We need Public Service Publishing for the New Digital Age

The way we consume content has changed almost beyond recognition in the digital age. Vast swathes of the published written word are now viewed on screens that have come to dominate if not our lives then certainly the way we access information about the wider world. This brings with it a whole host of new challenges for us as a society.

To read the Government’s recent Online Harms White Paper, for example, is to enter a dark world of cyberbullying, radicalisation, fake news and poor mental health outcomes – especially for young ‘digital natives’ (those who grew up in the digital age and have never known a world without the internet). Some commentators account for the appearance of such challenges by the shift in our reading environment and increased screen time. However, the nature of content itself – rather than the consumption medium – should be of much greater concern.

The economic and social models underpinning online content production are radically different from their preceding models in the offline world. In many cases the economics that incentivise the creation of risky, exploitative, and damaging content would never have been commercially viable in the traditional publishing industry. 

We are increasingly moving towards a content ecosystem dominated by and gate kept by social media platforms, such as Google and Facebook. This presents a serious challenge to established content producers focused on high quality outputs, many of whom have found their business models inoperable and are now slavishly tied to the whims of the social media algorithms. And so we arrive in a world of ‘clickbait’, ‘churnalism’, ‘listicles’, relentless data capture (with strong financial incentives for bending the rules), micro-targeted adverts and an economy that favours advertising metrics over more normative and subjective considerations – the bottom line over trust, time, quality and even truth.

However, it is important to note that the shift to online content is not all bad. In some instances it has offered a voice to those who have previously not be able to express themselves, enriching many areas of our cultural landscape. What’s more, attempts to revert to a world of the physically printed word are just wildly impractical – they avoid the crucial issue of how to build an economic model that incentivises quality and protects readers from harm.

It is difficult at this stage to imagine how this will be delivered, particularly when society expects content on the internet to be provided free of charge and with minimal friction. We have all grown used to being able to upload, read and share content without having to wait for moderation or fact-checking procedures. The public are certainly voting with their wallets in this respect, at least in the news industry – currently only 7% of UK adults pay a subscription for online news services, while only 1% have donated to an online news source. Nevertheless, the continued robust health of the wider publishing industry, not to mention the growing popularity of services such as Netflix and Patreon, shows that an appetite exists for payment and subscription-based models of content production.

As a first step our report, Quality Control, calls for the government to develop a public service publishing ethos to apply to all publishers, including technology platforms. The priority for the ethos should be to ensure that the public service publishing considerations materially alter search engine optimisation and content promoting algorithms, so that harmful and poor-quality content is less valued, with the long term goal of creating a more healthy, accurate and fact driven online space.

This should be inspired by the current approach to broadcasting, where a range of platforms are  each bound by a different level of public service obligation. The BBC is a public service only broadcaster, in the UK at least, providing information, entertainment and advice without making a profit. Other broadcasters like ITV are commercial, but have public service obligations, like the amount of advertising they are permitted to broadcast, and the provision of a news channel.

This public service obligation model could be recreated for providers of online content. Diane Coyle has proposed the creation of BBC equivalent: a public service rival to the major online platforms.

Whether a public-service-only model is pursued or not, a middle ground could be established to create the equivalent of the public service obligations placed on some commercial broadcasters. This would be a range of publishing standards that technology companies should voluntarily adhere to in order to be categorised as “public service publishers”. The goal would be to create a positive incentive for search and social media companies to take seriously the need for their algorithms to make quasi-subjective judgements about quality when optimising their results. This will not be easy, but recent developments toward automated fact-checking, enabled by AI, suggest the technology is within reach.

In a time when information is instant, the report has found the most pressing of challenges to be that of quality and substance of content. The focus for policymakers, therefore, must be striking a balance between the benefits of open, online publishing world with the quality and substance of its content. We believe the best way to achieve this is by working with individuals, technology companies, the publishing industry, and governments to ensure everyone plays a role in regulating this online world. We think of this as a digital social charter: a common effort to secure common rewards.