For the last decade or so, independent media houses have been plagued, decimated by a lethal combination of dwindling advertising and social media.

Hundreds of newspapers around the world, with decades of history, have been forced to close for good as most advertising was rerouted to infotainment giants like Facebook and Google. Media companies fought for scraps.

News organisations that failed to reinvent their business models have gone bust, others have had to downsize. 

A number managed to subsist by raising just enough funds through other means, by organising events or calling for donations from readers and supporters, something Times of Malta has resorted to in recent days.

Without funding, independent professional journalism will simply wither away

But nobody could forecast the fact that COVID-19 could spell the death knell for hundreds of news organisations, after years of financial struggle.  It might sound alarmist at a time when news websites are seeing unprecedented traffic but this is the reality. Independent news organisations in Malta are not supported by any large benefactors or rich moguls. Some of us are even facing vexatious lawsuits.

Without funding, independent professional journalism will simply wither away.

Society needs to understand the repercussions of having to rely on the state broadcaster and possibly party media to get its ‘information’. It could be a matter of months before our only source of ‘news’ comes from Facebook, which has failed to stop tens of thousands of fictitious stories and fake claims clogging its ‘news feed’.

There is good reason why the media is known as the fourth pillar of democracy.  

The country’s citizens need to be informed by a probing media which holds the powerful to account. The public needs to know when to call for justice where there isn’t any, the public needs to know when the rule of law is flouted.

In a democracy, governments have a duty to ensure its institutions are working and have an obligation to ensure diverse voices are given a platform.

Which is why the case for some form of state funding of the media becomes more urgent than ever. Any funding would need to be administered by an independent body to avoid government interference. Media outlets have been conspicuously absent from the rescue packages announced by the government to fight the fallout of the coronavirus.

At this stage, it is not about sectoral interests, but about protecting institutions which are in the public interest. And we are running out of time.

The UK Cairncross Review published last year suggested direct funding for public-interest news outlets, with public funds used to support the reporting of local democracy through a new institute of public interest news.

It also suggested relief for publishers which invest in public interest journalism. A number of democratic countries, such as Denmark, have already adopted such models.

Some critics fear this would be tantamount to ‘buying’ a news organisation’s independence, a legitimate claim were it not for the fact that history has shown us that independent organisations such as Times of Malta have never hesitated  reporting and investigating stories targeting their biggest advertisers.

The day news outlets cannot afford to employ investigative journalists will be the day corrupt and inept public officials sleep a good deal sounder

There is talk among local media organisations of downsizing, resorting to four-day weeks, abandoning medium-to-long term projects. If that happens, it will inevitably lead to a reduction of standards and information which is so desperately needed at the moment.

The day news outlets cannot afford to employ investigative journalists will be the day corrupt and inept public officials sleep a good deal sounder at night. Picture a world in which politicians, businessmen, the cronies and the corrupt are given free rein to communicate only their 'good news stories' on social media, where no proper scrutiny exists.

We will all suffer if the private sector, private individuals and the state give up on public interest journalism.

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