Why the Cairncross review is good news for communicators

3rd September 2020

Media regulator Impress called the publication of the Cairncross Review earlier this week a “milestone in the history of journalism”.

Its impact on communications professionals could be equally profound.

The review by former Guardian journalist Dame Frances Cairncross outlined nine recommendations to create a viable future for “public interest news,” including increasing the amount of public funding given to local journalism.

But her recommendations in two areas in particular could also have far-reaching — and positive — effects on communicators in all organisations.

Increased public funding for public interest news

Establishing an Institute for Public Interest News to oversee the use of public funds to support public interest journalism seems fraught with difficulty, but communicators should embrace expanding schemes such as the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).

Launched last year, the LDRS uses BBC funding to employ 144 journalists working at local newspapers and websites, reporting on public service organisations such as courts and councils.

Stories that previously escaped the public are now being reported once again, and are being more effectively syndicated through the LDRS network.

As with any increase in scrutiny, this has undoubtedly led to uncomfortable moments for some — but it also means communicators’ skills are needed even more.

Those organisations who choose not to engage effectively with the media on their doorsteps do so at their peril.

The LDRS has also coincided with growing trust in local and regional media and growing the scheme could boost that further — creating a halo effect from which regional media relations campaigns would be certain to benefit.

Tax breaks for online journalism

The review also highlights the difficulties being faced by some digital-only publishers and concludes that digital advertising alone “is not, and is not likely to be in the near future, sufficient to fund much journalism”.

Whether through donations, subscriptions or smaller payment models such as Agate, paid-for journalism is on the increase.

But that is hampered by the fact that online news is subject to 20% VAT, whereas printed editions are zero-rated.

Incentivising paid journalism could limit the effect of clickbait, and in the words of the report, the pressure on media to over-dramatise “vacuous” stories.

But it could also nudge organisations towards improving the way they evaluate their communications activity by having a negative effect on one common metric — the potential audience reach of media coverage.

Instead, communicators should focus on evaluating communications outcomes, such as how communications activity affects audience attitudes and behaviours.

Turning point

The future of journalism is at a crossroads. Not all organisations will be instinctively in favour of the greater scrutiny or reduced reach that the Cairncross Review’s recommendations might achieve.

But, as communicators, it is our job to show how improving trust — particularly in regional media — is good not just for society, but for the organisations we represent.


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