality to take hold of state institutions in the same exact way they’ve done so in Malta.
It creates the climate of impunity in which journalists, even in traditionally democratic regions like the European Union, are murdered specifically for investigating the connections between organised crime and corrupt authorities.
Then, there are newfound threats (like artificial intelligence, for instance). These are threats which we are all yet to make sense of, and they are right here on our doorstep.
So what does all of this mean for investigative journalism across the world?
That’s the part where you – the reader – come in.
How is public investment in journalism better than state or private funding?
When both state and private interests collude together to screw the taxpayer for their own benefit, investigative journalism stands diametrically opposed to the people who are responsible for these crimes.
In other words, no government, no major enterprise protecting its profits, benefits from investigative journalism. On the contrary, they have an active interest in silencing the free press and suppressing its ability to raise public consciousness about their crimes.
The press, of course, faces an existential dilemma in this regard.
Much of its advertising revenue, now a negligible trickle, came from these same public and private interests peddling their wares in exchange for money. Some of it still does, and so, those strings remain firmly attached.
While there are grants that journalists can tap into and there is plenty of funding available to go around as long as you don’t mind filling in mountains of paperwork, there is a profoundly uncomfortable truth we must acknowledge.
Investigative journalism is not as financially viable as it used to be, because most media house owners will lean on easy sponsored ad money far more than they will lean on generating high-impact stories that keep people reading and keep advertisers paying.
This is why public funding, aided along the way by transparent private funding from entities like Journalism Fund, is increasingly looking like the only real remaining option for investigative journalism that is relevant, effective, and reliable.
Journalists who are being paid out of public funding owe their living to the general public and to the publicly accountable funds that make their work possible, not the government or some profligate baron like Rupert Murdoch.
We owe no loyalty to any advertiser who may have an interest in keeping things nice and quiet, we have no paymaster except for you, the person reading our work and benefiting from our efforts.
Who should the public invest in, and why should they invest in this project specifically?
It is not my prerogative to tell you who else to invest in. I highly encourage you to look into who is writing the stories you read and what their angle says about them and their employers, and will leave that decision up to you after you do your own homework.
What I can tell you is that reliance on public funding and private journalism-oriented funds are generally marks of quality. Transparency and self-accountability are also important.
There are also more obvious quality markers, like being affiliated with a major consortium or network like the ICIJ or GIJN. Any project or newsroom which has genuine ties with such a network is a guaranteed investment in public interest journalism.
Another thing I can tell you is that I can only speak for myself and my own project.
I am a journalist who became a journalist out of a desire to take my activism work further, to be on the frontlines of reporting on the latest, greatest scandal and to do justice to the injustices I witness everyday.
I’ve been involved in local civil society since I was 21 years old. It’s been seven years since I picked up my first placard at a protest organised by Moviment Graffitti following the Panama Papers revelations. Besides being involved in Moviment Graffitti, I’ve also worked regularly with Repubblika and Occupy Justice and I’ve spoken several times at Daphne Caruana Galizia’s monthly vigils.
Throughout my time as an activist and then, as a journalist, I’ve always been consistent in my actions and in my statements and I’ve always fought for one, very straightforward agenda: to fight against the corrupt mafia that has taken over our country with all the means at my disposal and with no mercy.
That is what I can promise you as the reader who I hope will consider donating to this project: unwavering loyalty to those values, even if it comes at a personal cost, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it doesn’t pay as well as other gigs might.
Tomorrow, I will be starting a daily commentary column on this website. I hope you’ll be around to read it, support it, and engage with it.