Journalism is essential to democracy but journalism in Scotland is badly under-resourced. It is difficult to hold politics to account in the way the media should if media outlets do not have the resources to undertake proper scrutiny. This could be fixed by building a system of ‘public journalism’ by setting up a Public News Agency.
This would be publicly funded and would employ journalists directly, paying a decent professional salary. It would function without explicit ideological editorial pressure. Journalists would provide the broad and accurate information we need by largely sticking to the facts, seeking a balanced range of comments and avoiding the tendency to editorialise or offer opinions in reporting. Journalists would be split between current affairs reporting and longer-term investigative journalism.
While there wouldn’t be traditional central editorial control over journalists there would need to be editorial management to ensure all key issues were being covered and to avoid multiple journalists duplicating work on the same stories. This would be helped by focussing on specialisms with a return to subject-specific correspondents.
The whole system would then be driven by the prestige conferred by the quality of work. By not rewarding journalists for ‘clicks’, their status would be based on the quality of what they write. This would create a secure, consistent body of journalism on a daily basis covering and examining life in Scotland with limited editorial bias.
But providing a long list of non-curated news stories every day isn’t necessarily providing information in a useable way for citizens; it is at this stage (and not at the editorial commissioning stage) that curation can come in.
First a Public News Agency would act as a direct subsidy to existing newspapers. It would do the bulk of the core reporting and newspapers could become ‘adapters’ of copy – curating, adding, embellishing, illustrating, mixing ideology back in and so on.
The news agency would create the story, the newspapers would take those bones and flesh them out. Depending on the editorial position of a newspaper different kinds of commentators could be approached for comment on stories which would take those stories in the ideological direction of the newspaper.
Not only would this be a major subsidy to existing newspapers, it would also greatly lower the bar for new entrants into the media landscape.
To support this further the Public News Agency would have a website where you could get all the unadorned journalism they produced but you could also choose from or subscribe to a good range of curated online news services. Here you could sign up to a regular payment to whatever commercial or non-commercial news service or newspaper you want. It would promote media sales.
Then by investing in a very modest small grant scheme new online services could be established, reporting news from a very particular angle or producing highly-specialised news (an entire publication of environmental-related news for example). It would only take a very small team to turn the free content into a proper news service.
It would be truly up to you – a genuinely ‘free press’
The most important aspect of getting a Public News Service would be to get the governance right. It would involve three layers. Layer one would be a code of practice enshrining the principles of ‘public journalism’ in a clear and systematic way, like a ‘neutrality style guide’. It would present clear guidelines about what is and is not acceptable.
This would be overseen and managed by an editorial panel. Not a single editor but a group which would seek strenuously to ensure that the principles were being met (while also ensuring breadth of coverage and lack of duplication as above).
And then on top of this would be a board of governors. This would have the strongest possible firewalls to government and funding should be mandatory and a formula set to ensure the funding remains fit for purpose into the future. There should be no opportunity for politicians to bully or blackmail the agency over funding.
Then they key would be a broad, balanced and service-focused Editorial Board. This should be selected democratically but with steps in place to make sure of the diversity and balance, from left to right on the political spectrum.
The Board would then monitor output against principles and provide constant advice to the editorial team to make sure it is meeting its principles. A separate and independent complaints committee should be established so that there is no conflict of interests.
But national news is not the only scrutiny Scotland needs – local journalism is in a desperate state. So on top of the national journalism team an additional number of journalists for each local authority area would be added, focussing specifically on what is happening in each region of Scotland.
The outcome would be that in the morning you would wake up and click ‘publicnews.scot’ (or similar). There you would have the option of following free news services or subscribing to paid-for ones, and then you could chose how you want your news.
You could read your morning newspaper online like you do now, or you could browse two or three sources including some specialist sources you are particularly interested in, or you could set up various compilation criteria so you got a morning news list made up of what you actually want to read based on your own choices, or you could just browse the unadorned original content, or you could check your local news.
It would be truly up to you – a genuinely ‘free press’. It would bring revenue and in-kind subsidy to existing newspapers, enable a flurry of new start-ups and restore Scotland to being a nation which is properly and thoroughly reported.
Scotland deserves better journalism. So let’s invest in it – for the public good.