'Perfect storm', a new report launched today (30 June) by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), looks at the challenges facing public service media in Europe, and how broadcasters are responding to these challenges.
Bill Dunlop, president and chief executive for Eurovision Americas, the US subsidiary of the EBU, and the author of the research, interviewed editors from a variety of European broadcasters in the spring of 2017, funded both through licence fees and advertising.
The study can be downloaded by creating a free account on the EBU website. Here are some of the main takeaways:
Political pressure and competition
Because of the pressure on budgets in Europe, right-wing political parties in many countries argue for the public funding of broadcasters to be cut, Dunlop wrote, citing their "liberal bias".
Outside of the sphere of politics, competitors of public broadcasters question the idea that public broadcasters should have a "guaranteed source of income" that allows them to create content that competes directly with journalism produced by all other outlets. The 2017 Digital News Report published by Reuters Institute of Journalism also found that readers would be more willing to pay if publishers would present a united front in charging for news online.
"At a time when newspapers are struggling to survive, why are organisations with guaranteed income allowed to publish news and features free of charge across a plethora of platforms, thus taking away the need for consumers to pay subscriptions to publishers who have to survive in the open market?"
A separate group is formed of broadcasters such as TF1 in France and TV2 in Denmark, which have an obligation to air a certain amount of news and current affairs at peak time, but who are funded through advertising.
"They too must chase the younger consumers who are deserting traditional broadcast news, but their emphasis is on a different set of alternative platforms: those where advertising is possible," the author pointed out.
Trust and impartiality
Increasing trust in journalism is a task for publishers across the board, but even more so for public broadcasters, who are directly funded by their audiences. A study conducted by EBU in May found that European news consumers tend to trust TV and radio more than social media and the written press.
Dunlop gave the example of covering the refugee crisis, which he said was a "story with only one side" for public service media: "the plight of refugees trekking across Europe is heart-wrenching and the assumption is that a civilised society will give them a sympathetic welcome and a roof over their heads."
Journalists are examining their output and asking: do these members of the public who are so disillusioned with our output possibly have a point?Bill Dunlop, Eurovision Americas
But readers and viewers might perceive refugees negatively, such as thinking they put a strain on public housing in a particular country. The way in which news outlets report on this issue can either encourage prejudice and abuse against refugees, he wrote, or "accelerate disillusionment with public service news" if the topic is not being covered by public media.
"While the natural instinct of any journalistic organisation is to stand its ground and defend its work, there is a new phenomenon in evidence in newsrooms across the continent. Journalists are examining their output and asking: do these members of the public who are so disillusioned with our output possibly have a point?"
Threat to local and regional newspapers
Some of the organisations interviewed in the report acknowledged that local and regional newspapers across Europe are feeling threatened by the "availability of free regional news produced by public service broadcasters".
In 2016, the BBC conducted a public consultation about its future, as its charter was set to expire at the end of the year. As part of the recommendations, the BBC announced it would invest £8 million to support 150 local journalists. The journalists would be employed by local news organisations to cover local authorities and public services for news providers, including the BBC.
Prioritising and allocating resources
As public broadcasters strive to remain relevant to the needs of their audiences and the ways in which they now consume news, traditional TV formats might have to be rethought. The "continuing strength of the evening news bulletin is reflected all over Europe", wrote Dunlop, however "a process of constant review is essential, as is having the courage to change what is not working".
For example, Germany's ARD decided to reduce the amount of resources they were putting into their late night news bulletin and invest elsewhere, while in the UK, BBC scrapped its Newsbeat website in favour of merging it with the main BBC News platform.
Public broadcasters need to be strategic about which channels and platforms are worth investing most of their budget in, he added: 24-hours news channels, website and apps, and social media, all of which come with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Websites provide more control, and support more content types, as well as often being the "destination for traffic driven from social media", while Facebook offers a bigger reach. The author outlined three main ways for broadcasters to invest in their Facebook presence: to distribute material; to engage in a revenue sharing agreement by placing ads; and to join one of the company's own initiatives, such as Instant Articles, for monetisation.
Being multi-platform, editorially and technically
"If there is one consistent message from all news managers who have piloted through successful digital strategies, it is that the agenda of news output has to be significantly expanded," the report found, and this involves a multi-platform approach, both editorially and technically.
On the editorial side, editors interviewed found that a strong human interest was key. Not to be confused with "dumbing down the news", but instead focusing on covering the positive aspects of news events as well the negative ones, which often falls under the umbrella of "constructive" or "solutions journalism".
People expect news providers to go to them, and to win over every viewer individually with their contentBill Dunlop, Eurovision Americas
Some news outlets, including legacy newspapers such as Die Zeit and public broadcasters such as Tagesschau, have also launched standalone brands to reach younger audiences, as opposed to just creating sections for millennials on their existing websites.
The views on taking such an approach are mixed, Dunlop wrote, and there are three ways in which public service media can target the younger demographic: establishing a distinct brand; creating a hybrid model, in which the newer brand would exist under the umbrella of the legacy outlet; and publishing content aimed at young readers, but under the main brand.
Newsrooms have also started regrouping, both in terms of space and staff skills, to be more efficient in how they produce and distribute their stories.
For example, Channel 4 News has devised a training programme where, at any time, two legacy newsroom producers would embed with the digital team to expand their social media skills. The approach goes both ways – members of the digital team also spend time training as TV producers.
European newsrooms are also restructuring their teams of journalists into topic-based desks, such as arts, business, science. While this may not seem like a new approach, Dunlop stated, the strategy no longer applies only to "peak time TV bulletins".
"Public service news providers in the modern era have to pay attention to their audience to a degree that they’ve never experienced before.
"The next generation of news consumers will not automatically come: people expect news providers to go to them, and to win over every viewer individually with their content. Not only that, dialogue is a two-way process, and listening and responding to the audience is essential."
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