Once, we knew who owned our news sources. In cities and towns across the nation, we knew whom to hold accountable. Today, a deluge of information is pounding us daily from a mind-boggling number of sources, many freewheeling, unfiltered and not journalism. The ownership and funding are far too obscure – even unknowable. It has left Americans questioning what is true. This needs to end.
The Pew Research Center tracks trust in the media, and its latest numbers are not good: Less than half of Americans trust the news, and 72% of U.S. adults say news organizations do an insufficient job revealing their funding sources. This opens the box for a lot of mistrust. Who is making money or benefiting from a particular lens? Is an agenda being set?
If readers knew who owned these newsrooms, then perhaps they would feel less duped. We need a standard again of what constitutes journalism. I began to wonder whether transparency in ownership could ironically rebuild trust in news? The goal is not to make some bold claim of who is legit and who is not, but rather, press for radical transparency to better understand where news outlets get their money.
Google, Facebook and the news
And so I built an index. Actually, I built three: A US Mainstream Media Ownership Index that lists about 175 companies, an Emerging Digital Nonprofit Index with their donors, and the Seven Big Owners of Dailies by state. The mainstream media index includes both parent companies (like Gannett, the parent of USA TODAY; Sinclair; NPR; PBS) and standalone titles (like The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Commentary and The U.S. Spectator). Once you tally them all, we have over 3,000 outlets that call themselves newsrooms in America. That’s before we add bloggers, podcasts, talk radio and the deluge of user-generated content.
This media mosh pit has been 20 years in the making. Google and Facebook have built the greatest ad machines ever and taken the revenue with them. Many believe journalism has simply lost to a new digital era, while others believe Big Tech should pay for news given they profit massively from the revenue model that once ensured it. You can believe both.
On Oct. 1, Google announced, with global regulation looming, that it would finally pay for news and earmarked $1 billion through its News Showcase program. Google negotiated payment with 122 publishers in the United Kingdom, along with 121 publishers in France. It is a benevolent three-year transfer fee versus a regulated formula, long demanded by journalism. But that is often the result of an asymmetrical relationship. News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch pressed for the formula in Australia early this year, until he negotiated what he needed for himself. Maybe Murdoch values news after all?
As a result of a dying revenue model for news, over 230 emerging digital nonprofits (and growing) have been funded by Facebook, Google and a multitude of millionaires and billionaires across the nation. Many have incredibly valiant objectives, albeit some of the topics may be possibly seen by half the country as partisan in these politically polarized times. Newsrooms dedicated exclusively to gun control, identity politics, climate change, solutions journalism – whereas investigative and local news seem like the perfect place to donate and bring about nonpartisan journalism.
Reclaiming truth, transparency
In a time when politicians have politicized every ounce of our lives, I often wonder what this issue-motivated nonprofit funding will do to trust in news? It feels deeply problematic and a precedent we may regret. Add to this, conspiracies, lies and hate spreading like wildfire in this digital age. We must demand transparency in funding so we can reclaim our information backbone of the country and think critically about who feeds us our news.
Citizens United further muddies the well as dark money floats into partisan media companies that won’t reveal their backers.
I am romantic enough to know that we have lost something vital in this mosh pit of noise and idealistic enough to know that we have something awesome on our hands in this new era of access to information and diverse voices. Platforms also need to be more transparent on who and how much they pay big publishers, and why they fund this emerging digital news outlet over another. I don’t yet see a logical funding pattern in their giving, and it seems like child’s play when at least 2,000 decent mainstream newsrooms are looking to stay alive. Facebook and Google should start here when deciding who and how to build a backbone of reliable news in this nation.
The question for me is how do we salvage what’s irrefutably valuable in journalism, while we embrace the possibilities of creating anew? Partisan news, a lack of trust in news, the platforms refusing a revenue formula for journalism and a lack of standards for evidence-based news will become even more problematic as we approach 2024. I prefer knowing whom to hold accountable when I read the news, especially when trying to ensure democracy prevails.
Heidi Legg is a research fellow developing the Future of Media Project at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS).
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How many news outlets are in America? Which one should you trust? Read.