A fundamental aspect to be aware of is that the EU makes grants and awards commercial contracts, which are very different beasts.
Grants enable you to do something that is not commercially viable, yet in one way or other in the public interest. They cover costs but prohibit you from making a profit. Accordingly, when the EU has given you a grant, it not only checks whether the action you carried out was in line with expectations, it also holds you accountable for how exactly you spent the money.
Grants, especially when coming from the EU, often have an additional catch: Most of them won’t fund the full costs of a project, but require you to find typically between 20 and 50 per cent of the budget somewhere else — third-party funders, your savings, or project revenues.
Contracts, on the other hand, put you into the position — and, notably, mindset! — of a commercial service provider. The EU needs something done, you offer it at market prices, and after adequate delivery, you get paid in full. Given the market paradigm, the customer cares about product quality, but not about your costs or whether your profit margin happens to be sky-high.
Conventional thinking has it that grants are for non-profit organisations, and contracts for business enterprises. However, while companies may fully well benefit from grants, there is nothing that per se prevents non-profits from providing commercial services either, as long they channel any profits into their charitable objectives. Hence, it makes sense to keep an open mind when it comes to European funding opportunities.
The European Union tenders dozens of communications and media relations contracts every year, worth multiple millions of Euros. Some of those merely offer business opportunities for news organisations wishing to cross-subsidise their core activities, while others may leave room to follow a journalistic mission.
That said, it is of course not necessarily easy to straddle both worlds while maintaining integrity. Most EU communications contracts are for straightforward public relations, involving journalists and news media merely as a means to convey a specific message, such as about, say, the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy or its relations to China. A journalism organisation may be very well positioned to provide such services, but would also need to have the proper internal firewalls and policies in place.
But even for those who baulk at the very notion of crossing the line into PR territory, every once in a while, an EU contract comes up that involves genuinely journalistic elements, for instance, the potential to organise independent press trips or to extend financial as well as practical support to journalists in third countries. Competition for European comms contracts is pretty tough, though, especially for newcomers.
Horizon 2020 (H2020) is the European Union’s grants framework programme for R&D, and it is mind-bogglingly diverse — ranging from strictly academic fundamental research to applied science, technology, security, social sciences, and policy consulting. There are literally hundreds of opportunities every year.
On the one hand, many H2020 calls have the development of journalistic services in scope even if that’s perhaps not their main thrust — think, for instance, robojournalism, data journalism, verification, media monitoring, content management, journalism culture, and so on. On the other hand, practically all projects have a dissemination component that a media organisation might well bring to the table. If you cover a given beat anyway, why not leverage that competence and join a scientific research group to help publicise their findings?
A considerable plus of H2020 is that the grants typically cover 100% of the cost as well as 25% overhead if you are a non-profit organisation, and the red tape involved is relatively mild by EU standards. But there are major drawbacks, too. It is extremely hard to get one’s head around all the sub-branches of this sprawling programme, and hence a real challenge to identify the calls that match one’s own capacities and interests.
Also, most projects require a consortium of partners in several EU Member States, and it can be tough to find the ones with whom you really click. And finally, most calls are extremely competitive. But once your organisation has made a name for itself, new projects will start to come your way on their own, so the main hurdle is to break into H2020 in the first place.
Creative Europe is the EU’s support programme primarily for audiovisual content, namely movies, series, and documentaries, that essentially rounds off the film subsidy programmes at Member State level. Accordingly, it makes available only a relatively small fraction of a project’s total budget and lays emphasis on facilitating the uptake of productions outside their original country, e.g., through subtitling or dubbing, or cinema distribution.
However, within Creative Europe’s culture sub-programme, the EU also makes co-funding grants to European platforms, networks, and cooperation projects up to €2m — primarily targeting grass-roots civil society initiatives, which naturally include journalism. The catch is that you need to find half of your funding elsewhere, and you need partners in many different EU Member States in order to be eligible to begin with.
For the budget period 2021–2027, the EU plans to introduce a €61m sub-strand to Creative Europe, dedicated to quality journalism (including media pluralism and media literacy).
The SME Instrument is basically the EU’s risk capital programme, open to start-ups as well as small and medium-sized enterprises developing innovative lines of business. Early-stage experimental projects can apply for grants up to €50.000 with few strings attached, while ventures with advanced product maturity may receive millions of Euros in funding to accelerate their market access. Uncharacteristically for European funds, single entities can apply, and there are no thematic or sectoral limits involved, so in case you have some ground-breaking journalism-related technology or business model on hand, this might be for you.
Apart from the SME Instrument, there is a jumble of other programmes supposed to help emerging businesses by way of discounted loans and guarantees as well as access to expertise and coaching; in the near future, there is even supposed to be some venture capital support for non-profits. But beware, this is all repayable or virtual money, meaning that hard EU cash will only be spent in the undesirable case that your company fails and defaults on its debts.
Apart from all the above, it is worth mentioning that the EU spends money on analysing and supporting the framework conditions of a functioning public sphere. The Media Pluralism Monitor is primarily meant to watch out for systemic risks in European media landscapes (e.g., related to media ownership, diversity of opinions, etc.), and the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom (ECPMF) has become a bit of an indirect executive arm of the EU, following up on violations of the legal rights of journalists and media.
In 2018, ECPMF also became the EU’s intermediary to provide grants totalling €315.000 for cross-border investigative journalism (IJ4U) — a rare case in which teams of journalists could get their hands on EU money for actual reporting. Similarly, individual journalists will soon be able to benefit from Erasmus-like exchanges.
Finally, it is often overlooked that the EU is subsidising the pan-European television station Euronews with around €25m each year, and the public-private radio network Euranet in the region of €6m annually. I’ll leave it to the readers to imagine what that kind of money could do if it were made available on a regular basis to journalists covering EU-related or cross-border topics on channels that don’t come with the notoriously high broadcasting overheads.
The Journalism Funders Forum (JFF) is an initiative that brings philanthropic foundations and public-sector institutions together with journalists and news organisations in order to exchange best practice and to develop new pathways for supporting an independent and quality-oriented journalism sector. European Union representatives were involved, for instance, in a JFF expert circle in Brussels in 2018.
To further explore the topic of journalism funding, subscribe to our monthly newsletter Journalism Funders Confidential that takes a closer look at the intersection of philanthropy and journalism in Europe.