Tag Archives: media

What’s happening to our media?

I’m in the process of writing up a report that presents the main findings from the research project on the changing business of journalism and its implications for democracy that I’ve been involved in over the last two years.

In the project, we try to identify the key “big trends” in the media in a range of different democracies (Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States) over the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Given such a spread of countries, widely different in too many ways to mention, there is obviously not one thing, or even a few things, that have happened to media and democracy in all of them.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to summarize the main points—below is a condensed passage from the concluding part of the draft report. Any and all comments on its most welcome, here or by email.

Most fundamentally, the last decade has involved a continued expansion of the number of options available to audiences and advertisers. This expansion originates in political, economic, and technological developments that gathered pace in the 1980s and 1990s with deregulation of the media sector in many countries, the growth of multi-channel television, the launch of an increasing number of free newspapers in many countries, and the spread of first-generation internet access via dial-up modems. It has been vastly accelerated by the spread of digital television and broadband internet in the 2000s.

The expansion of options has lead to an erosion of the everyday audience of most individual media outlets across most platforms, pressuring sales and advertising revenues for commercial providers, especially in mature markets with limited growth—in some cases to an extent that has jeopardized sustainability or forced severe cost-cutting. Few significant newspapers or broadcasters have actually closed, but most are under pressure. One the one hand, media companies have responded by adding more and more outlets to their expanding portfolios—at the very least adding a website and mobile services to whatever print title or broadcast channel they have historically been based around. On the other hand, this move towards more and more integrated and convergent media companies has been accompanied by layoffs, demands for increased productivity, and internal restructurings. (The booming Indian media market, where industry revenues are growing at double-digit rates annually, has seen much more of the former than the latter, though a recession will almost certainly result in retrenchment and consolidation.)

While a handful of infrastructural intermediaries in the telecommunications, pay television, search engine, and social media sectors have built positions that allow them to exercise market power and generate considerable profits, most content-based media companies face increased competition. In their attempts to remain distinct and relevant to audiences they are under external pressure from a growing number of alternatives appealing to the same users and under internal pressure in cases where cost-cutting threatens investments in quality content.

National newspapers that in the 1990s primarily competed with each other today face competition from both freesheets, broadcasters, and online services. The terrestrial television channels that ruled the airwaves twenty years ago are now up against a growing number of digitally transmitted free-to-air channels as well as premium pay channels and audiovisual services streamed over the internet. Legacy media websites and internet portals that dominated online news provision ten years ago are under increasing pressure from a growing number of aggregators and other new alternatives. As when radio disrupted the media sector in the 1920s and 1930s and television did the same in the 1950s and 1960s, the introduction and spread of a new media platform and the emergence of a multitude of new entrants all catering to the same finite number of audiences and advertisers have had knock-on consequences for legacy media, forcing incumbents to adjust their existing operations and take a stance on how to position themselves vis-à-vis the new medium.

This fundamental strategic challenge is the same across the world, but differences in conditions on the ground means that the tactics and outcomes vary in significant ways.

Amongst affluent democracies, the development is most dramatic in the United States, where all major news providers, with the partial exception of local television stations and a few cable channels, have lost revenues, seen their profit margin shrink or disappear, and have cut their investment in journalism. In much of Europe, public service providers face strategic challenges associated with the expansion of choice and the intensified competition for audiences, but their revenue models remain fundamentally solid. In Northern Europe, including Finland and Germany, commercial legacy media companies coming out of both print and broadcasting have so far managed to hold their own despite the spread of multi-channel digital television and high levels of broadband penetration. In Southern Europe, broadcasters have also held their own while many newspaper companies are struggling as challenges associated with the rise of the internet threaten their already weak commercial foundations, forcing some to rely on cross-subsidies from non-media businesses or financial support from their owners. In Brazil and India, large parts of the media sector are booming, but the revenues are not necessarily invested in quality content.

In the absence of dramatic change in media use, media markets, or media policy, and assuming no new game-changing technologies are waiting in the wings, media systems in affluent democracies are likely to see (a) a continued erosion of most media audiences and an increasing number of only partially overlapping niche audiences, (b) the continued decline of a newspaper industry that has in some cases enjoyed a few decades of monopoly-powered profitability but has been on the retreat overall in many countries for longer (as newspapers, for all their trouble, has been the main underwriters of professionally produced news journalism this has direct consequences for the number of reporters employed), (c) a continually growing gulf, driven in part by people’s preferences, in part by niche-oriented marketing logics, and in part by competition between outlets keen to differentiate their products from the competition, between the few who will in all likelihood be more informed than ever before, and the many who will receive, seek out, and find less and less news produced for them, especially if they belong to groups not considered attractive by advertisers. We are still at the beginning of the shake-out that will follow.

The full report will be published in October–stay peeled.

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The best media in the world?

Together with my near-namesake, Rasmus Helles, I’ve written an op-ed in Berlingske on media trends and media policy in Denmark, arguing we need to support not only content production and diverse provision, but also broad reach in the population if we are to continue to have some of the best media in the world.

Uanset om du læser denne kronik i avisen, på nettet, eller fordi nogen har delt den med dig via Facebook, så tilhører du sandsynligvis den mest overforkælede mediemålgruppe i verdenshistorien. Selv om avisoplagene falder, TV- og radiokanalerne presses af konkurrencen om vores opmærksomhed, redaktionelle satsninger på internettet har svært ved at løbe rundt, og internationale giganter som Google sluger store dele af annoncemarkedet, så har de veluddannede, velhavende byboere over 30 stadig flere medieprodukter at vælge imellem. Men medierne producerer ikke kun indhold til os som individuelle forbrugere. De spiller også en bred demokratisk rolle, der vedrører os alle som medborgere – og selv om Danmark stadig har nogle af verdens bedste medier, er den rolle i dag truet.

The whole thing is here.

The Absence of Americanization?

When Europeans concerned with developments in the media talk about “Americanization”–as Lord Puttnam in this old story from the Guardian–they are usually lamenting some development or other.

Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting a paper at the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff arguing that, when it comes to market structures and media regulation (rather than, say, professional norms or forms and formats of content), these fears are overblown, and that we have, in fact, not seen convergence on an American-style media model over the last ten years.This is not to suggest that there is nothing to worry about, only that the notion (or rhetorical trope) of “Americanization” is of little use in terms of understanding our predicament.

The abstract is below–comments and feedback welcome, this is work in progress.

The Absence of Americanisation—media systems development in six developed democracies, 2000-2009

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (University of Oxford)

“Americanisation” is one of the most frequently used and mis-used terms in discussions of international media developments, a supposed trend much feared by Europeans who are (sometimes justifiably) proud of the distinct qualities of their media systems. In this paper, I present a comparative institutional analysis drawing on media and communications studies (Hallin/Mancini 2004), political science (Hall/Soskice 2001) and sociology (Campbell/Pedersen 2001) and based on data on developments in media markets, media use, and media regulation in six developed democracies (the US, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Finland) from 2000 to 2009. I argue that, despite frequent predictions of progressive “system convergence” (Humphreys 1996; Hallin/Mancini 2004; Hardy 2008), the last decade has been characterized by an “absence of Americanisation” of the news institutions in the five European countries considered. National institutional differences have remained persistent in a time of otherwise profound change. This finding is of considerable importance for understanding journalism and its role in democracy, since a growing body of research suggests that “liberal” (market-dominated) media systems like the American one increase the information gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, have lower electoral turnout, and may lead large parts of the population to tune out of public life. The finding also has theoretical implications, since the supposed drivers of system convergence—commercialisation and technological innovation—have played a very prominent role during the period studied, suggesting we need to rethink the role of economic and technological factors (and their interplay with other variables) in media system developments.

Supporting the past, ignoring the future? Public sector support for the media

Though Western media systems are going through a rapid and often painful transformation today with the rise of the internet and mobile platforms, the decline of paid print newspaper circulation, and the erosion of the largest free-to-air broadcast audiences, the ways in which governments provide direct and indirect support for the media have remained largely unchanged for decades.

The bulk of the often quite considerable direct and indirect subsidies provided continue to go to industry incumbents coming out of broadcast and print, while innovative efforts and new entrants primarily based on new media receive little or no support. In central ways, public support for the media remains stuck in the twentieth century, and some parts of these support systems are in need of real reform to be brought into the twenty-first we live in.

That is the thrust of a report called ‘Public Support for the Media’ that I’ve written with help from Geert Linnebank, former Editor-in-Chief of Reuters. In it, we review the various forms of subsidy in place in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In all these countries, the main forms of support relevant today have been put in place in the 1970s and in many cases long before. None of these countries have carried out major reforms of their subsidy systems to take into account the changes the media industry has undergone over the last twenty years. The bulk of the public support provided continues to go—

  • First, especially in Europe, directly to public service broadcasters with varying commitments to the online and mobile services people increasingly desire, and
  • Secondly, in all the countries covered including the United States, indirectly through various forms of tax relief to paid printed newspapers that remain of central importance in terms of generating original general interest news content on a regular basis, but are suffering from declining readership and stagnant revenues.

It is well-known that most European countries remain committed to public service broadcasting, but it is less well known that private sector print publishers in most countries benefit from very substantial forms of indirect support. The British press, for example, benefits from VAT relief worth an estimated £594 million (€748 million) every year.

The large table below (click to enlarge) provides an overview over the main forms of support in place in the six countries, and their estimated total value. As is clear, the sums involved are considerable, even if they pale by comparison to how much revenue some parts of the industry has lost in recent years (US newspapers have seen their total revenue decline by more than $20 billion since 2000).

A lot of money thus goes to supporting broadcast and print media in various ways, media that continue to be important for how people keep informed about public affairs, but also media that are increasingly being supplemented by online and mobile media of various sorts. Despite the well known and rapid spread of internet access and increasingly smart mobile phones, today, of all the six countries covered in the report, only France offers any meaningful support aimed directly at online media—and that to the tune of about €20 million a year after reforms in 2009, less than 0.5% of all the support provided. (The ‘Other support’ available in Italy goes to private sector broadcasting.)

Our aim with the report has been to collect in one place information on various forms of public sector intervention meant to encourage and foster vibrant and diverse media systems. Rather than discuss each kind of policy—broadcast, press, online, etc—separately and on its own terms, we have wanted to provide a more general overview over forms of intervention in increasingly convergent media markets and help shed some light on an otherwise all too opaque policy area attracting increased interest as some commercial media companies continue to struggle and newsrooms in many countries are cut. In several countries, detailed reports on the national support systems have been published in recent years (see for example this one from the US, this one from France, or this one from Finland), but we are not aware of any comparative overviews bringing together different forms of media support the way we have done.

This kind of cross-country comparison can help identify overlaps—like the absence of change and the bias in favor of legacy media common to all the countries considered here—but also map out differences. Different developed democracies support the media to different degrees and in different ways—of the countries we looked at, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom offer the most support in per capita terms, based on robust public service funding and VAT relief for historically strong newspaper industries. France and Italy has more extensive support systems in place, but their total value is actually lower in per capita terms partially because of their lower license fees, partially because tax relief is worth less for their much smaller press. The US is the clear outlier amongst developed democraces, with minimal public support, mainly for public service broadcasting (through federal and state appropriations) and for print publishers (through various forms of tax relief).

The figure below breaks down the absolute sums in terms of support per capita to make them more directly comparable than absolute figures (listing 5.5m population Finland and 300+m population US side-by-side may invite misunderstandings).

As is clear, there are important variations in how these six different countries support the media. But in all of them, direct and indirect subsidies runs to billions of Euros per year and overwhelmingly go to legacy media organizations coming out of broadcasting and print, while new media initiatives—whether pursued by these or by new entrants and entrepreneurs—get basically no support.

As our media systems change and people’s media use switches towards new media platforms, the effectiveness of the inherited forms of intervention will decline. Especially indirect support for the press—support still considered “essential” by industry associations—is and has been far more significant than most people realise. But support systems built around legacy platforms of relatively diminishing importance will lose their effectiveness as current trends in the advertising business and in people’s media habit continues. As newspaper circulation and revenues from print sales and advertising thus decline, the value of the indirect subsidies meant to help the industry thrive will diminish—and they do nothing to help it address the more fundamental challenge of structural adjustment that it faces.

Those who favour a renewed commitment to public support for the media will therefore have to rethink the role of public policy, of public service media organizations, and reconsider how governments can support those private sector media companies that provide public goods like the kinds of accessible accountability journalism and diverse public debate that democracies benefit from. Media scholars have long called for such reform, and yet little has been done to bring our twentieth century media policies into the twenty-first century. The basis for indirect support for the press in the United Kingdom, for example, continues to be the definition of a newspaper as publications that “consist of several large sheets folded rather than bound together, and contain information about current events of local, national or international interest.”

Whether one wants public support for the media or not is a political question (and one all developed democracies have answered in the affirmative in the twentieth century), but as people’s media habits and the economics of the industry change, effective intervention probably ought to be built around the “information” part of the sentence quoted above rather than the “several large sheets” part (just as “public service broadcasters” have in many countries sought to redefine themselves as “public service media organizations” to emphasize their cross-platform ambitions).

It will not be easy to develop new forms of public support for the media. New policies intervening in a sensitive area crucial for the functioning of our democracies will have to command wide political support, navigate industry and professional concerns, and at the same time try to meet the multiple ideals of being platform neutral (not biased in favour of any one distribution system), of being viewpoint neutral (not affording politicians or others too many opportunities to meddle), of being targeted enough to make a difference (one can’t support everything), of being governable and transparent (so that recipients can be held accountable in the public interest), of not distorting competition unnecessarily, and of being able to pass muster under various anti state-aid provisions in for example the European Union.

Developing new policies in this area is not a question of simply shouting “out with the old, in with the new” and switching support wholesale to new media—most news, for examples, is still accessed via linear broadcast and print newspapers, even though other platforms are of growing importance. Reform is a more difficult issue of deciding what it is one wants to support—what kind of public interests public support should serve, what kinds of public goods one wants delivered—and developing forms of direct and indirect support that effectively encourage that without too many malign side effects.

Developing such policies will be hard, difficult work, and call for renewed intellectual and political leadership—but it is also much needed work. Reform is necessary if we want to move beyond supporting our media past while ignoring the future.

Note: We decided to look at these six countries because they represent distinct approaches to media policy and have different media market structures. (For more on this, see for example the chapters on each (bar Italy) in the book I edited with David Levy last year). I should add that our review is not completely comprehensive in that we leave out public notice laws, regulatory relief in competition and labour law, and many other potentially important but smaller forms of support for certain media, and that it is not absolutely up to data as the last year on which the necessary information was available on all six countries was 2008. We have focused on support for the main kinds of content-producing media companies with at least a partial interest in news journalism, and thus left out both telecommunications and support for, for example, movie production and various kinds of art and culture.

Cross-posted on politicsinspires

Impressions of Indian Newspaper Journalism

I’m no expert on Indian newspaper journalism, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been an avid reader of the country’s English language press and have thoroughly enjoyed my fleeting encounters with the Times of India, the Hindu, the Deccan Chronicle, the New Indian Express and several other titles.

There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to the status of newspaper journalism in India, even as the industry in contrast to its peers in many Western countries is enjoying rapid growth in circulation and revenues—problems include the proliferation of paid coverage not only of commercial ventures and in reviews, but also in politics (“no money, no news”), various fights between the editorial and the commercial side, plus the frequent harassment of journalists by local authorities, political activists, criminals, and sometimes the military or the police.

But boy can they write, and can they write about politics in particular—riveting accounts means that even now, after my return from travels in South India, I find myself frequenting their websites—trawling for news about Prime Minister Singh’s possible involvement in the 2G scam, following the twists and turns of the fall of Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka after a judicial inquiry connected him directly with widespread illegal mining in the state, reading about how Ms. Jayalalithaa’s newly elected AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu is cracking down on their defeated DKM predecessors on numerous charges of land grabs, corruption, and the like.

All this is so interesting partially because the substance matter is so serious, so clearly worth ones’ time. (On my return I found by contrast that the London Times had seen fit to write an editorial about Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to, while on holiday, wear black shoes without socks. The Times editorial writer thought one should always wear socks when wearing shoes, though conceded that one could be forgiven for wearing flips flops or even loafers without socks. Riveting stuff, really.) The 2G scam, for example, is estimated is estimated by some to have cost the Indian state almost $40 billion in lost revenue.

This kind of stuff matters, and even without independent investigative work, simply reporting the work of judicial investigators, non-profits and others looking into this, and how elected officials talk about it is important and commands attention. Even as a complete outsider, on many days, I’d find as much of interest in the daily edition of a 24-page newspaper sold for 3 or 4 Rupees (about 5 pence) as I usually do in the UK in daily newspapers often approaching a hundred pages all included and sold for a pound.

The journalists and editors who write all this surely face many challenges as their industry and profession develops alongside so many other changes in India—let me just say I enjoyed my brief brush with their work and wish them and all their colleagues working in broadcasting, online, as well as in Hindi and numerous other vernacular languages well.