Media houses do not just survive on advertising; they require information to survive. Any media organization starved of information that appeals to its audiences will gradually die off. Advertising revenue is attracted by media houses that have large audience base and a large audience base is a function of information content of the media house. This is why editorial staff of media organizations strive for breaking news, unusual stories and exclusives, including interesting articles to keep the audience interested the station’s contents.
Apart from news and other data gathered directly by the staff of a media house, individuals and organizations can also feed the news media with stories and newsworthy documents that will add to the editorial contents of the news organization. The stories and newsworthy materials given to media houses to augment their editorial content is what is referred to as information subsidy. A subsidy is an incentive given to a person or organization to support specific activities. When applied to information, it refers to audio, visual, and written documents made available to media houses to augment their editorial contents. Information subsidy is the provision of ready-to-use newsworthy facts or account of an event, to the media houses by various sources interested in gaining access to media time and space. Typical examples of information subsidies include press releases, speeches, seminar papers and conference materials. Basically, the person giving the subsidy wants to gain access to the media by offering the information incentive. That way, the person’s ideas or message would be made available to the public through a credible mews medium.
Public relations executives use information subsidies a lot. They see it as a way of maintaining a mutual relationship with journalists by providing them with press releases and other relevant newsworthy documents while also getting publicity for their organization. The public relations people achieve this by sending information subsidy as press releases, articles and letters-to-the-editor, or purchasing space for advertorials. The news media benefit from this relationship as it makes it easier for them to get information used as contents for their establishment. Often times, organizations provide media subsidy in an attempt to promote their image and reputation.
Information subsidies are organizational communication tools that have been in existence for years, as a way of gaining access to the media to set agenda or achieve communication goals. For instance, press releases have been tools of public relations practitioners for decades. They facilitate the sharing of everything from product launches to financial statements, to research studies and other facts that an organization wants the public to know about. Companies now use their websites to make such information also available to the public. Such websites contain things like press releases, speeches, and statements given to journalists and also available for the public to see. They also share such information through their social media platforms.
Information subsidy refers to newsworthy items provided to the media in order to gain time or space. Some organizations could set agenda through information subsidy. Information subsidies are used by news sources to intentionally shape the news agenda by reducing journalists’ costs of gathering information and gaining access to media contents ‘through the window’. This is why media houses always scrutinize whatever information subsidy they get before making it available to the public. Over-reliance on information subsidies, especially press release, is not good for serious media houses. There is need for independent reports, scoops, and breaking news based on investigation by staff of a media house, instead of always feeding the public with press releases from corporate bodies, governmental or non-governmental organizations.
Media houses in Nigeria utilize information subsidies in their day-to-day operations. News agencies also use subsidies as editorial content. There are journalists in Nigeria operating as correspondents in various states for their media houses who mostly rely on press releases and such information subsidies. They hardly make efforts to re-write press releases to at least, give a different angle to the content. They just use the press releases the way they come. This is a practice called ‘Churnalism’ which refers to using press releases from organizations exactly the way they are. Churnalism is a copy-and-paste practice of recycling contents of press releases and other public relations materials (information subsidy) without any effort to add to, re-angle or enrich the content in any way. This is actually an unprofessional practice because it could compromise editorial independence of the media.
The alleged increased influence of public relations efforts especially through information subsidy, on news media is often linked to developments in the media market. Jelle Boumans observes that among the challenges that media houses, especially newspapers, face these days are decreasing newsroom capacity, faster (online) news cycles, high levels of competition, declining readership and falling advertising revenues. The media also receive some form of pressure from investors and the capital market in general on the need to be profitable. These pressures are believed to have given rise to reliance on “public relations news” (information subsidy): news that is cheap to produce because it consists of basically unchanged public relations information. But the danger here is that over reliance on information subsidy from public relations people implies less journalistic independence, less initiative and less rigorous journalistic efforts. This is inimical to professionalism in journalism practice and therefore, not advisable.
News agencies’ reliance on press releases for their output could also pose a stumbling block to professionalism in journalism and editorial independence. This is because it is an easy way organizations can use to gain access to the media through the back door. News agencies supply stories to media organizations. Apart from their massive reach, agencies also have an important validation function in the news production process. Any message they report gains status and credibility. When media houses receive such reports they are likely to use it as good stories believing they were independently sourced by staff of the news agencies, not realizing they are public relations materials sent to the agencies as information subsidy. This is why media houses should strive to ensure more independently sourced reports make up a greater percentage of their news content.
In this era of social media dominance and increasing internet awareness by both media users and news organizations, information subsidies fly into media houses from several sources, from individuals and organizations. Virtually anybody who has a smart phone is an eye witness or a news source. This has also led to proliferation of fake news in media houses, especially those who do not scrutinize subsidized information before usage. In Nigeria, even press releases are denied these days by corporate bodies and government establishments, especially when such documents gain access to the internet through other means, not directly form an organization’s corporate affairs or public relations unit. This digital age is the time more precaution should be taken before information subsidy, especially form relatively unknown sources, is used.
Though there is need for healthy and uncontrolled flow of information and ideas upon which the public can make informed choices in any democracy, journalists have the task of actively gathering information from various sources, packaging this information into news and communicating it to the public. Reliance on news releases reflects some form of laziness on the part of journalists, especially if such information subsidy is what dominates editorial content of a media organization.