“Democratize Work: The Case for Reorganizing the Economy,” by Isabelle Ferreras, Julie Battilana, and Dominique Méda, asks the question: What happens to a society — and a planet rattled by climate change — when capitalism outgrows democracy? And, what can the Covid-19 pandemic, with all the inequities it exposed, teach us about the path ahead? Through essays from a dozen social scientists, “Democratize Work” analyzes the crises of our current moment and reimagines a future in which workers are not merely assets, but citizens in the democratic project.
The following excerpt by Julia Cagé zeroes in on the media industry, and the dangers of turning journalism into a commodity. As editorial independence erodes, advertising revenue dries up, and the work of journalists is devalued, Cagé highlights the need to detach media from market forces, and offers alternatives for how to democratize news for the public good:
Since one of the essential conditions of a functional democracy is a free press, this essay will explain how journalism is damaged when it is treated as a commodity and will discuss how democratizing work can help save our news media. Each of us has emphasized the ways in which every worker is first and foremost a citizen, capable of participating in collective deliberations, both in companies and in the civic arena, and here I am going to take a close look at how this observation applies to the work world of journalists, touching on how labor and corporate law should be revised to reflect this.
Pausing to speak out on behalf of journalists may seem surprising, given our times, both because of the many other urgent problems we face and because journalists are so mistrusted by a growing portion of the population. But for our democracies to function, all of the branches of our system of checks and balances must be strong. The weakening of the free press endangers the functioning of the other branches. The media crisis the world is undergoing right now is not confined to any one newspaper or website: what we are experiencing is a crisis of commodification. Commodifying the work of journalism restricts its freedom to inform and endangers freedom of information in our societies. We are all affected by it, and it can only be solved by democratizing the government and the shareholders of news media groups.
Declining trust in media has been caused in no small part by the erosion of editorial independence, which has been one result of successive rounds of recapitalization in the media world. These have helped save a certain number of news outlets over the past decades but often at the price of accepting investments from outside the media world. Although not all of these capital investments have brought any overt threat of censorship with them, the very presence of such investors raises at least two major concerns: first, self-censorship and, second, the disproportionate political clout that comes with owning a big name in news media. These threats intensify as ownership within the sector becomes increasingly concentrated.
The second cause of the current crisis in the media is linked to the overuse of one approach to the market. For decades, the news media employed an economic model that relied on a combination of sales and advertising revenue. The print media failed to see that these two revenue streams were headed toward inevitable collapse brought on by the introduction of new media that were more attractive to consumers and advertisers alike. This is not a new phenomenon: radio and television drove the first nails into the coffin of print media long ago. But the arrival of the internet—followed by the 2008 financial crisis and then by the coronavirus crisis—set off shockwaves on an entirely different scale. When the print news industry first observed that advertising revenue was drying up, it made the error of believing that the loss would be temporary. It turned a blind eye to the fact that as a percentage of GDP, advertising revenue for newspapers had been dropping since the 1950s. This failure to understand what was really going on was accompanied by a historic mistake for which we are still paying the price: newspapers decided to publish online editions for free on the assumption that advertising revenue would pay for them. They did not see what was truly at stake in this decision, which was the widespread devaluing of the news media. Over the long term, how would citizens understand the true costs of reporting the news when it was being delivered to them for free?
Newspapers gambled on online advertising revenue as part of a widespread embrace of an online advertising market. This, too, was a grave mistake: although certainly growing, the online advertising market rapidly came to be dominated by Big Tech and did not actually have much place for the news media. The upshot has been a never-ending race for the highest click-through rates and a proliferation of articles online, sometimes to the detriment of quality and often to the detriment of originality. More and more, copy-pasting and reposting has become the only viable strategy for online news media outlets that want to cover everything as quickly as possible, with an ever-shrinking workforce. Online content has become extremely standardized as a result of this, obliterating any remaining idea of added value in the eyes of readers—an irony given that citizens actually place more value on original content now, due to careful reputation building over the long term and a preference for originality. Why have newspapers pursued this (re) production strategy? It is more profitable over the short term: in a world where the media—even the news—are commodities, rapid return on investment remains the driving measure of success.
This trend has been amplified by the increasing use of “native advertising,” in which sponsored content is disguised as real content on the platform on which it appears, sacrificing reader trust for the sake of profit. From an economic perspective, native advertising lets newspapers fill their pages at no cost. Moreover, it has turned out to be extremely effective with readers, who are more easily swayed by it, making advertisers eager to pay for it. This is even truer online: native advertising is harder for ad-blocking software to identify, meaning that it garners more click-throughs.
To understand what is truly playing out with native advertising, it is helpful to look back at the history of the news media and recall the stock market dramas of the American press beginning in the 1960s. Newspaper operating margins grew then, not thanks to increased readership, but because of extreme austerity measures, of which workers were the primary victims, both through massive layoffs and the increasing use of freelancers. More recently, still-profitable media outlets have reacted to drops in advertising revenue by cutting jobs, voluntarily setting off a vicious cycle of profit seeking over quality: less advertising revenue, fewer journalists, lower quality, fewer readers, lower sales, less advertising revenue, fewer journalists, etc. Using native advertising is not the same as imposing austerity measures, of course. But it does reflect the same trend of willingness among news media outlets to sacrifice their readers’ trust (not to mention their employees) to raise profits over the short term.
The current crisis in the media can only be solved by changing the very model under which news outlets operate. We must work together to create the conditions for independent media to thrive and prevent them from being governed by market forces alone. Journalists produce a public good: information. This public good cannot be produced by companies whose core objective is to maximize operating margins. Journalistic independence ought to be guaranteed through the creation of “nonprofit media companies,” news companies whose only purpose is providing quality news—not satisfying the needs of their financial backers. Any profits earned by nonprofit media organizations would not be paid out as dividends to shareholders. Instead, they would be reinvested in operations. This could be done through different legal structures, such as a foundation or an association, their common design trait being that they would not be expected to produce financial profit for their shareholders.
Of course, the idea of decommodifying the work of journalism has received a certain amount of attention in recent years—why go further? Why not give news companies the legal status of foundation and have done with it? This change alone is not enough. In my opinion, democratizing the work of journalism is even more important and a goal we all too often tend to forget—if we are aware of it at all. The problem of decommodification without democratization is that merely turning all news outlets into nonprofits would not in any way address the issue of power relations in the media. We must ensure that media outlets are democratically governed in a way that includes staff and citizens. Whatever form nonprofit media organizations may take in the future, and bearing in mind that every aspect of a foundation depends on how its bylaws are written, who sits on its board, and what rules govern the mandates of board members, we must not restrict our focus to changing the ownership structure of our news organizations—we must democratize their governments as well.
Democratic government in the media could take many forms. One alternative would be to design media government along the traditional lines of representative democracies using the principle of one person, one vote. Historically, there have been many cooperative news outlets designed around this model, but few have succeeded. Although it has served other sectors well, it does not seem to be the best choice of governance for the news media, where models based on the principle of one person, one voice lead, mathematically, to the dilution of journalists’ political voice, since the latter are outnumbered by readers (one hopes, at least). After all, the ultimate goal of democratizing the news media is not only to win back ownership for those who consume it, but for those who produce it as well.
Alternatively, voting rights might be made separate from capital contributions by creating a participation threshold (for example, 10 percent of total capital investments) beyond which voting rights would not increase proportionally with capital contributions. In addition to such a threshold, it might also be stipulated that only a third of capital contributions come with extra voting rights; by the same token, those making smaller capital contributions might see their voting rights increase in inverse proportion. In cases where a news media company was structured as a nonprofit, it might be simpler to use a model inspired by corporations with different classes of shares, with a proportion of ordinary shares that come with one vote per share and another portion of special shares with weighted votes (generally ten per share). This kind of system was used when the New York Times went public and also, more recently, by Google. A media nonprofit might be structured with two categories of membership: “one-time” members, who make a single or very small contribution during a fundraising campaign, and “active” members, regular and committed donors who would have more seats on the nonprofit’s board.
These two alternatives are based on existing institutional structures, but given the energy of creativity that has been poured into innovative new media in the past decade alone, there is no reason to stop there: as Sara Lafuente writes of the potential of bicameralism, once we have recognized the seeds of democracy in existing structures, we may begin to work toward new models that are transformative, integrative, and transnational to expand all citizens’ rights to free access to information.
Reprinted with permission from Democratize Work: The Case for Reorganizing the Economy published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.