News - How The Emancipated Journalist Can Save European Democracy (But Isn’t Doing It Yet)
If the European Union wants to survive as a union of citizens, it needs to allow room for a public debate about the EU with all its pros and cons. To feed that debate, we need independent watchdogs. We need emancipated journalists to rise up to the challenge.
By Ides Debruyne, managing director of Journalismfund.eu
The European union exists only as a free-trade zone. At least, that is what it is often accused of. ‘Europe is a political dwarf’, is how the mantra goes. Still, the European member states are having difficulties to stand their ground individually in the international economic rat race. That is why they keep rubbing shoulders with the economic giant that is the EU, even though at this point that giant seems somewhat lost in a Greek tragedy.
If the European Union wants to survive as a union of citizens in its diversity (if indeed that is what it is at all), then it will have to be more than merely an economic power. It has to look for a broad European social basis of citizens who get involved in the public debate. But in order to do so, the Union will have to fling open its doors. It has to at least allow room for discussion – and, consequently, room for discord. A democratically elected political structure exists nearly by the grace of public debate. Without a social basis the EU will collapse like a house of cards.
The European Union is a more than admirable project set up after the Second World War. It has succeeded in its primary goal: to avoid war in our region. For 70 years the European Union as been a unique place where war has been banned and consultation and diplomacy have taken its stead. This is an incredible piece of European bravado. But a political structure with executive and legislative power can only exist when citizens are well informed. Only well-informed citizens can be involved and actually participate in the debate. The only question is: where do they get their information?
In order to feed the debate about the EU with all its pros and cons, we need independent watchdogs. Let’s call them allies of the citizen. Without doubt, independent journalists are of paramount importance in this. They need to stimulate a cross-border debate, lest Europe crumbles and breaks up in a Catholic south and a Protestant north. Independent journalists are more than essential for a democratic Europe. They are the fourth estate. That is, if they get the time and room for it. Unfortunately, journalists’ hands are tied by the current rigid business models.
Legacy media in trouble
Local or national media are treating European politics in a stepmotherly way. Their focus is on the national and regional powers. Media corporations, both the ones financed by the government and the commercial ones, adhere to market logic. The majority of our independent media are first and foremost commercial corporations. No wonder that their primary goal is to make profit, and that any democratic aspirations are only secondary.
Can we expect a democratic reflex of the traditional commercial media? Can we expect from the traditional media that they focus as much on the European level as they do on other political levels? In how far are they really the watchdogs of European democracy? Does the press call the European government to account? Does it lay bare the malpractices of the people in charge? Is there any real, in-depth investigative journalism to speak of taking place on this level? I’m afraid the answer to each of these questions is no. And what’s more, we cannot expect traditional media to do these things. Exactly because it is not their primary goal.
Revenues in free fall
At the same time, the picture of the state that the European and American media are in is not a bright one. After the American media, the European media are now in trouble, too. Advertising revenues and income from newspaper sales are running dry. Subscribers are dying at a higher rate than new ones are being born. The traditional media’s business model is shaking to its foundations and is in danger of collapsing.
Advertising revenues are in free fall because of the economic crisis of the past years. At the same time, advertisers are spreading their advertising budget over multiple media – especially new media. Facebook, Google and others are walking away with a big piece of the pie, but do not themselves pour any money into journalistic activities. The public has grown accustomed to free news, making it very difficult to bring them to put money on the table for decent information.
The traditional media are desperately trying to counter this. Scaling-up (by take-over purchase) is the magical formula that allows corporations to spread their costs over multiple media in their growing portfolio. Synergies between the different brands make for a significant reduction in costs. Innumerable jobs are being cut in the process. In Europe this massacre is happening as we speak. Furthermore, media companies are ruthlessly cutting in their contributors' salaries. And a growing number of freelance journalists are producing at a loss. They are forced to hand over their copyrights if they want to stay in the game. Because of all this the number of European journalists is dwindling at an alarming rate. Everything is being cut down on: the number of journalists, the salaries and the articles themselves. Finally, any room for in-depth reporting is withering away.
Focus is primarily on the target group, which is a white middle-class that does not want to be confronted with the darker side of life too much. Easily digestible infotainment is the dominant genre, this in stark contrast with a reality that is ever more complex and ever more sophisticated. The public yearns for context and interpretation, but unfortunately has to make do with opinion pieces and commentary. In Europe this is the case for journalism on all political levels: local as well as regional, national as well as international. But on the subject of the EU even any form of commentary, let alone any in-depth pieces, is lacking. Can we still speak of democracy if citizens do not even have a minimum of information at their disposal?
The consequences of these scale-ups are obvious. Everywhere in Europe market concentration is taking place. Too many media outlets end up in the hands of too few owners. Moreover, in the south of Europe a lot of media have close ties with the reigning politicians, which means that the elected authorities tend to have a lot of power over those media. In the Balkans there are barely any independent media to speak of left. For several media companies there is even unclarity as to who their owners are. They are themselves not at all transparent as far as information about their own company is concerned. Journalists can hardly write any critical pieces without being threatened.
We are lulling each other to sleep
So we can't expect any big change from the part of the traditional media. In the meantime most people have gotten used to a press that is to a certain extent 'loyal' to the regime. Viewers are happy that they do not having to go to bed with a critical show or a documentary on malpractices on their minds. The editor-in-chief of an important Belgian public broadcaster recently stated in interview: "No, I don't like the idea of arguing right before going to bed." We are lulling each other to sleep. The worst thing that can happen to a democracy is that people lose interest in the actions and activities of its politicians. The media trust index has fallen sharply in the last decade. Politicians and the media are engaged in a race to the bottom as far as public trust is concerned.
But also publicly funded media are thinking within that same commercial framework, which we have the politicians to thank for. European governments are running a chronic austerity policy and are, in some countries, no longer willing to foot the entire bill for public broadcasting. Advertising revenues are allowed and some media rake in up to thirty percent of their budget that way. This hybrid business model makes for an unclear profile of the subsidised media. Because the model determines the news. So the mixed models of financing lead to a tendency to force everything into a commercial frame. All of a sudden, viewer and listener ratings turn into a measurement instrument not just for the commercial, but for the subsidised media as well. To get on the right side of the advertisers, subsidised media start to mould their radio and TV stations along the lines of commercial broadcasters. What follows is a less diverse landscape and more vulnerable public broadcasters that become market-dependent and are judged on market-driven results. The consequences for journalism are predictable: less in-depth, faster reporting, and no EU coverage… At the same time there is less money for the commercial broadcasters, because now both are targeting roughly the same pool of advertisers.
The emancipated journalist
So where does change have to come from? Who will take the lead in ushering it in? In the eyes of the legacy media, every new initiative is disruptive, because they want to maintain their old business model for as long as possible (as can be seen in the slow transition from print to digital). So it won’t be them. But if not them, who?
If we want information to be guaranteed and able to flow freely in a commercial free market, then we need journalists to emancipate themselves from the structure (the media company) in which they operate. If we want quality, in-depth and European journalism that generates an impact in a modern democracy, then we need real democratic watchdogs. Allies of the citizens. Independent journalists. It is in their hands that democracy’s fate lies.
No reasons to keep standing on the sidelines
But they are not taking up their roles satisfactorily. They exhaust themselves in finding reasons to keep standing on the sidelines and getting entrenched in the legacy media. While all the while new technologies can help journalists to set themselves free from the traditional channels in which they are stuck. Publication platforms are legion: a blog, a personal website, podcasts or films that you can easily publish online, etc. And then there are social media and other marketing techniques to put your stories in the spotlight.
Is cross-border journalism expensive? Never have plane tickets been so cheap and mobility in Europe so big. At the same time there are free tools (Skype, Facetime, Viber, etc.) to contact colleagues. Managing a project with several colleagues? Piece of cake. Online tools (such as Trello) offer custom answers. And if you need money, you have other possibilities to turn to. Crowdfunding is one solution, but setting up a paywall can be done in no time, too. Also, support for independent journalists has increased, for example in the form of grant-giving organisations such as Journalismfund.eu, the organisation for which I work, to name just one.
Journalists need to stop nagging about the state of the legacy media. If they want to increase their credibility and do their job thoroughly, they will need to get to work themselves. They have to look for a new model in which in-depth cross-border journalism is possible. According to a recent Dutch study about the future of journalism, an important function of journalism in a democracy seems to be disappearing, i.e. monitoring those in power. So what are they waiting for?
Some interesting initiatives for new models are popping up here and there already. Some examples: CORRECT!V in Germany, Mediapart in France, De Correspondent in the Netherlands, Apache in Belgium, IRPI in Italy, Centar za istraživačko novinarstvo in Bosnia, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, Direkt36 in Hungary and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which stretches from Eastern Europe into Central Asia. All these groups of journalists primarily focus on investigative journalism in their own country.
It is necessary for journalists to join forces, because of the high costs of investigative journalism. So in effect, investigative journalists also have to look for synergies and scale-ups. And there is more money to be made by focusing on Europe, because European topics can be sold to multiple European media. Maybe investigative journalists need to find inspiration in the world of documentary filmmakers, who have been looking for inventive ways to finance their expensive activity for years. Most documentaries that came out in the last decade were not financed by a single broadcaster. And documentary filmmakers find alternative ways of financing. They apply for funding with sponsors or film funds, make use of tax shelter (in which investors are given a fiscal benefit), crowdfunding… You name it.
Where to meet?
International conferences present journalists with opportunities to meet and exchange ideas and skills, which increases mutual trust. New associations of investigative journalists are shooting up like mushrooms. Most of them organise annual national conferences. But there are international conferences as well, such as the Dataharvest European Investigative Journalism Conference (Belgium), the International Journalism Festival (Perugia) or the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (2015, Lillehammer). Journalists who want to excel have no reason whatsoever to stay at home.
Journalists can also work together on a topic. Take the project The Migrants Files, co-financed by Journalismfund.eu in 2014. More than 15 media across Europe published the project. The most important thing for journalists is impact. And impact can be generated by working together and publishing in different places in Europe. Also, as an individual journalist, you are less vulnerable if you work in group and if you are financed by a third party. Hard-hitting investigative journalism becomes less risky. Nine journalists worked on the award-winning project. They investigated the number of migrants that have died trying to reach Europe since 2000.
If we want pluralism in our European news, it is necessary for a climate of journalistic entrepreneurship to be stimulated all across Europe. News can only be diverse if different types of models are set up. Because as stated before: the model determines the news. A new model has to be found for European investigative journalism. Cross-border collaboration between these existing centres and associations and new ones can be a cornerstone of a European public debate.
There is still a lot that goes wrong in the world. A lot that can and needs to be changed. But that will only be possible if the public knows about all these cases of mismanagement, fraud, abuse of power, incompetence… The first step in fighting malpractices, is uncovering them. And that’s why we need emancipated journalists to rise up to the challenge.
Journalismfund.eu - 2015
(Photo © bob)