Credit: Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Jessica White of Freedom House

Media and democracy are both increasingly coming under pressure around the world. Attacks on media freedoms are closely related to the broader global decline of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House, a US non-profit watchdog group, has been tracking over the past 17 years.

Newsrooms need to find new ways to fund independent reporting while fighting a rising tide of disinformation and powerful interests seeking to thwart press scrutiny.

Our newest report Freedom House report – Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe – found that newsrooms across diverse European democracies face an array of pressures. That ranges from SLAPPs (frivolous lawsuits seeking to intimidate and silence investigations) to media capture (takeovers by interfering owners with their own political or business interests).

Read more: What journalists can do to prevent and fight SLAPPs

The research does, however, reveal three key ways to protect newsrooms from such threats.

Financial independence

Many newsrooms now separate themselves from state funding. In Hungary, state advertising is channelled to favour pro-government media and wealthy businesspeople linked to the ruling party progressively capturing the media landscape.

A small but dynamic group of news outlets is increasingly relying on audiences for support. Some, like the online news site Telex and the radio station Klubrádio, are launching successful crowdfunding campaigns, collecting microdonations, and developing membership schemes to sustain their bottom line.

Getting people to pay for news is not an easy feat; nine per cent of Hungarians said they pay for online news in this year's Reuters Institute Digital News Report. But when newsrooms are able to build solid reputations by defending the value of quality journalism, people are willing to contribute and protect independent outlets.

Radical transparency

However, people will not want to pay for information they do not trust. In environments where public trust in the media is low, it is not always clear who ultimately owns the media and what their interests are.

Newsrooms are finding that committing strong professional standards helps to build credibility with their audiences. That includes transparency about their ownership and funding structures.

In France, some trailblazing news portals like Mediapart openly publish all their reports; any subsidies they receive, declarations of interests of their journalists, subscriber numbers and turnover. Meanwhile, some smaller outlets like Les Jours take a radically new approach. The publisher is, and wants to remain, held by the nine founding partners; the rest is split between private investors and individuals. This guarantee is openly declared.

Strength in numbers

Legal and political attacks tend to single out targets to overwhelm and intimidate critical reporting. A powerful shield against this is solidarity between media outlets and their supporters.

Newsrooms are able to build stronger defences when they join sector-wide initiatives to confront these challenges. Cross-border networks and collaborations - like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project - can provide additional technical, legal, and funding support for outlets pursuing sensitive investigative projects.

Solidarity among diverse media organisations is important in confronting common threats that affect the whole industry. Renewed engagement with audiences and more transparency about the inner workings of media outlets build credibility in low-trust environments. 

In Europe, we can also learn from the role of independently governed and well-funded public service media in providing trustworthy information across various segments of society and fostering informed public debate.

Most importantly, independent media should not be left to fend for themselves. Democratic governments, funders, businesses and civil society all have a role to play in encouraging sustainable and alternative business models to emerge, incentivising trustworthy journalism in the online space, and guarding against undue interference and attacks.

Jessica White is a senior research analyst at the non-profit independent watchdog organisation Freedom House. She leads research for Freedom House’s new stream of work on Media and Democracy, with a focus on Europe. She formerly served as a research analyst for Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s annual survey of internet freedom in 70 countries around the world.

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