Being optimistic about the future of journalism in Europe – where the future is nothing but bleak

by Postwoman

The future of journalism debate in the US is nowhere near reaching a consensus, and maybe even getting more complicated, in a good way. There is an ongoing experimentation and discussion that give the sense that journalism is heading somewhere, certainly on a bumpy road, yet we do not know much about the destination. Although the scope and the intensity of discussion are not quite comparable, the future of journalism debate is surely not confined to the US. As David Levy and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s book, The Changing Business of Journalism and Its Implications for Democracy, shows “there is not one (journalism) crisis, but different crises in different countries” and similar conversations are taking place around the world. As those two authors eloquently put, every bit of information, practice, or conversation is valuable for those concerned about the future of news no matter which side of the pond they live. The search for the future of journalism within Europe is particularly interesting because 1) the future of the Union is a big mystery, which will result in either the potential breakup of the eurozone or an even closer integration, and 2) how to define “European” journalism and/or create common standards is a challenge in itself, independent of the crisis.

One of the recent initiatives of a similar search took place three weeks ago when the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom of the European University Institute organized a summer school for journalists and media practitioners in Europe to unravel the complexities of “European” journalism in light of all the challenges and opportunities journalists face today. Thirty-two journalists and media practitioners from twenty-two European countries, including Turkey and Kosovo, gathered in Florence, Italy to discuss their journalistic practices both from a national as well as a European perspective. For a week, the journalists could engage in a dialogue on shared issues they confront every day and listen to twenty-three experts from academia and NGOs, including Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, Paolo Mancini of the University of Perugia, and Robert Picard of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

At a time when their own professional future along with the future of both the EU and journalism is quite bleak, young journalists had a lot to say about their day-to-day jobs, professional values, and how they experience media freedom and pluralism across borders. As the director of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom Pier Luigi Parcu said, in a union with 27 countries, and different situations in each country, it was quite challenging to set journalistic standards, let alone replicate best practices, therefore they came up with a summer school idea. Luigi said Europe had to digest all those transformations and react to the future of journalism debate recognizing the diversity and complexity it has owing to the uniqueness of each member state.

Two main challenges emerged through a weeklong discussion: the ongoing impact of the economic crisis and the rapidly changing digital media landscape. Almost all journalists agreed they felt pressured under the effect of the financial crisis in different ways. Since the advertising revenues declined tremendously, news organizations are dependent on the remaining advertisers more than ever. In countries like Portugal, Bulgaria or Spain, companies have increasing power over the news stories, be it in the newspapers or on the radio. When news organizations turn to public funding, in order to decrease their vulnerability to corporations, they are well aware that they have to get along with the government. Therefore, for many news organizations there is an increasing dependency on the business and political interests of either corporations or the government. On the other hand, journalists have to perform with the constant fear of losing their job in such an economically unreliable environment — if they have one, since Slovenian journalist Barbara Hren said, “news organizations don’t hire anymore, so freelancing is must”. Among 32 participants, 10 were freelancers.

On top of those economic challenges that bring various cases of (self) censorship, lack of professional freedom as well as media diversity, and intricate labor structures to the surface, those young journalists are further challenged by questions such as who is a journalist, how s/he should perform, which values should, or could, be shared across Europe, and most importantly how. Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism summed that up by saying “the character of journalism is up in the air”, because the digital media challenged the basic premise of journalism: “being the main intermediator between the facts and the audience”.

As journalists, news organizations, or academics cannot agree on the scope of the opportunities and constraints of this new media environment in Europe, it becomes highly difficult to set and maintain consistent regulatory structures across countries. In countries like Romania or Portugal, for example, journalists complain about the ineffectiveness of law that is supposed to protect media freedom and pluralism. Marian Voicu aptly put, “We have brilliant code of ethics for journalists in Romania, but it is now law”. Dirk Voorhof of Ghent University also confirmed there was one standard within the EU framework to protect journalists and investigate crimes against them, the famous Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, however there were various practices that succeed or fail in enforcing that standard depending on the national contexts.

Not every comment or discussion was gloomy in sunny Florence though. There were certainly moments of optimism and motivation that the participants eagerly held onto. Alexander Stille of Columbia Journalism School encouraged journalists to keep asking questions no one has asked before and brought examples like the MPs’ expenses scandal from the UK to show what a single journalist can achieve. Mark Deuze of Indiana University told we now lived in media, not with media, and pointed to DJ Tiesto to learn how journalists could adapt to the digital environment while not failing to have fun in their jobs. At the end of an intense week of lectures and discussions, Pier Luigi Parcu said he was mostly impressed by the fact that the journalists spoke up and related their personal situations to the general issues like media freedom, pluralism, and ownership. “That was not just a theoretical debate”, he said, “European journalism needs to survive and recreate itself in this new environment and I’m optimistic after the summer school”.

*Photo credit: Marcin Czapski

PS: On a personal note, I met the most wonderful young journalists of Europe. It’s impossible not to be optimistic about the future of European journalism when you look at what they’re all doing in their jobs.