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Sisyphus’ Lament

To fight fake news, pay for real news

SINGAPORE — In my last conversation with the late Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, legendary Inquirer editor in chief from 1991 to 2015, I asked about social media algorithms driving what news we see.

Close to midnight after the December 2014 anniversary party, LJM sat by the large round table at the newsroom’s center, having just put the paper to bed.

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She sipped her red wine and smiled.

No computer will ever replace a journalist with 30 years’ experience, she replied succinctly.

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Her parting wisdom continues to inspire me as I ponder how radically technology has transformed newspapers, which we now read from smartphones.

News competes on social media feeds with selfies and cat videos. Fake news influences elections. We demand information instantly, complete with raw video.

But, most crucially, revenue streams have shrunk dramatically, diverted to social media platforms and search engines.

Should news be free? Should the newsboy be paid more than the newspaper?

Quality journalism is critical to fighting fake news, emphasized the landmark 176-page “Committee Report on Deliberate Online Falsehoods” submitted to Singapore’s parliament.

Yet broadsheets around the world have cut staff, even the venerable UK The Guardian, New York Daily News and Singapore Straits Times.

Must we thus analyze fake news as a financial anomaly?

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The default model relies on privately-owned newspapers upholding public interest. We presume readers will pay for the most accurate, incisive content, and market forces compensate for the individual owner’s biases.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was inspired to acquire the 140-year-old The Washington Post in 2013 and make it data-driven and social media savvy. Alibaba founder Jack Ma had similar aspirations, buying the 115-year-old South China Morning Post in 2016.

But the Singapore report argues that fake news can threaten national security. Is real news thus a public good, to be funded like highways and police?

Governments cannot operate newspapers, which need independence, but could fund independent bodies.

Or we could treat newspapers as charities, subscribing or crowdfunding out of patriotism. The Guardian was supported by the Scott Trust, founded in 1936.

If journalism is a public good, nonsubscriber citizens are free riders. If paywalls are a losing battle, is it time for more drastic funding models?

Could we make news free by making it legal for newspapers to aggregate andanalyze reader data? Could we pay for newspapers by selling to retailers and politicians the counterintuitive details of which stories people read to the end, or sell targeted paid content for very specific demographics?

If zero-cost exchange-traded funds lend shares to self-fund, should zero-cost newspapers lend information?

The point is, is it time to explicitly put a price tag on journalism and ask each one of us to pay up, whichever form it takes?

Is fake news analyzed not in terms of free speech, but along the lines of pollution? Should citizens chip in for monitoring now, to avoid bearing massive cleanup costs later?

Despite LJM’s passing, the Inquirer newsroom remains an inspiring place. Whenever I can, I tell young editorial assistants and aspiring cub reporters they will be the LJMs of the future. But they should ideally pursue their critical work without having to worry about saving for a house or having health insurance.

It is irreconcilable to cheer on young tech entrepreneurs aspiring for mega-IPOs while demanding that young journalists
be stretched thinner each year to subsidize the cost of truth in the digital marketplace of ideas.

Perhaps it is time we each paid our fair share for the upkeep of democracy.

* * *

Last week’s column (also carried by The Jakarta Post) highlighted how Filipino Myla Pilao was cited extensively and
authoritatively by the Singapore report. She testified on how anonymous parties can buy a million likes on social media for $18. We should be proud of her contribution.

React: oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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TAGS: fake news, Journalism, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, newspapers, online journalism, Oscar Franklin Tan, real news, Sisyphus’ Lament
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