Europe is facing another crisis. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak is taking its toll on every individual and sector across the European Union. Manufacturing outputs are falling, jobs are being lost and the share of people struggling to get by is growing every day.
In the first quarter of 2020, the Eurozone’s economy shrank by the fastest rate on record. A deep recession is inevitable and will be measured in double digit percentages. In times like these we rely on quality journalism and trustworthy media more than ever.
The role and value of professional journalists bringing news as it breaks is widely understood and appreciated. Readership and audience numbers have grown throughout the past months. Yet, despite the increased consumption, media has been hit extremely hard by the abrupt drop of its already shrinking advertising revenues.
Unlike other industries that were experiencing growth until recently, the media sector has been deteriorating for years. With their business models disrupted by changing consumer habits and the emergence of online platforms that now take the lion’s share of digital advertising, many media organisations are facing an existential crisis. Most of them were dangerously weakened during the previous financial crisis and have failed to successfully recover.
Media pluralism and diversity has been declining for decades. Thanks to the squeeze on revenue streams, we are witnessing shrinking newsrooms, staff layoffs, stagnant or even decreased wages for journalists and precarious working conditions becoming the new reality.
As a result, there are thinner newspapers, increasingly repetitive news bulletins, more “expert” discussions about news instead of original reporting and reality TV shows replacing quality content.
Larger news conglomerates are cementing their market position by absorbing smaller outlets. In many countries, individuals with the deepest pockets are buying up failing newspapers. Meanwhile the increasing information vacuum that is left is a fertile ground for the unleashing of disinformation campaigns and propaganda wars.
This is particularly problematic and worrying for Eastern European countries with large Russian-speaking minorities or those in close proximity to Russia. A strong, free and plural media ecosystem thus serves as an important defence tool.
Local and regional news media, as well as those operating in smaller markets such as the Baltic states, are in an especially difficult situation. Bigger companies in bigger markets, despite falling revenues, have been able to invest in mobile platforms and create interactive news content, thus at least partially recapturing both their audiences and advertisers.
"Unless there is an immediate financial aid given to struggling media organisations, COVID-19 and its effects may well strike the final blow to many of them"
Meanwhile the smaller players, due to a lack of resources, are essentially forced to choose between transitioning to the digital environment and paying wages to their staff.
In some Member States, because of town mayors’ attempts to prolong their grip on power, local papers now have to compete with municipality information gazettes that mimic independent media and are distributed free of charge. Unless there is an immediate financial aid given to struggling media organisations, COVID-19 and its effects may well strike the final blow to many of them.
It is worth highlighting that the extension of credit lines and availability of loans on favourable terms are not suitable for an industry already on its knees. The EU has to play its part in helping the sector survive. Following my initiative, early in April we sent a letter to the Presidents of the EU institutions and responsible Commissioners asking for concrete, immediate and medium-term solutions for the media sector.
Among other initiatives, in the letter, signed by more than 40 MEPs, we ask for the European Commission to launch an emergency fund — a grant programme — as a tool to directly support media organisations in need. Before anything, the sector needs to weather the immediate storm - especially for media operating in smaller markets. Even relatively tiny amounts of financing can make a big difference.
As MEPs, we have regularly witnessed successful pilot projects evolving into full-fl edged programmes. This year I too submitted two proposals that aim to support the media. Financially assisting local media to transition to the digital environment would be a cheap method of reinvigorating their value.
"A free, independent and sufficiently funded media is instrumental for a functioning democracy. It holds those in power accountable, and helps individuals make informed decisions"
Meanwhile, handing out vouchers to Europe’s youth that they in turn could use for funding and accessing media of their choice would not only be a financial boost to the sector, but would also be an invaluable tool in fighting disinformation. We also need long-term solutions that go beyond handouts.
A free, independent and sufficiently funded media is instrumental for a functioning democracy. It holds those in power accountable and helps individuals make informed decisions. Its value to society is immeasurable. That is why media cannot be treated as yet another industry that can be resurrected if it fails.
A sustainable environment must be created that enables quality media to thrive, not merely exist. Media policies should remain a national competence, but the EU can, and must, play a supporting role. Sufficient funding for media literacy must be ensured.
We also need a common EU approach for establishing frameworks for artificial intelligence, platforms and digital tax. It is high time the EU spoke with one voice and acted with one aim.