Whether we can continue to get the journalism we need, given the declining revenues and funding in journalism, is a concern of many people around the world, including in Hong Kong. To what extent is it possible to have independent journalism under such economic conditions? Before we get there, let’s ask first, what does it mean for journalism to be “independent”? What exactly should it be independent of?
Journalism is often at its best when it can “speak truth to power”, when journalists can ask the questions nobody else wants to ask, or even speak out against the powers-that-be when nobody else has the courage to do so. It is why it is important to think about how journalism is funded, who pays the bill and who subsequently can exert pressure on editors and journalists. For example, newspapers rely on advertisers (57%) more so than circulation (36%) for their revenues (Pew, 2015). That means it is important for newspapers to keep advertisers happy. It also means that these advertisers can exert disproportional pressure and influence: this is a problem if we agree that journalism is not only a business, but also serves a larger, indeed a public function to society. It is a lesson Hong Kong learned the hard way when House News, an online news outlet, closed down in 2014 because several major advertisers pulled out because of political pressure (SCMP, 2014). In the words of Tsoi, the founder of House News:
“Despite our popularity, many big companies don’t place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing”.
So how can we have “independent” journalism and what kind of funding would this require? We need to start thinking about what I call models of “decentralized funding” for journalism. “Centralized funding” is when your funding comes from only a few, and subsequently, powerful and influential sources. In contrast, “decentralized funding” is when funding comes from many small amounts provided by multiple funders, or indeed, citizens. If all these small amounts add up to something significant, then that creates a situation where no particular source is powerful enough to exert meaningful influence, and where journalism can be more or less “independent”. But is that possible? Here are a few examples of journalism that rely on “decentralized funding”. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor do I claim these are entirely new phenomena; that said, new technologies have given rise to several interesting ideas and opportunities worth exploring.
Crowdfunding: websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Fringebacker are online platforms that enable a project to raise funds from a large number of people. Recent cases of journalism funded this way in Hong Kong include Factwire and Hong Kong Free Press. Patreon is another example of a crowdfunding platform, but instead of a one-time fundraising effort to jumpstart a project (like Factwire and HK Free Press) it instead allows people to be a “patron”; that’s to say, to financially support an individual or project on a regular basis.
Subscription: traditional subscription still exists, even online. For example, Malaysiakini, an online news website in, you guessed it, Malaysia, receives significant funding from its many subscribers who are willing to pay a sum every month. People are willing to subscribe, and pay money, because whereas the traditional media in Malaysia are highly censored, the online media are still relatively free and open: the internet is where they can get actual news. Malaysia’s situation is a bit peculiar like that: thanks to a pledge it made in 1998 in an attempt to attract foreign investment, the government will not censor the internet (Open Net).
Micro-payment: for the longest time, micro-payment was seen as the holy grail that would save quality journalism. While this has yet to happen, and I am not sure if it ever will, that doesn’t mean there are no interesting changes in this domain: in China, several platforms now allow users to “tip” content they like. For example, WeChat allows its users to tip writers for posts they like.
Centralized, but independent: Last but not least, independent journalism does not necessarily require “decentralized funding” to exist. Traditionally, foundations have always played an important role in funding important works of journalism. A recent example is ProPublica, funded by the Sandler Foundation, whose aim is to do quality investigative journalism. That said, many places around the world do not have the necessary foundations that have an explicit mission to serve the public interest, including in Hong Kong, a society that is already relatively well-off (I’ve never seen so many luxury cars than here in Hong Kong).
It is paramount that we start thinking and experimenting with models of “decentralized funding” for journalism; so that we can continue to get the journalism we need. If you know of any examples of decentralized funding that I should learn more about, I’d love to hear about them!