Investing in democracy — how can we fund journalism in order to save it?

share this article

The health of the fourth estate can be correlated with socioeconomic and sociocultural equilibrium. But in a free-market system, the press is hard-pressed to remain free and fair. Still, who but the free market can come to its rescue?

Journalism is an essential service that is indispensable to democracy. Without paying customers, it withers and dies.

You hear about corrupt politicians because of journalists. You hear about powerful men sexually abusing their female subordinates because of journalists. Faceless corporations may think twice before polluting your air and water if they’re worried about reporters putting their crimes on the evening news. The free press can act as an invisible counter-balance to the established forces of corporate and political power in democracies around the world. But the traditional journalism business model is quickly dying since no one wants to pay for investigative news reporting.

Journalism is an essential service without a paying customer. Democracy dies without it.

Reporters are great at finding fault in other companies and governments, but we have mostly failed to adapt our businesses to the age of the Internet. Jill Abramson’s fantastic book Merchants of Truth talks about the decline of the news business model in great detail. By and large, Google and Facebook ate up the advertising revenue that used to go to newspapers, magazines and websites; it makes economic sense for advertisers to go digital and I don’t see that changing any time soon. United States congressman and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, said Facebook and Google “have gravely threatened journalism in the United States” during last month’s anti-trust hearings. Living in America, I hear stories of smaller, regional newsrooms laying off staff or shutting down completely because of a lack of funds. Several Indian newsrooms recently let staff go due to COVID-19; the journalism business is rarely resilient to an economic crisis. Add to this, the fact that journalists are paid far less than our nemeses in public relations and corporate communications, and I see a slippery slope towards a world without real reporting.

Let me be clear: there is a lot of terrible journalism that we can do without. There are many dishonest actors — the tabloid press, paparazzi, purveyors of prime-time cacophony — who do not serve the greater public good. And before you think I am targeting a certain side of the spectrum of news bias, I do think there are plenty of conservative or right-leaning publications who provide the necessary counterbalance to my left-liberal worldview, and I’m glad for that. There is the caricature of the journalist as a scheming weasel who will eschew ethics for a splashy headline (remember Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter?) and many times this is rooted in reality. Thankfully, though, they make up a loud minority of the thousands of real journalists around the world, an alarming number of whom are killed in the line of duty.



I have not been a journalist for even 10 years, so my opinions are based in relative naivety. I can only say what I see and I’m seeing a bifurcation in the news business, between publications with paying subscribers and publications bankrolled by benevolent owners. Media houses with content so essential that it warrants a paying subscriber base, will be the first pillar. I work for one such publication — a niche trade journal called Power Finance & Risk with a small, dedicated, corporate clientele who view our service as essential to doing business. Trade journals are sustainable because they keep overheads down and become an integrated part of their customers’ ecosystem; a law firm will (hopefully) pay for a subscription to a journal like ours the way they would pay their telephone bill. At the other end of the readership spectrum, the New York Times — profitable and thriving — saw revenue growth last year (subscription sales rose and advertising fell), proving that subscription is possible even in general news.

But I want to talk about the local and regional newspapers who cannot attract paying subscribers or corporate advertisers. These are the publications who send intrepid reporters to local city council meetings, real estate zoning hearings, and contentious criminal trials so that our society can have a public record. There are local issues that the well-capitalised national media cannot cover. When a real estate mogul with mafia ties gets a favorable ruling from local politician, I want a local investigative reporter there to ask the right questions and demand the right documents. These are the journalists who need a new, stable source of funding because the free-market doesn’t correctly value their benefit to society.

I would argue that journalism is a public good — investigative journalism even more so. Public goods are non-rivalrous and, for the most part, non-excludable, meaning they are basically open to everyone in whatever quantity they need. Your local fire department is a simple example. Can you imagine a world where the fire service only come to your burning house if you could afford to pay them? I see journalists the same way I see firefighters: Our society cannot function without them and yet they wouldn’t exist in a free-market system. Thankfully, countries have mostly agreed that certain services are so essential to our survival that we fund them through our taxes. We need to get to this stage with journalism.

Take Germany, for instance, which has a fantastic public television system funded by taxpayers and overseen by independent boards. Public television, as opposed to state television, is designed to be independent of the state, so that it scrutinises whichever government is deserving of examination. It is similar to the licence fee–based BBC model in the UK. It provides impartial news and analysis and keeps its electorate well-informed so they can make good decisions at the ballot box. It is a fundamental cog in the democratic machine. In the age of social-media misinformation and biased partisan 24/7 news channels, this service is more essential than ever. It is not perfect but I would posit that it’s the least imperfect news system in a major democracy that we have today. It’s the long-game that democracies must work towards.

In India, the United States and other democracies careening towards non-lliberalism and authoritarianism, I favour non-profit national investigative journalism funds, overseen by independent boards of directors. Investigative journalism funds already exist, but I would like to see something on a national scale, with the leadership, firepower, and accountability it deserves. The money would sit in a tax-free trust, which would be controlled and allocated by a board comprising senior editors, leaders of media watchdogs, public advocacy non-profits, representatives from the government media regulator and members of the main opposition party. The funds would directly pay for reporters’ salaries and cover the overheads of housing them within an established media company. One idea would be to give out two- and three-year contracts, so that a reporter receiving the grant can plan for their families to move to/live in a certain city in the medium term. Eventually, I would like to see government funds also being put into this trust. The trust’s sources of funding and capital allocations must be professionally audited and opened for public viewing.


I’m not saying we should all buy media stocks, because I think there is major work to be done in refining their business models and leadership. I’m saying that those with the money to shape the world have an opportunity to strengthen a key part of 21st-Century peace.


Tech giants must step up to support the newsrooms they’ve destroyed and the democracies they’re damaging. Facebook and Google have already launched funds to support local journalism in the United States. These are good first steps, but these global companies should be funding newsrooms all over the world, not just in America. I would hope that Apple and Microsoft join Facebook and Google in deploying hundreds of millions of dollars a year into keeping investigative reporters employed, and keeping democracies strong. They can afford it: Apple ($55 billion), Facebook ($18 billion), Google ($34 billion), and Microsoft ($39 billion) made almost $150 billion in net profit last year. They provide the technologies we use to find, view, and share the news — they should directly support news creation too. I would like to see them either pool their donations into a journalism fund or do what Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, did when he bought the Washington Post in 2013.

The Post’s journalistic integrity has not been compromised. The paper still writes articles critical of Amazon and Bezos himself. I wonder if this is proof that the benevolent billionaire ownership model can work? I think any self-respecting editor would quickly resign if there was influence from the commercial side of things. Maybe billionaires can pool their vast wealth into a common long-term, passive equity fund to hold stakes in troubled media companies? It would be great PR, if nothing else.

This billionaire bucket is the funding source I suggest we try in India. When I was a reporter with Forbes India in Mumbai, I realised that there are Indian billionaires who seem to be genuinely interested in building the nation and understand the need for a free and fair press that criticises even them. To me, these billionaires come from families that have been wealthy for generations and that are swayed by their foreign-educated children. Giving away a small portion of their annual philanthropy to a national journalism fund would be for the good of their country. I would hope the Indian journalism fund also sets aside scholarship money for students looking to study journalism and internship grants for young graduates looking to gain work experience.

I would urge Joe Biden, if he is elected U.S. President, to explore some of these ideas. Donald Trump has repeatedly called the press the enemy of the people so these ideas would most likely be off the table if he is re-elected. In India, I would hope that these are schemes that might be tested at the State level by the progressive State governments. Authoritarian governments and large multinational corporations are benefited the most when journalists are silenced.

The top of the 2020 World Press Freedom ranking reads like a list of OECD countries and I would argue that their stable, prosperous political economies are linked to — if not caused in part by — their strong, free journalistic ecosystems. I’m not saying we should all buy media stocks, because I think there is major work to be done in refining their business models and leadership. I’m saying that those with the money to shape the world have an opportunity to strengthen a key part of 21st-Century peace. An investment in the press is an investment in democracy.

(The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hindu or thREAD.)

share this article
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.