Smaller independent media are struggling to survive in the wake of COVID-19. The EU should do more to protect media plurality: money needs to go to the support of the media sector, without the risk that those outlets end up being forced to take a specific message or narrative, writes Dace Melbarde.
Dace Melbarde is a Latvian MEP for the Conservative and Reformist Group in the European Parliament.
There is no doubt that vibrant and healthy media are the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. They offer both a means of educating the population and holding those in government to account for their actions. On a smaller level, the media also offer a sense of community.
Local and regional newspapers and media outlets have a role in binding together smaller communities, keeping them informed of what is happening in the neighbourhood as well as in the wider world. It helps people to feel as though they belong somewhere.
And yet, despite the importance of a pluralistic media ecosystem, we are seeing a rapid decline the availability of certain types of media outlet.
At first the financial crisis of 2008 damaged the ability for many press outlets to raise revenue through advertising, and then social media has come along as a disruptive influence diverting revenue streams online to a mass market.
Finally the current COVID-19 crisis has seen more and more people more online for their news, as they cannot go out and buy.
This week I organised a webinar with the European Conservatives and Reformists Party on the future of media pluralism in the COVID age – and what needs to be done to save Europe’s smaller media outlets.
We were pleased to be joined by staff from the European Commission and key media stakeholders for a fruitful discussion on what steps could be taken by the EU to help protect media plurality.
Part of the discussion revolved around the need for greater innovation in the media sector – Dan Luca of EURACTIV offered up examples of what they had been doing over the last few years to contribute to that. Mr Luca talked about the way in which they switched form a dependency on advertising to finding other sources of revenue.
EURACTIV also offered up the answer that webinars and in person-events complemented the debates that were taking place in the media. It creates a wider debate and interest in the topics that are dominating the headlines, and engages readers on yet another platform.
Of course, for many medium-sized outlets, this is a workable and innovative solution, but for smaller ones it could prove to be a problem. The question then still remains what solutions there are for the preservation of small independent and local media outlets as they lose their readership and support to the social media giants.
When I served as culture minister in Latvia, we had to address a similar problem. We realised that with a population the size of Latvia, it was difficult for many smaller media outlets to compete with larger ones, but that they were just as important for helping to keep communities informed. Our solution to this problem was to introduce mechanisms for support of the media.
The European Union should consider doing something similar, and it would seem that that is exactly what they have planned for their COVID Recovery package which is set to be agreed in a few weeks. And whilst this would be an important step – another issue arises from this, which is the threat to editorial independence from taking taxpayer money.
Money needs to go to the support of the media sector, without the risk that those outlets end up being forced to take a specific message or narrative. Equally support funding needs to go to the broad spectrum of outlets – that offer different points of view. From left leaning to right leaning outlets – it is vital that we continue to support a diverse and mainstream ecosystem.
Never has it been more important to protect media plurality in Europe, and I hope that on the basis of the conversations we had this week, that we can be sure to protect it. Not only do media outlets depend on such support, but so do their readers, and by extension our democracy as well.