After the shooting in the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, the importance of a strong press is at the tip of everyone’s tongue. However, the public discussion in the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris also revealed the precarious financial situation of such small independent magazines. French Minister of Culture and Communication, Fleur Pellerin, therefore announced the plan to expand the French media subsidy system so that it would also include support for weekly and monthly magazines. While this decision might receive much sympathy right now, subsidies for the media are normally a much-contested issue. Many argue that the French press already depends very much on state aid, which is at odds with their role as a fourth estate, as it could potentially compromise their independence.
400 millions euro per year in France
From a Swiss perspective, at first sight, the French press market indeed seems to be highly subsidized. French newspapers and magazines receive direct production support for approximately 400 million Euro per year altogether , while the Swiss Government does not spend one measly penny for this purpose. However, a comparison of these plain numbers is misleading, as there are other, less visible, indirect forms of support. In our recent study on the public financial support for private media in Europe and overseas, we use a common way to categorize support measures: On the one hand, either media organizations receive direct financial support, or the state supports them indirectly by creating a “favourable situation”, for example, by allowing tax breaks. On the other hand, either measures can favour all members of an industry or they can privilege selected media organizations that meet certain requirements.
France and Switzerland both use indirect measures to create a favourable situation for all members of the press industry: They reduce the VAT for press products (in France from 19.2 % to 2.1 %, in Switzerland from 8 % to 2.5%) and grant financial support to news agencies. Furthermore, the French government funds reading promotion and the Swiss Government supports journalism education and media research. Both countries also use measures of distribution aid: While France supports postal and rail transport, newspaper delivery and distribution abroad, Switzerland only supports postal transport. However, the main difference between the two systems lies in the fact that Switzerland – other than France – completely abstains from direct production subsidies for the press.
How to maintain a plural media market?
Many scholars argue that press subsidies could be a suitable tool to hinder media concentration and to preserve a plural media landscape. They point out that the press in western European countries is nowadays under massive pressure: With the rise of the internet, readers’ attention drifted slowly away from the newspapers. As a result, newspaper circulation decreased. Moreover, – as money follows attention – advertising revenues started to decrease and shifted to the internet, too. Because of their precarious economic situation, many publishers needed to sell their newspapers to large media corporations, or had to close them down completely. This led to an overall decrease of press titles and accordingly to market concentration.
As concentrated media systems are a potential threat for democracy, politicians and governments need to react to this ongoing structural change. Hence, press subsidies may become a political option even in countries that were reluctant to implement such measures in the past, arguing that market forces would create plurality automatically. However, it is important to note that not all support measures have the same effect: While general-indirect forms like tax breaks do not change imbalances in media markets, specific-direct measures could possibly do this.
French system privileges large press corporations
The Swiss case supports this argument: Although the press receives general-indirect press aid, the number of press titles is constantly decreasing since the 1940ies. However, the publishers themselves do not accept the implementation of direct support measures, arguing that they fear to lose their independence. This sounds somewhat ironic, as several newspaper publishers also own radio or TV stations, and therefore receive a share of the licence fee money collected for public service broadcasting. Furthermore, there are ways to safeguard independence: On one hand, a politically independent council can be in charge of allocating the money. On the other hand, if there is a very precise definition of the criteria of eligibility, the allocation can proceed almost automatically.
The French system, with its direct payments, on the other hand, seems to be better suited to cope with the difficult situation of the press. However, as all members of the industry can receive public funding, the system is not able to adjust imbalances. Instead, it privileges commercially successful press corporations in the same way as it privileges small titles that are fighting hard for their survival. In order to provide a pluralistic media landscape, it could be reasonable to shift the amount of support in direction of small and independent media.
What seems to be an important step for the future is that subsidies in France are also eligible for online media. It is reasonable to promote this new form of media as the Internet reduces distribution costs and therefore lowers market entry barriers.
Imbalances and Charlie Hebdo
To sum up we can say that subsidies for media are one way to react to the current difficult situation of the press, as they could help to safeguard diverse media landscapes – which is essential for democracy. Direct and selective measures seem to be most suitable to reach this goal, as they can privilege (small) independent news organizations. Even though the support for weekly and monthly magazines planned by the French Minister of Culture and Communication will not adjust imbalances, it can help important outlets like Charlie Hebdo, to survive and to contribute to media plurality.
and Corinne Schweizer, Research and Teaching Associate at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research of University of Zurich in Switzerland.
Her research topics are Media Politics, Public Service Media, and Social Theory.
Crédit : benoit theodore, Ministère de la culture à Paris.