Industry rep: 'Media companies would rather be left alone'

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Media executives and policymakers meet on Tuesday (21 January) at the Future Media Lab conference in Brussels. Industry representatives and innovators will exchange thoughts with EU policymakers on how to reinvent the media business model, even if, says Angela Mills Wade, “there is no need for any new media-specific rules or regulations. Media companies would rather be left alone”.

Angela Mills Wade is the Executive Director of the European Publishers Council (EPC). She spoke to EurActiv’s founder Christophe Leclercq. (For transparency's sake, we disclose that she is to join the EurActiv.com PLC board as non-executive member.)

The Future Media Lab conference is about “the future of content”. What are your expectations of what can come out of this exchange, especially with regards to the input of policy circles?

Firstly, it is an opportunity to rise above the nitty gritty of the detailed policy debates, and to be more strategic. One of the problems of a wide range of policy issues affecting our business interests is that, sometimes, it is hard for the regulators to take an overall view of the cumulative impact of these policies on our businesses. Or to take a broader view of where media companies are headed. I would like this event to provide an opportunity for some lateral thinking. 

One of the panels will discuss the ‘business model question'. In your view, where does the potential lie, as print revenues decrease: in putting up paywalls and reforming subscriptions; in non-profit support; public support; sponsored content; advertising; or other forms of revenue?

One of the eternal myths around the business model question is that you can simply invent new ones in the wake of technological change. Essentially, the business model of publishing will stay the same – money must come from somewhere, whether from paying subscribers, sponsorship and/or advertising revenues. You need to pay the research and development (R&D), the journalists, photographers, production, distribution and increasing technology costs, plus all the legal compliance costs.

Generally, a free press needs to be independently funded – to remain free from commercial or political influence. So public funding has mainly been considered anathema to a free press. Instead, EPC members are continuing to invest in high quality professional journalism and seeking both advertising and subscription revenues: online, via apps, via mobile or blended packages.

A number of journalist organisations claim that publishers reaped benefits during the “fat years”, and underinvested in technology and staff. According to these voices, the publishers now suffer from the crisis and are laying off too many people. How do you react?

I don't share this version of events, as EPC members invested heavily in technology over the years. They were among the first publishers to go online, experimenting, finding new ways to connect with readers. Audiences have never been higher but getting paid for our investment is more elusive. The economic crisis is not peculiar to publishing of course, but the drop in advertising revenues and reduction in cover sales hits us hard. 

Sadly, there have needed to be lay-offs in order to remain commercially viable. This is highly regrettable but as we all emerge from the European-wide recession we can look forward to better times. 

Another panel will focus on “innovation in content creation”. People have been lamenting the drop in proper journalism and staff numbers, but could certain innovations counter this trend?

Professional journalism and innovation comes at a cost yet in spite of – sometimes severe – cuts in revenues, EPC members remain true to their principles and core values. They also continue to invest in journalism at home and abroad, to innovate and create quality content.

The array of published content across many platforms and devices of astoundingly high quality and variety is witness to this, often shared and commented upon across many social media platforms by millions of citizens around the world. 

Many innovations leverage content provided by others.  The media sector accuses Google of unfairly dominating the ad market. What's the status on EU actions in this regard?

Stealing others' content isn't an “innovation” but an infringement of others' rights. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong in making money from another's investment in content as long as the original creators are paid. That is what a normal, functional business relationship should look like, whereas freeriding is simply parasitical and harmful to the potential of the digital economy. 

As regards Google specifically, we await the outcome of the DG competition case which is investigating serious and well founded allegations of abuse of a dominant position by Google in search and search advertising amongst other things.

Coming back to public-sponsored media, this always entails a dilemma between media's public interest and the risk of losing independence. Previous EU mandates have usually included at least one policy initiative regarding media concentration. This time around, for 2014-2019, should there be a policy regarding the strict conditions allowing public support and self-regulation by the media sector?

We have seen some alarming examples over the past few years of political interference in the media in a few EU member states, which have been addressed quite rightly by the European Commission. When it comes to media concentration, this is a matter for the member states. 

However in a market where publishers and broadcasters compete for audience share, not only with each other, but with other companies and platforms which are often global corporations, it is no longer possible to segment the market according to established, traditional media, or to impose ownership restrictions in order to deliver diversity and pluralism.

The new realities of this highly diversified media and communications market must lead to less reliance on old-fashioned media regulation. Self-regulation is essentially a matter for the sectors concerned, according to national conditions. But the European Commission has been very helpful in raising awareness of its benefits and providing valuable forums for discussion.

For example, the Commission validated our S-R framework for online behavioural advertising. As has been proven over the years, effective self-regulation carries many benefits for the public good and should be encouraged.

What policy initiatives would you suggest? And what are potential stumbling blocks for such policies to be realised? Are there differences between the main parties standing for elections at the European Parliament?

This is an interesting question as it presupposes that media companies would like to see any policy initiatives from the EU. Generally, they would prefer to be left alone. Already many laws and regulations apply to media companies, whether they come from EU or national legislation. So strictly speaking, there is no need for any new media-specific rules or regulations.

We are, however, very interested in DG Connect's community of practice for self-regulation as we see much potential for self-regulation – especially when existing EU laws are reviewed in future.

There could be room for some deregulation even, especially when the Audiovisual Media Services Directive is reviewed. Or for opening up potential advertising revenues in areas currently banned, like pharmaceuticals.

Of course there are some policy areas such as copyright. These remain highly contested and are currently under review, so we will play our part in contributing to this import policy area. Our focus is on modernising the management of our digital assets rather than reforming the law.

The EPC members have been innovators in this field and in partnership with the Linked Content Coalition, we will continue to innovate here. We are taking part in an important project co-funded by the European Commission, called the Rights Data Integration (RDI) project and this will provide invaluable input to the way all creative industries can manage their digital content in innovative ways, going with the grain of technology.

The panel debate mentioned in the second question will be moderated by EurActiv’s founder.

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