Populists hit out at an “Anglo-Saxon” EU, Russia spreads propaganda, media concentration increases as revenues move to Google and Facebook. Christophe Leclercq gives a candid view on how publishers and politicians can help Europe’s press prevail.
Christophe Leclercq is founder of EURACTIV. He writes after the Global Editors’ Network Summit on June 19 in Barcelona and ahead of a 25 June Paris conference on ‘The Future of the Media Sector in Europe’.
The technological and financial challenges to journalism are well-known. Unseen is the EU’s growing dependency on media groups from outside the eurozone. The Digital Single Market will speed-up media concentration, sidelining a language policy. What are opportunities for continental media groups? There is hope, if European media innovate across borders.
National media lead in each country, not across borders
European politicians always read their national newspapers first. Most have correspondents in Brussels. International media are de facto Anglo-Saxon – traditionally British, and increasingly North American.
When it comes to international periodicals, European policymakers often read Pearson titles: The Financial Times and The Economist, and the now-defunct European Voice. British newspaper the Guardian brings a more balanced view on Europe, while the Canadian-owned Reuters focuses on markets, in order to compete with New York’s Bloomberg.
The newly-launched Brussels edition of Politico should be welcomed, like any new competitor, but it’s too early to assess. Don’t take my word for it, here is a quote from Claes de Vreese, University of Amsterdam Professor of communication: “You would need a strong profile and be able to show readers what they would get that they’re not already getting from national media, the Financial Times and EURACTIV”. Politico’s US Editor-in-Chief intends to ‘dominate on Europe and become the leading media voice in every major EU capital’: This is not a European approach.
Anglo-American media groups consider themselves global instead of national. Yet, over the last two decades, they have increasingly disengaged from Europe. In a Brexit scenario (not my wish), these outlets would find themselves too far outside the EU, culturally and politically, to report on it effectively.
To their credit, the Financial Times and The Economist each tried to grow a European media – and failed – despite having good credentials and financing. In fact, there have been about 20 attempts to develop a media for the EU, most of them mishaps. As Europe’s needs and technology are evolving, there is hope that such a media can be created. However, false solutions must be avoided.
False solution 1: Eurocrats confusing roles
In the past, EU institutions made costly attempts at organising their own media. The Parliament’s own EuroparlTV never established itself as a proper media. Presseurop.eu had an interesting syndication model, but depended wholly on Commission revenues and was discontinued. Euranet, gathering radio channels, remains relatively unknown.
At the same time, PR agencies buying search or social media ads do get ‘likes’ for an election page, but do not enlighten public opinion like newspapers. Social networks cannot replace news media, either, because journalists are tasked with producing accurate and balanced content. Hence, Google now modestly supports the press ecosystem.
More importantly, policymakers should cooperate with Europe’s press, rather than come up with their own channels, or rely on social media.
False solution 2: foreign powers keen on public opinion
One measure of national interest in European matters is the size of the Brussels press corps, once hailed as the largest in the world. The number of EU correspondents is shrinking, and the largest bureau is not European or American, but China’s Xinhua news agency.
Across the board, coverage of European topics is increasing, but it focuses on a few hot issues like elections, Grexit and Brexit, rather than on policymaking.
Meanwhile, Europe rejoices about interest from outside the EU. But should it?
Euronews is partly financed by public money, and was initially controlled by public broadcasters. Recently, it was taken over by the Egyptian Sawiris group, which promised to maintain its editorial independence. But there are risks, including Russia’s influence on Euronews in Eastern Europe. Given the European Council’s worries about Russian propaganda, this is an area of concern.
Exchange networks: quality, revenue and language models
Europe’s press is undergoing deep changes, leading to some national successes. But, so far, few cross-border projects are sustainable.
Some EU founding countries are surprisingly modest in this area. German media (except Axel Springer), play below their economic weight and high standards. France’s newspapers, notably Le Monde, once a must-read for diplomats, are today undermined by the decline of the French language. Most media projects with a strong language element have some link to France: they could thrive with private sector models.
Six networks are worth mentioning (listing from the broadest scoop exchanges to the most integrated production): International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (Swissleaks and LuxLeaks), the Climate Publishers’ Network, The Guardian’s Environment network, and EURACTIV’s co-branded affiliates and media partners.
As they ramp up and shorten deadlines, exchange networks will face technological and organizational challenges: curation, translation and syndication. Another test will be growing fresh revenue and new readership.
This may lead to more integration, and – in the public interest – it may deserve government attention.
Politicians not to interfere, but facilitate cross-border innovation
Helping the media sector is considered a ‘taboo’ or not, depending on the country. At EU level, it should only be indirect, not controlling any media. But the Digital Single Market must be completed with a strategy for the sector. This is easier, since media policy competences are now in one department, separate from spin doctors, as I supported early on. This strategy could be three-pronged: a regulatory light touch, sensible use of competition law, and support for innovation.
The EU spends billions of euros under the ‘Horizon 2020’ R&D programme. Some of the digital research is relevant to the media sector, but so far it is hardly involved. In the past, sectors like coal, steel, cars, textile, telecoms were transformed also thanks to massive European help. Should the fourth pillar of democracy, and also a major employer, matter less?
The EU should move from R&D to innovation projects, and attract media groups. This is doable, as specifications in calls for proposals are reviewed every year. The EU is also the world’s largest translator and plans to open its technologies. One could also learn from early innovators.
A stakeholder working group on media independence and sustainability led to Fondation EURACTIV’s list of six recommendations, under #Media4EU. The envisaged follow-up project #Innovation4Media will identify cross-border innovations and put forward public or private support. This matters both to journalists and to media owners.
Change depends not on the EU, but chiefly on the media groups of the continent ready to unite.