We all know quality journalism needs saving – but who gets to decide what quality means?

Cairncross has some good suggestions, but it can’t escape the problem of who gets to define “high-quality journalism”. 

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Another day, another report about quite how screwed journalism is in the UK. The Cairncross Review published this week, is the latest to lay out the bleak future for news, and comes, with depressingly good timing, just weeks after the latest round of media layoffs. These days, whatever week you pick to talk about how much trouble journalism is in, you’ll probably be able to find a timely real-world example to underline your point.

The report’s analysis of the many, many problems with news is relatively comprehensive and for the most part uncontroversial. The atomised way people get news from multiple different sources, the dominance of the two big platforms, Google and Facebook, and the accompanying difficulty of getting anything but the tiniest slice of digital advertising to make up for lost print ad money – all are there.

Its criticism of local newspaper groups for milking their publications for profit to service debt, leaving them without the necessary investment to adapt to the web, is also an important reminder that it isn’t only the internet that has torn holes in the provision of local information. But then these are all issues that have been identified, discussed and debated already.

The diagnosis offers little to disagree with; but the proposed treatment is more controversial.

Some of the smaller, practical suggestions are welcome. Applying the same 20 per cent VAT exemption for digital subscriptions as currently applies to sales of print newspapers and magazines is a no-brainer. Unless there’s some public health benefit to wood pulp that I’m not aware of, why shouldn’t the rules be the same for information delivered in bytes as when it comes in ink and paper?

An innovation fund to support new technology and business models is also promising. Knowledge sharing, something competing newspapers have never exactly been keen on, has become more and more vital as the industry realises its real competitors are the newer, bigger and much more powerful denizens of Silicon Valley. Having a central fund to coordinate and support industry-wide efforts could make a real difference.

But beyond these small-scale interventions, the report’s proposals start to run aground on some of the fundamental principles of journalism that make it worth saving.

The report says that:

“Intervention may be needed to determine what, and how, news is presented online, to improve people’s ability to assess the quality of online news.”

and

“Given the evidence of a market failure in the supply of public-interest news, public intervention may be the only remedy.”

Effectively, there should be intervention to both provide some direct funding to worthy journalism, and some intervention to make platforms mark out some news as more trustworthy.

It’s difficult to quibble with the goals, but the key problem is how to define the journalism that deserves support. The report acknowledges that what constitutes “high quality journalism” is at its heart subjective, but then goes on to base virtually all its calls for action around protecting this amorphous concept. Yet in a world where anyone can record an event and broadcast it to the web instantaneously, many would struggle to agree on a definition of “journalism”, let alone “high-quality”.

Targeted help, be it funding or some sort of privileged position on Google or Facebook, involves someone, somewhere, choosing what is and isn’t high quality, accurate, trustworthy and reliable. The same goes for defining “public interest”, another core concept the report relies on. The old retort from tabloid editors that the best measure of public interest is what interests the public may be laughable, but it’s also a lot less terrifying than “what the government thinks people should be interested in”.

When platforms argue that they shouldn’t be the arbiters of what is true and what is fake, what is worthy and what isn’t, they are doing so in their own interest. But they’re also not wrong. Getting a state body, even an arm’s length regulator, to do it for them isn’t much better, and could be a lot worse.

Journalism only has public value because of its independence, its ability to challenge power, be it private companies or governments. It has regularly failed to do so, either through the involvement of vested interests or simple incompetence and underfunding. But formalising the involvement of the government in deciding what is, and isn’t good journalism is not going to solve any of those problems.

The supply of quality information and public debate is as important to a well-functioning society as electricity, or even water. But uniquely, unlike those other public goods, journalism’s worth relies on, and is nullified without, its independence. 

There are good ideas in the Cairncross report, as there have been in previous reports addressing the decline of journalism. But the news business has to work out a sustainable future that will stand on its own or it will lose a fundamental part of why it is worth saving in the first place.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.