- The necessity of an independent, robust and diverse news media sector is a cornerstone of the European Union democracies.
- The combination of the COVID-19 impact with the need to adapt to the digital shift puts the sector at risk, and initiatives to support the news media sector are certainly timely.
- Nonetheless, funding for the news media sector requires complying with a set of key principles to ensure that the support provided does not lead to political interference or hamper the diversity of news media outlets.
- Finding a right balance between public and private funding is needed, while considering the diversity of operators in the news media sector.
- Transparency in the way funding is allocated and channelled is an important prerequisite for the design of news media support schemes, as well as maintaining independence and safeguarding editorial responsibility of news media outlets.
The Media Action Plan released by the European Commission in December 2020 is a timely initiative, considering the important impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the first policy document explicitly setting out a vision and dedicated initiatives for the news media sector, including specific funding lines.
A sector affected by the digital shift and evolving business models
The European news media sector is at a turning point due to the digital shift and its impacts on the business models of the sector. Digital revenues are growing fast but are not yet fully offsetting the revenue losses from printed press. Between 2014 and 2017, the turnover of the European written press subsector declined at a CAGR of 0.33% leading to a turnover of EUR 73,275 million in 2017.
The rise of digitisation and technological changes during the past decades have challenged the conventional practices of media organisations and journalists worldwide.
Digital advertising is quickly becoming the main source of revenues for both news broadcasters and publishers, although paid subscriptions are still a major source of income in the sector.
Public and private funding for the news media sector
Whilst the news media sector does require support, there is a direct link between funding, ownership, and independence of the news media sector and public trust. Public funding for the news media sector thus needs to strike a careful balance across these aspects. Public service media broadcasters have a longstanding history of public funding across the EU, and specific guidelines have been set up to ensure.
The printed press sector benefits from much fewer dedicated support schemes, but several models are emerging:
- Direct support to the press sector as in Austria, via grants or indirect measures (e.g. reduced VAT rate),
- Generating revenues for the press sector via advertising paid by public authorities as in Romania or Hungary, although this may generate potential risks of political interference.
- Support provided to specific projects (e.g. in the Netherlands) where it is easier to ensure that no interference is caused to the editorial independence of news media outlets. This support may deal with skills development of journalists or be earmarked to specific topics such as new business models or digitalisation of news services.
Encouraging private investment may also represent a way of supporting the sector while avoiding political influence over the media. The Creative Europe Guarantee Facility, for example, has already unlocked more than EUR 28 million in bank loans for the news media sector.
The impact of COVID-19 and support measures set up for the news media sector
The CCS and the news media sector are hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and a large majority of news media companies expects a significant drop in revenues in 2020-2021. It is difficult to analyse how the news media sector could tap into general support measures, although it is expected that general schemes for partial unemployment or compensation for losses in revenues cover the news media sector companies. However, freelance journalists and small media companies with variable revenues are likely to receive lower compensations.
Several EU countries have set up dedicated measures for the news media sector (e.g. in France, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Estonia). These measures include reduced VAT rates, support to news media consumption, support to journalists and direct funding to address the loss of advertising revenues.
Looking ahead – the 2021-2027 perspective
The European Commission has put forward proposals for the recovery of the European economy, such as the “Recovery and Resilience Facility” or InvestEU-based initiatives. All these schemes, and other future EU programmes such as the Horizon Europe or Digital Europe programmes can be accessed by the news media organisations, if they find the right entry points. The NEWS initiative presented as part of the Media Action Plan can help to connect the dots between the different opportunities available and support the news media sector in adapting to the “new normal”, at a time when it directly needs it.