European news media leader –

The EU initiatives of last December can contribute to renewing the news media sector, if implemented quickly and together. In an open letter, Christoph Leclercq, Marc Sundermann and Paolo Cesarini call for leadership from Berlin, Paris and the Council, and from the press chiefs themselves.

Founder of EURACTIV Media Network, Christophe Leclercq chairs MediaLab Europe. He also advises EDMO (European Digital Media Observatory), and was with Marc Sundermann
on the High Level Expert Group on Disinformation. Mr. Sundermann is now Director of MediaLab Europe. Paolo Cesarini is a former EU official.

Frau Kanzlerin Merkel, President Macron, President Michel,

Building on recent, upcoming and ongoing EU Presidencies, and working with media leaders, you can help improve our democratic infrastructure. This is relevant for the next elections: Germany soon in 2021, then France in 2022, and the EU in 2024.

Today’s democracies depend on the sustainability and credibility of the information ecosystem: a new form of public space emerging from the past symbiosis between politics and the press. As you know, deep imbalances in this ecosystem facilitate misinformation, populism and riots.

The success of the “1992” internal market required both political leadership and a change of mentality within companies. The long-awaited industrial transformation of the media landscape will require a similar commitment.

A European strategy for the news media sector

Good political news is on the way, which is why this open letter calls for concerted and rapid action to overcome siled thinking and fragmentation. Dr Ursula von der Leyen said during her confirmation in Strasbourg that she would chair a ‘Geopolitical Commission‘ and put European democracy among its top six priorities.

The last Franco-German follow-up summit to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle focused on strategic autonomy‘. British reluctance should no longer be an obstacle. By bringing these three notions together, you could now convey one of Europe’s desires: an autonomous and open information ecosystem, based on European values..

Indeed, American platforms dominate our public space, fueling misinformation (and tax evasion). On the other hand, quality media players have gained trust and readership in times of Covid, but are still struggling economically. The journalism landscape is mainly composed of two sub-sectors, with different needs.

Streamer, mainly public, try to juggle between financial support and independence, while attracting the attention of most politicians. The news media, mainly private, are losing most of their advertising, their subscriptions… and their journalists.

Misinformation is a symptom, not the cause. Censorship is not the solution and legal action is too slow. Indeed, the related decline in the media is due to the weakening Business plans: Gatekeepers do not award quality content fair compensation and fair visibility.

The real remedy is sectoral rebalancing of the news media ecosystem. A European strategy for the media sector can be called Medien-Industriepolitik in Berlin and media industrial policy in Paris, or even media sovereignty.

This has happened for other branches of the European economy thanks to a smart mix of proactive policies, funding to adopt technologies and improve skills, enforcement of competition and players’ visions on their future structure. . In the case of the media, this also means tackling disinformation through market-based regulation of dominant players, building on self-regulation.

Just before Christmas, the European Commission published what could be called the “information file”. Complementing recent copyright and audiovisual legislation, this consists of draft directives on digital markets and services, as well as action plans on democracy and the media.

These texts contain useful concepts, defining ‘guardians’ (not to say American platform giants) and paving the way for a dynamic use of concurrency rules, to avoid “coming after the battle”. In addition, funding for innovation is planned under the NEWS: it is inspired by the MEDIA programme, which helped to save the European film industry.

Of the four EU “Info package” documents, the two legislative projects take risks, such as the copyright directive. Both Action Plans can be enacted more quickly if properly funded under Creative Europe and Horizon Europe of the EU’s final long-term budget, and possibly including part of the funding for the revival at the national level.

Primarily, existing competition rules are the hammer in the toolbox: use with force, now.

Create momentum: commitment and speed

Beyond clearer policies, five points will help rebalance the bargaining power between gatepeekers and the press.

First, cross-border cooperation or even mergers between news media companies should be encouraged by competition guidelines, not slowed down.

Second, the proposed News Media Forum is not enough: publishers should unite their dispersed advocacy representations.

Third, media markets and building blocks such as AI-assisted translation can facilitate content sharing and support pricing for content reuse.

Fourth, gatekeepers are committed to reflecting the reliability of information sources in their algorithms: they should finally do it. Finally, future media leaders should acquire new skills to cooperate across borders.

The rebalancing of the ecosystem will trigger a virtuous circle: more visibility for quality content, therefore more publicity, more royalties, therefore money for journalists and technology. If investors stop selling to governments and oligarchs, democracy wins.

However, there is still a lack of attention to media strategies at European level,

On the institutional side, what is needed is a rapid policy and effective disbursement of funds. In the past, R&D-inspired funding focused on large projects, with long lead times, often managed by EU agencies.

But even the largest news outlets tend to be mid-sized organizations, with no representation in Brussels, no tendering team, or a strong balance sheet to allow for patience. In accordance with the independence of journalists or researchers, several submitted EU projects operate with their own juries.

They allocate “media” funds subject to EU principles and audits, with lighter paperwork and deadlines. On this basis, a broad call for NEWS proposals could be launched, triggering competition from journalism partnership projects, not just consortia of large organisations.

For their part, publishers and publishers are often attracted by GAFA investments in media innovation, exceeding public funding. In addition, some news media executives were concerned that “Brussels” hinders certain commercial actions, never proposes a strategy for the sector and favors broadcasters for the little money made available.

But major players are seeing the light: many publishers have joined Microsoft by calling for a fair system of payment for content.

Leadership: both political and industrial

Based on promising EU policy initiatives, where is the framework document outlining an overall vision for the news media sector? Cross-references in the December package, as well as public relations and consultations are not enough. The NEWS package should be full of life and supported by the Creative Europe and Horizon Europe programs.

Lessons can also be drawn from national initiatives. For example, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle provides for audiovisual cooperation. But until now, the main Franco-German contribution is ARTE, now turned towards Europe.

Meanwhile, control of Euronews has been lost to an Egyptian investor, and there are few joint ventures between national media. Belgium is also a revealing case: it suffers from separate public spaces without “cross-border” media.

There is a group of commissioners in charge of the media, but a dedicated, clear and comprehensive strategy for the news media is still lacking. The Commission services are currently reflecting on industrial policy as a whole: why not use the news media as a new example?

Given the existential importance of quality media for democracy, the European Council could ask the Commission for a comprehensive communication on news media strategy and competition and encourage Member States to reflect.

Kanzlerin Merkel, President Macron, President Michel: you have the political and personal credibility to create this momentum, among other leaders, and press editors.

Back in Strasbourg, for the January 2022 State of the Union address, President von der Leyen could claim visible impact, and not just bills and action plans. For healthy media and for democracy.

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