We need the 21st-century equivalent of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.
I’ve said it and heard it so many times this year that I’m almost sick of the phrase: The news media is under threat. Politically, culturally, and economically, news media is in dire straits.
But what’s going to save it? Cooperation.
Journalism has always been a solo sport — the race goes to the reporter and/or organisation that breaks the story first. But what happens when the sport fundamentally changes? What does it mean when two companies account for 77% of the total ad spend and 99% of ad revenue growth year-over-year? It means publishers are at a disadvantage, and they need to start thinking pretty far outside the box for solutions.
News organisations need to start cooperating with each other and acting like they’re all fighting together. No, they don’t need to have all of their reporters agree on a line of questioning before a White House press briefing (though that might help hold them accountable to the truth). What they should do is form something along the lines of a consortium, at the institutional level, which they can use to leverage their collective power.
Take Facebook Instant Articles, for example. Is it a good idea for publishers to no longer own the relationship with their audience? No. It’s awful. But much like Walmart’s ability to dictate terms to its suppliers, Facebook has all the power so publishers have to play Facebook’s game. However, if they were able to come together and actually work as one unit with some bargaining power, they might see some results.
Imagine a world where all of Walmart’s suppliers banded together and said, “We’re not delivering any more SKUs until (insert condition here).” That would be a pretty powerful bargaining position. It can be equally as powerful in media because ultimately, these platforms run on content. And on that front, media companies hold all the cards.
Unfortunately, this is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. If publishers make a mistake, can’t cooperate, or can’t come together in a meaningful way over the long-term, they will continue to play a game that has rules dictated to them, and they will lose.
I propose the major publishers endeavour to create something like OPEC — an organisation of journalistic institutions that are committed to working together for the future of journalism. The SPJ Code of Ethics is a great model for upholding standards and ensuring there is accuracy in what’s being reported. A Code of Behaviour at an institutional level would serve the purpose of bringing publishers together and giving them the power to dictate terms.