No false alarm

If Muscat really cared he would act to ensure corrective measures are taken to ensure sustainability for Maltese newsrooms of independent media houses

Two years ago there were protests in the streets of our capital city Valletta, with calls that claimed the Maltese press was in peril. We were told by all those present – who also probably no longer purchased a print newspaper or even referred to a reputable online site for their news – that the future of journalism in Malta as we knew it was at stake.

These protestors, mostly anti-Labour in sentiment, had taken to the streets to bemoan the fact that Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing an unjustified garnishee in a libel suit over her allegation that Chris Cardona had been seen inside a German brothel.

Speaker after speaker rose to the occasion and decried the manner in which the Maltese press was being pushed into a corner. No one, of course, questioned the ill-researched piece that had never carried any firm proof of the minister’s presence in the brothel, simply relying on hearsay and the blind loyalty of readers who loved the salaciousness of the revelations.

What happened in 2017, we need not be reminded, was the year of the false Egrant allegation, the surprise election and then the horrible assassination.

All throughout, the underlining message was that the press in Malta was in serious quandary.

The truth is that a free press in Malta was not something that had existed for very long. To start with, 20 years ago we only had a political press which viewed the world in black and white, good and bad.

Then we had the English newspapers, long dominated by The Times for decades. Until the arrival of the modern English newspapers in the mid-1990s, the Times’s front page would only run foreign news items. Until the Malta Independent hit the stalls, The Times’ front page would be irrelevant to its readers.

Then we had State TV as Television Malta, which was basically the government’s mouthpiece and with very little interesting debate.

In the last 20 years, the media scene has radically changed.

MaltaToday enters its 20th year this year. I feel I have the right to say that even we set some standards for investigative journalism in Malta. Today we are not alone, and we cannot deny that there are others in the press also produce excellent stories, although we are less inclined as a newspaper not to consider a story when it blatantly favours one political party to another.

But what the protestors in Valletta did not know two years ago is that the press in Malta and abroad were already dying a natural death. And the culprits, apart from bad journalism and incestuous relationships with business and politics, were and still are social media platforms that take away readers.

Over the past decade, millions of dollars and euros have been poured into Facebook and Google, avoiding bona fide media houses and leading to serious financial problems in all newsrooms, some of which started to starve. The two giants control nearly 60 percent of the world’s digital advertising market, with Snapchat, Twitter, Amazon and the rest scooping up the rest and print publishers scrapping the barrel.

Worldwide there are now about half as many journalists working in newspaper newsrooms as in the nineties.

If Muscat really cared he would act to ensure corrective measures are taken to ensure sustainability for Maltese newsrooms of independent media houses

Google and Facebook are focused on engagement – which means that when you click or share, you are increasing value to advertisers. It has nothing to do with the news or the values.

And, sure enough, Facebook is flooded with the kind of content which pays for itself and is not important or relevant news.

Truth is, in fact, optional if not an actual burden, since the more ‘sexy’ headlines tend to be the ones that immediately attract most attention and clicks.

So, when, for example, when people google something, they do not necessarily find the story that is best researched or credible or fake proof. Google and Facebook have wonderful tools at helping you find content, but not necessarily at finding the truth. The change in Facebook algorithms in 2018 as of course radically altered what users receive in their newsfeeds.

In 2019, you are now far less likely to see posts from newspapers than you were in 2016 and 2017, even when you have specifically followed their Facebook page. The reach for most serious media publishers has nose-dived. The impact on news portals in Malta has been deleterious.

This means people are getting less news, and because of this, less revenue associated with that traffic, which means our newsrooms can do less good work.

The decline is so significant that some papers face annihilation. We are now not only faced with people purchasing less print newspapers but also by a slew of digital newspapers competing for attention. Less importance is given to bona fide news which is well researched, fact checked and verified.

This reality has little or no impact on public opinion and more so on the government led by Joseph Muscat and the Opposition by Adrian Delia. They all brag and talk about freedom of the press but they do nothing about it.

If Muscat really cared he would act to ensure that corrective measures are taken to support sustainability for Maltese newsrooms of independent media houses, in the interest of our democracy.

The government’s response towards press freedom has been a revamped press law, but apart from major flaws in its implementation, the future of the press has nothing to do with defamation cases. It can only be guaranteed by direct government intervention through financial and legal reforms that can aid the newspaper industry.

Social media disruption has translated into a loss of audience and advertising and this, together with all the other inherent problems, is why we need to act now.

Those of you who read us and want us to continue doing our job need to support us.

We have to continue investigating but to do so, we also need lawmakers and political leaders to understand that one important challenge they must address is this important legacy.

The fourth estate – essential in every democracy – cannot be an appendage in a manifesto or in a clause in the Constitution. The Prime Minister needs to act fast to address this serious crisis and deficit in our democracy.