Six reasons legacy media products in Europe are surviving


I celebrated springtime this year with a visit to my parents’ suburban Chicago home after spending two years in Europe.
Happily, the tomatoes and cheese on my Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza bubbled up as gooey as ever, served up by a teenager who stopped by every five minutes to refill my two-litre “glass” of cola.

My reintroduction to Chicago-style journalism, though, was a less savoury experience. Legacy media companies in Chicago and the US have shrunk both the size and depth of their offerings over the past two years. I’d read that in media blogs, of course, but experiencing the shrinkage was startling.

The change is quite noticeable after spending so many months outside the US. The lack of foreign or in-depth reporting in American print and television products is glaring, as is an intensified focus on celebrities – and this in serious newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and television stations like CNN or NBC.

The lack of news coverage can be largely attributed to economic woes (that contribute to falling ad revenue) exacerbated by the change in news consumption habits over the past decade.
In Europe, by comparison, I seem to enjoy a more accurate, in-depth news experience. Yes, traditional ad revenue and circulation are falling in some European nations. The legacy media crisis is creeping into European newsrooms (but maybe not online).

Still, a range of international stories is available even in regional products. Could the news industry in the European Union be better positioned than their American counterparts to weather the proliferation of the Internet and the global recession?

Six ideas why this might be the case:

Diversified business models

More business models are on offer in Europe. This diversity is important for sustainability of accurate, well-rounded coverage and engaging presentation.

Consider the taxpayer support of many European national broadcasters. English taxpayer money gathered from the TV tax partially supports The BBC (although not BBC World). France also collects TV tax money. The state subsidises several TV and radio broadcasters. The government also supports the English/French/Arabic 24-hour station France 24, a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the public-funded holding company Audiovisuel Exterieur de la France.”

There is discussion, of course, of untethering these kinds of taxes from TV sets. In Finland, parliamentarians are considering detaching the tax from televisions and a levying a sort of “for media creation” tax on everyone.

Public funding can help stations avoid total reliance on advertising (which is banned or reduced on public stations in some countries, like France and Spain).

In the United States, there is far less centralised support for public broadcasting. Yes, broadcasters like National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service do get some money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This corporation receives its funds from the budget of the US Congress and doles out funds to various broadcasters. But local stations (often affiliated with NPR or PBS) seem to be constantly having pledge drives and asking viewers for donations or membership.

When it comes to newspapers, few American legacy papers boast business models that rely on funds other than advertising dollars. The idea that tax dollars should support newspapers seems an indigestible idea to most American journalists or news consumers. And outside of subscription to wire agencies, there are fewer cross-business relationships to promote wider distribution of material (although the papers in Ohio have shown some promise).

Consider in Europe the case of The Guardian, which is supported by a not-for-profit trust fund. In France, newspapers are receiving bailout money. And in the Netherlands, the Press Fund supports journalistic research, financial support for newspapers’ operating costs like phone and Internet, and mail subsidies (common in Europe and the US).

Also interesting is the recent partnership between the NRC Handelsblad (Dutch) and Spiegel Online (German) to produce English-language content online. Equally intriguing is the idea of leading Italian newspaper companies coming together to share online ad revenue.

Personality plus

The media landscape across Europe includes a greater range of voices and themes. Columnists write with a voice (Robert Fisk of The Independent comes to mind), a personality. And most often, reporters write in newspapers that are honest and obvious about their political stances. The Daily Telegraph, for example, would be identified by most Britons as a paper read by conservatives. The Independent is seen as a more liberal paper. It’s easy to tell with which voice newspapers tell their stories.

This can lead to the necessity of consulting more than one news medium to gain a well-rounded perspective, yes, but more views are often within the acceptable realm of the debate.

Newspaper journalists in the United States, on the other hand, are still often reluctant to inject personality into their stories. Objectivity and balanced reporting are seen as more important.

It’s possible that this lack of personality in traditional American news annals makes it easier for readers to set them down in exchange for, say, Oprah’s O Magazine or Arianna Huffington’s political news site.

Car culture

The free daily paper Metro is distributed in at least 40 European cities. Many of those cities have other additional local freesheets circulating in train stations, on busses, on metros and at tobacco shops.
That’s because public transportation means time for consuming news and advertising. Americans, meanwhile, live increasingly farther away from city centers. Transportation is synonymous with cars in the Land of the Free.
Perhaps the reliance on car culture and disdain for living in city centers is why the free model has not taken off in the US to the extent that it has in Europe (charts at right, from Newspaper Innovations: American and European countries with more than one free newspaper).

Having more fun

There is no American answer to the Page 3 Girls in Rupurt Murdoch’s The Sun. And it’s hard to beat the free CDs distributed by the Daily Mail and the scores of Sunday magazines crammed into The Times of London and The Guardian.


Diversity is good for sustainability, and that’s why the many languages of Europe will help news services continue to flourish in the EU.

Consider the case of Belgium, which has three national languages. It’s easy to find news products in both Dutch and French.  Not only does competition for stories and breaking news rage between news services, but also the different language versions. This seems like a great climate for journalists.

Also, publications like the NRC Handelsblad and Spiegel Online can print expensive investigative stories in multiple language editions. Not many US content services can offer that benefit to their advertisers.

Talking it out

Europeans are (fairly or not) famous in the United States for their ability to talk any topic to death – and then have a cigarette and come back to talk again. The process is sometimes more important than the results (conversely so in the US).

And so are the discussions that rage at conferences – like DNA2009, the Global Investigative Journalism Conference or European Investigative Journalism Conference.

In other chat circles, the European Union will begin examining newspaper models soon. It has asked EU newspaper leaders to give feedback about the future of the industry in order to influence policies. The Commission has put out this call for feedback because it recognises the importance a free (from government or economic influences) press plays in civil society. The Barroso Commission also realises that publishers employ a lot of people.

The US Senate will engage in a discussion about American newspapers’ future 6 May.

Flickr image from The Vista Dome. Other image from LifeClever.