The revenue crisis of the media
According to the "Digital News Report", a long term project conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, news consumers across Europe are changing their information sources rapidly.
Back in 2012, the report showed that in selected countries including Germany, France, the UK and Denmark, about 50% the population had used radio as a news source in the previous week and 60% had looked at print.
By comparison, in 2016, less than 38.5% mentioned radio in the same countries and even more drastically only 32% print. TV was also affected, although less significantly, losing about seven points in those four years.
This shift to online platforms indicates that neither printing ads nor selling copies can be considered a sustainable business model anymore.
Moreover, Google and Facebook are already absorbing most of the online ad revenue and are expected to take over 71% of the UK market by 2020 according to a 2016 report by OC&C Strategy Consultants.
The way the media is coping with this crisis is mainly by experimenting with event organisation and new formats such as branded content for long-term partnerships.
However, the sector is also experiencing 'oligarchisation' movements, including mergers, acquisitions and other forms of concentration, which threaten its plurality and independence.
Populism and fake news
Social media is cited as the main source of information by an increasing amount of news consumers. According to the 2016 "Digital news report", the number was 8.6% in 2015, and it jumped to 10.8% only one year later. The trend is particularly pronounced for younger generations, which means it is likely here to stay.
Miguel Castro, a senior officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation explained: "Conversations are more fragmented and the number of voices is incredibly larger than it used to be. That makes for a very complex picture, in which what used to be called the silent majority now has a process to get its voice out pretty easily. If you add to that the fact that the conversation span is much shorter, that makes understanding what society thinks very complex."
Populist movements have been particularly successful in exploiting these new channels, and have accused traditional media and political parties of being disconnected from the average person. On the other hand, established organisations have expressed their concern about propaganda in the form of fake news infiltrating national political debates and decision-making.
Der Tagesspiegel publisher Sebastian Turner warns: "We now have the same situation for social media and other fields, where you’d be completely surprised about where the money comes from. [...] We are facing just the top of the iceberg. Our media system is really changing in terms of independence."
Populism threatens the EU
In the words of Gabriele Capolino, executive editor-in-chief of Class Editori: "What we call populism is a pan-European and now also pan-American crisis of the middle class. This is the result of the first ten or twenty years of so-called ‘globalisation’ [...] Now that we are making the first assessment of the process in Italy and in other countries, we realise that it has basically destroyed the middle class."
Many other experts also believe in a correlation between the rise of populist parties and people's dissatisfaction with their economic position. But the phenomenon also affects the EU: the "blame it on Brussels" syndrome, combined with the lack of a European media sector that can support a public debate on crucial EU policy issues, endangers bottom-up support for the European project.
Marco Zatterin, vice director of La Stampa, said: "People all over Europe have been baffled by the economic crisis, which struck when they were not ready to face it [...] Then we had this populist wave, people thought that there could be a shortcut out of the crisis, which has specifically been damaging their welfare and lifestyle. This shortcut was: ‘let’s get out of Europe, let’s kill our mother Europe’."
The UK's decision to leave the EU challenged the identity and legitimacy of the institution like no political development ever before. Many interviewees agreed that British Euroscepticism has also negatively impacted the reporting on Europe today, and will likely continue to do so in the future.
In fact, much of the debate on Europe is influenced by the English-speaking media, which will be looking at Brussels from the outside once the negotiations are over.
According to John Peet, political editor at The Economist: "There is of course another British-based media group that has a very strong line on Europe which tends to be quite hostile and indeed was one of the reasons why the British voters backed Brexit. I think it has always been prone to exaggeration, not quite lying but tending to put a bad gloss on what’s going on in Europe [...] British and American media do have a disproportionate impact in Brussels compared to French or German media because so many people read English. This is not always quite good."
So how can the sector overcome its crisis? Many experts have criticised how the European institutions never established a strategy for the media as they did for other sectors undergoing deep transformations. Although most agree that direct subsidies would pose a threat to journalistic integrity and independence, EU support for innovation projects is largely welcomed.
José Manuel Sanz Mingote, international director of EFE, shared his analysis: "I don’t think that we need high level regulation or intervention from Brussels but rather some form of support of good practices. Moreover, if the European institutions need to communicate, they should rely on the European media sector to fulfil these needs."
On the other side of the channel, however, the institutions are not perceived as neutral, and even some of the most pro-European publications don't want them to get involved.
Emma Tucker, editorial director of The Times said: "Obviously it’s in our interest to have a stronger newspaper industry in Britain and in Europe, but I think the answer shouldn’t come from the European institutions because people would get annoyed and wonder ‘why are you meddling in here?’.This is an industry issue and it should be treated as such."
More cooperation across borders
With shrinking resources and an outdated division of labour, which is too hierarchical and mainly focuses on national news, many media outlets resort to agencies and freelancers to cover international and European stories.
However, another solution is to exchange content between partners through a process involving syndication, translation, localisation and curation. This would not only apply to articles, but also to new formats that can travel much easier across borders and language barriers, like subtitled videos, infographics, pictures and data-journalism products.
Irene Toporkoff, co-founder of Worldcrunch, says: "It is curious: there is more and more interest for international news, but less budget for foreign correspondents. So the way Worldcrunch approaches this issue is to translate stories that have been written locally, which is both an interesting and cost-efficient solution"
Networks like the Leading European Newspapers Alliance (LENA), Europa, Euranet and many others that were discontinued, have been attempting this with a few successes. However, the lack of a sustainable business model to support these exchanges makes them vulnerable in the long term.
There are multiple advantages to this process: by limiting the re-publication of agencies, news outlets could publish more high quality and diverse content. Moreover, the costs of a journalist producing original stories would be reduced, and more topics could be included. Finally, complex issues such as EU-policy or internal political developments of neighbouring states would be covered with more insight and more often.
But there are multiple hurdles to cross-border cooperation between national media organisations. First of all, the technological tools used are not always compatible. Secondly, translation often takes time, and national stories that travel across borders need to be contextualised for readers from other cultures. Lastly, and most importantly, what it comes down to is the mindset of journalists.
The human factor
Ultimately, improving European coverage is about people: most professionals in the sector lack cross-border skills and knowledge of the EU institutions and of other countries' political systems.
"I visit a lot of newsrooms and I seem to notice […] that their staff is ethnically and culturally usually more homogeneous than the rest of their country and if there is one thing you usually don’t find […] are colleagues and journalists from other European countries." said Wolfgang Blau, Chief Digital Officer of Conde Nast, In a 2014 keynote speech at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
Journalists are often more inclined to share their content rather than accept articles from others, even if their international colleagues are not direct competitors. Moreover, the editorial and commercial sections of news outlets struggle to cooperate on innovative solutions to keep their media organisations sustainable. Finally, Media professionals both on the editorial and commercial side lack the skills and contact network to facilitate innovative projects across borders.
Exchanging young professionals between media organisations in different countries could speed up innovation processes and develop a more integrated and sustainable European sector. The Erasmus + programme has been described by former editor of ANSA, Agence Europe and EURACTIV Italy, Giampiero Gramaglia, as "probably the best scheme that the European Union has ever created and financed".
Commenting on #Erasmus4media, he also added: "with journalists you can achieve a multiplier effect because they can reach a lot of people. So you would improve their journalistic performance and let lots of people know that the European environment could contribute something to their professional development."
In 2010, the Commission put together a report to assess the feasibility of an Erasmus programme for journalists. The study, conducted in collaboration with Economisti Associati and the European Journalism Centre concluded that: "an ERASMUS for journalists programme is feasible, and could potentially contribute (albeit to a varying extent) to achieving all of the objectives that have been set."
These objectives included the following:
- Facilitate exchanges or other forms of mobility for journalists from different countries and media within the EU;
- Further journalistic understanding of the EU;
- Further journalistic understanding of other member states;
- Enhance journalistic professional skills and abilities;
- Contribute to media pluralism in Europe;
- Contribute to the creation of a European media sphere.
However, the #media4EU series also highlighted the need for more cooperation between the editorial and commercial sides of organisations. That is why #Erasmus4media would involve other "rising stars", such as social media managers, marketing and communications professionals and others.