Defend Truth


Journalism should be free for big tech and AI to use – here’s why, and how

Journalism should be free for big tech and AI to use – here’s why, and how

Journalism is at a pivotal crossroads. One road is fraught with fragmented legal wrangling amid a precipitous decline. The other is a new path forward, rethinking and reshaping the role of journalism as a public good.

Journalism is crucial in informing society, promoting transparency and protecting democratic institutions. However, the traditional funding models for journalism are under immense strain. They work for only a handful of organisations in a few regions, and the rest suffer at the expense of their audiences and communities – and truth.

To crow about the successes of the subscription models and The New York Times is to ignore the state of the whole industry, which has been shredded alongside a decline in public discourse and the state of democracies.

User- and bot-generated content makes up the majority of the information space that journalism operates in. These channels remain susceptible to hijacking by those with agendas and seeking to influence outcomes among all the good created and the new knowledge they’ve opened up. The need for professionally and ethically produced journalism has never been greater — even as the number of practitioners dwindles with rising sustainability challenges.

Making journalism freely available to big tech and AI companies would benefit society in the long term. However, to make this work, we need to acknowledge journalism as a public good and fund it, in part, like other public goods.

Journalism is experiencing a market failure, defined as “where there is still value in the product or service produced, but the economics no longer work to sustain its production”.

There are only two options for responding to a market failure: philanthropy and policy reform. While philanthropy can play a role, it is not enough to fill the hole, even in the US, the world’s biggest media market and philanthropy sector.

We need a comprehensive suite of laws and regulations supporting public interest journalism production. If we have that in place, then whatever is produced will benefit society, human or otherwise.

The benefits of this approach would be wide-ranging: more public-interest journalism would be created rather than attention-seeking content. There would be fewer legal disputes with the tech industry, benefiting only a few well-known brands or those with the biggest legal teams and political clout. It would mean fewer paywalls and greater access to quality journalism.

We would also have a viable model for sustaining public interest journalism that eludes most publishers today.

Journalism as a public good

A public good is a commodity or service provided to all members of a society, either by the government or by a private individual or organisation. Public goods are characterised by their non-excludability and non-rivalrous consumption.

This means no one can be excluded from using the good, and one person’s use of it does not reduce its availability to others.

Journalism fits neatly into this definition. As outlined in a Unesco report, journalism is essential for the functioning of democracy, fostering informed citizenry and promoting societal wellbeing.

journalism public good

Unesco has published a 60-page report supporting journalism as a public good.

Despite this, 85% of the world has experienced a decline in press freedom, proving that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working.

At the same time, we have seen the rise and celebration of paywalls as a saviour for the industry. While these models work for some publishers in some countries, it means only those who can afford to pay to get quality journalism. Most humans must try to pick out trustworthy information in a sea of misinformation and disinformation.

Everyone should have access to accurate and timely information. This access should be non-rivalrous because one person’s news consumption does not detract from another’s ability to access it.

The United Nations has recognised the right to access information as a fundamental human right, particularly through Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Some constitutions even include the right to information in their bill of human rights, and the South African constitutional court recognised the role of the press in protecting its young and fragile democracy.

The current dilemma

However, journalism is often treated more like a private good in the current media landscape. And that is the root of the problem we aren’t addressing when we tell publishers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or run to courts for isolated legal compensation.

The rise of paywalls and subscription models has restricted access to quality journalism, creating further information silos that favour those who can afford to pay. The majority are then informed through social media channels, where publishers must first debate the return on investment for publishing their work there.

In times of urgent public importance, like natural disasters and national elections, paywalled operators often acknowledge journalism’s natural form to be freely accessible when they drop their gated access “in the interests of the greater good”.

If we follow this alternative path towards funding journalism as the public good it is, we can create a more appealing scenario in which this is permanently possible.

Fighting with big tech and AI companies

With their vast resources, big tech companies can capitalise on the journalistic content publishers produce. AI models have been trained on scraped global journalism sources, among many others, and generative search results are compiled using the work of news publishers.

Now, big news media is fighting back (or rather, those formerly known as big news media). This dynamic is problematic for several reasons. It creates a power imbalance, where only well-funded publishers or those with strong legal teams and political connections can negotiate favourable terms with tech giants. Smaller publishers from the global south or publishing in languages other than English are left out.

The other “far-out” consideration is that these AI models could become the grandfathers of superintelligence—something our human brains can’t fully comprehend or its potential impact.

Do we want these super intelligent “beings” influenced by stuff scraped from the corners of the internet? Or would we be better off having our journalism mixed in with whatever they are trained with?

Whether you believe in the concept of “the singularity” or not, the quality of training data in models is paramount, and we can’t deny the rising influence these models have on our lives.

Public parks, as a metaphor

Some media critics argue that we publishers have failed to create a product worth paying for and that if we raise our game, we’d all be okay. While we’ve certainly scored many own goals and produced below-par work in the past, the reality is more nuanced than that.

Imagine a park near your home. Hopefully, we can still agree that parks are good for society and should be freely available. We should have no qualms about our taxes being spent on the park’s upkeep, and we’re generally happy we’re still investing in green spaces.

You might go through periods of your life when you don’t use the park at all and other times, perhaps with a young child, when you use it every day.

Overall, the notion of parks benefiting society is agreeable — whether you use them regularly or not. But what would happen if parks weren’t funded at source and neighbourhoods were instead asked to contribute directly to the maintenance of parks?

Without hesitation, I would argue that some parks might continue to operate, perhaps even thrive, but most parks would slowly die off due to apathy. Because humans. And that is the same thing happening in journalism.

What qualifies as public-interest journalism?

In its 2021 report on “Media Sustainability and Universal Access to Journalism” by the South African National Editors Forum, the organisation settled on a definition for qualifying media as follows:

“Public interest journalism refers to journalistic activity that is central to the democratic function and the protection and promotion of the South African Constitution, including investigative journalism, reporting on the daily affairs of public institutions, and local journalism focused on the generation of public interest stories in towns and villages and underserved rural areas.”

In this model of public finance support, the only qualifying criteria should be whether an organisation publishes public interest journalism and whether that is freely available. Whether it’s incorporated as a for-profit company or non-profit or any variation, it shouldn’t matter. It’s the work that counts.

A new funding model

To address these issues, I propose a new funding model where journalism is treated explicitly as a public good.

Government policies that provide tax rebates and incentives to news publishers could facilitate this. Every taxpayer would be given a tax credit for non-profit or for-profit public interest publishers. This would encourage market dynamics where excellence is rewarded.

Sure, some bad actors will appeal to parts of society, but on the whole, better public interest practitioners will thrive. We can use the tax system similarly to encourage business advertising with rebates and investors with depreciation allowances.

Additionally, investigative journalism outfits could claim a percentage of assets recovered or fines imposed from their work, incentivising more public interest journalism in this space, especially at the local level, where this practice has been all but lost.

journalism funding modle

A comprehensive suite of laws is required, not just one or two measures.

Under this model, big tech and AI companies would have free access to journalistic content, much like how individuals can access public libraries, learn from that knowledge and create new and wonderful things.

If nation-states feel the need to tax these big tech companies that extract profits without paying local income tax, that should be considered, too, in light of supporting local tax regimes.

Critical success factors

For this plan to work, we need a few essential components.

  1. A pioneer state or country that appreciates journalism as a public good and has a high Press Freedom Index rating.
  2. An agreed definition of what qualifies as public interest journalism.
  3. A “source” body of work that can be shared globally on how to campaign for this with draft legislation tailored by interested regional, state or national lawmakers.
  4. Defined measure of success to assess the effectiveness of legislation, eg number of local news publishers, new jobs in journalism, impact tracking: assets recovered, cases of corruption, arrests, etc.

The successes can be documented once the first country adopts these measures, and others will be inspired to follow suit with a plan that can be easily replicated.

Benefits of the proposed model

There are several compelling benefits to this approach:

  • Reduced legal conflicts: By establishing a clear framework for using journalistic content, we can minimise the legal wrangling between publishers and tech companies. This would save time and resources for both parties, potentially fostering a more collaborative relationship.
  • More public interest journalism: With a reliable funding stream that is not dependent on advertising or subscription models, publishers can focus on creating journalism that serves the public interest. Journalism would be more aligned with its purpose of serving society’s needs.
  • Diverse revenue streams: Publishers will have another significant revenue stream to add to the mix that incentivises public interest journalism more closely aligned with society’s needs. This will create healthier and more sustainable organisations producing more needs-driven journalism.
  • Healthier tax systems: While rebates and incentives are short-term investments, the long-term returns to the tax system will be huge in better-functioning societies, with less corruption and more assets recovered by the state.
  • Levelling the playing field: Smaller publishers and those outside Europe and the US would benefit from the same support as larger ones, allowing for a more diverse media landscape. This would enhance the plurality of voices and perspectives in the public discourse.
  • Innovation in journalism: With the financial pressure alleviated and rebates for R&D, publishers would be better able to experiment with new formats and technologies, potentially leading to innovative storytelling and engaging audiences.

Treating journalism as a public good and making it freely available to everyone, including big tech and AI companies, is a new path that addresses the industry’s current challenges. While searching for sustainable solutions through business models and legal challenges, we forget that policy reform is the most effective response to market failure.

By implementing a comprehensive suite of tax rebates, incentives and compensation mechanisms, we can ensure that journalism continues to serve its vital role in society. This model promotes fairness, encourages the creation of public interest journalism and benefits a broader range of publishers.

By embracing this new funding model, we can create a more equitable and informed society in which the power of journalism is harnessed for the greater good and we spend less time fighting with big tech and AI companies. DM

Styli Charalambous is CEO of Daily Maverick. 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    I like your park analogy. One does not need to visit the park to gain the benefit of the public good because being in a society with well kept parks is a benefit of psychological health in itself, even if you never walk it.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Excellent start – but we need a broader approach to manage government’s responsibility to provide services expected, in terms of the Social Compact, that they are empowered to provide – the quid pro quo to levying taxes on citizenry? In Hoedspruit, we have no fire service and no firemen for example.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Excellent start – but we need a broader approach to manage government’s responsibility to provide services expected, in terms of the Social Compact, that they are empowered to provide – the quid pro quo to levying taxes on citizenry? In Hoedspruit, we have no fire service and no firemen for example.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Spreading journalism (and testing misinformation) is good, BUT not the way it is running now.

    NYT is suing OpenAI and I am cheering for NYT. NYT proved that OpenAI reproduced virtually verbatim NYT content, without accreditation, to paying clients of OpenAI. That is theft and fraud.

  • Jaco le Roux says:

    It’s clear that LLM models trained on scraped data from e.g. social media, Reddit, Quora, etc are of low quality. Newspaper’s libraries are the equivalent of Low-background steel (pre-atomic steel). Extremely valuable to big tech. Newspapers need to be much bolder in negotiating terms with Big Tech.

  • Tim Bester says:

    If the term “journalism” is not precisely defined, or cannot be defined, this opinion piece lacks any common sense. Seeking funding is what good marketing is all about. The most important step is to define your playing field and the game you are best able to play.
    Does a dribble of foodie articles have anything to do with defending truth.
    Or burning our planet?
    Or not allowing any comment on the Chinese wuhan virus killing fields?
    Or a continuous and vacuous criticism of the DA and their governance in the Cape of Good hope?
    Hubris dressed as journalism has never worked. The dustbins of the fourth estate are filled with the results of such myopia.
    It is a new world, adapt or die.
    Stay woke go broke
    be bright go right…

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    Like yr definition of Market Failure. However in managing anything that can be considered a Public Good it is worth studying Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for governing a CPR-PG. There is the danger that government would only pass tax-breaks to newspapers that publish pro-government articles.

    • MT Wessels says:

      Correct. I agree with the tenets of being rewarded for the effort which then becomes a public service (and consumed by the scrapers – AI/LLM). But the definition of what is being rewarded and the value there-of needs to be clear – including the independent evaluation and valuation processes.
      It can only be factual NEWS reporting (printed with sources and caveats where applicable) and specifically investigative journalism pieces (all still subject to crime injury etc). What happened, when it happened, who said what, description, reporting; dates, sources, confirmation, scientific consensus, expressions of doubt where applicable. No judgement or emotion or slant.
      Tricky but not impossible.

  • John Strydom says:

    AI could ultimately just continue to steal news media content. Endless lawsuits like the NYT’s seems a cumbersome way to deal with this threat; how does one monetise the content of a media outlet, and especially the smaller ones?
    Seems to me that adopting a completely different funding model is very sensible.

    • Johan Buys says:

      John, what I hope from the NYT lawsuit is court order:
      1. A very large financial penalty.
      2. That OpenAI dump its learnings and re-learn only on licensed content.
      3. That OpenAI must reference materials used in its output.
      4. That OpenAI must conduct a plagiarism test on its output.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    What is the “public good”? Is this not, in so-called democracy, the tyranny of the majority, almost invariably the less educated and those seeking freebies, seeking to extract as much as possible from the contributors (in taxes, ideas and infrastructure etc), such that, so much is extracted that ..?

  • William Kelly says:

    Umm…. Intersting but no. Rewarding investigative journalism for good work done creates the same incentives modern medicine in the private sector has, where the Hippocratic oath has been tossed onto the funeral pyre of Cash is King. It is sadly true. If you want less of a thing, legislate it.

  • Andrew C says:

    Interesting ideas. A pity that the very people who need to put this in place are the people most at risk from it being in place.

  • Nelis DT says:

    My impression is that your proposed solution is too complicated and therefore not a practical one (it could take ages). What about changing DM to a Not-for-profit Organisation and then apply for PBO status at SARS? Then your donors will get tax benefits and it will encourage many more to donate.

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