New and collaborative funding models are proving crucial to media innovation and will be essential to securing long-term sustainability for newsrooms and beyond.
The media sector has undergone rapid change in recent years, with the rise of online platforms and their challenge to traditional advertising revenues forcing a fundamental rethink of the business models that sustain media outlets – problems that were further compounded by the financial shock of the COVID-19 crisis.
A number of initiatives have turned their attention to this issue, focusing not only on tackling existing gaps in the industry but also on how this can be carried forwards to foster a more sustainable media sector overall.
Central to this, stakeholders from the industry emphasise, is the provision of diverse and collaborative funding opportunities that make space for innovation within and between outlets.
Solid funding is crucial to ensuring that media companies are able to innovate and test new ideas, Saura Lopez Leal, digital project manager at Spanish media company Vocento, told EURACTIV.
Through a project run by the Stars4Media programme last year, Vocento partnered with Swedish tech firm Cruncho to develop an AI-driven guide to Málaga, drumming up new revenue streams for local newspaper Diario Sur.
“Sometimes innovation departments [in media companies] don’t have really big budgets in order to test new technologies inside of the company”, said Lopez Leal, adding that funding is also frequently conditioned on the profitability of the idea or product being tested, the likelihood of which is often hard to determine.
“Through this project, you have the opportunity to test something. Maybe you will do very well or maybe you will fail, but you can try the product”, she said. “You take the risk away and test a new idea.”
The cross-border nature of this kind of collaboration is also key, not just because it means products that are working well in one country can be trialled in another, but also because it allows for companies to share their ways of working.
“Big companies are sometimes really slow in making things happen”, said Lopez Leal. “When you work with a startup, like our partner [Cruncho], they work in a different way – they are really fast, they are really agile. For us, it was a great way to learn how to work in a different way; this was the most important thing from the experience.”
The third round of Stars4Media projects is set to launch later this year, this time oriented around medium and large news media outlets. Through the programme, participants will have access to direct grants and coaching with the aim of fuelling innovation in either newsroom or business transformation.
While Stars4Media is co-funded by the EU’s Creative Europe Programme, industry stakeholders have emphasised the importance of fostering collaborative and diverse approaches to funding.
Speaking at an event on media transformation and democracy-building on Thursday (12 May), Max von Abendroth, Executive Director of Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE), noted that philanthropy remains an under-utilised source of funding within the industry.
In part, he said, this is thanks to the existence of legal barriers that prevent foundations in Europe from funding journalism due to the fact that it is not recognised as a charity activity. Where it does go to the media, he said, philanthropic funding mainly ends up with non-profit journalism organisations, but there exists great potential for this to be expanded.
Philanthropic backing could not only help to provide journalists with the infrastructure they need to work safely and securely on and offline, he noted, but could also help to spur media innovation by allowing for new business models and modes of content creation and dissemination to be developed and tested.
Another benefit of philanthropy, von Abendroth said, is its potential to “create structures that can neutralise public funding into journalism.”
“We all know that public funding directly for journalism and content creation is problematic because it’s not necessarily independent, or there’s a risk of becoming dependent [on it]”, he said. “There are ways of neutralising this public funding through structures built up by philanthropy.”
Bolstering media independence will also be the aim of the upcoming European Media Freedom Act, set for launch later this year. Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said at the same event on Thursday that the act “will enshrine, for the first time in EU law, common standards to protect media pluralism and the editorial independence of the media.”
The EU also has a number of initiatives designed with the aim of funding journalism, such as the Commission’s European Journalism Partnerships, which aim to boost the sustainability of European news media.
“I think that there have never been so many funding opportunities” at the EU level, Marie Frenay, a member of Commissioner Jourová’s cabinet, said at Thursday’s conference. The journalism partnerships in particular are a “flagship” programme of the Commission, she said, adding “we have a call that is now open and more opportunities will come.”
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]