Blog by Angela Mills Wade, Executive Director, European Publishers Council, posted on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2016
The one thing we all know about the future is that it is unpredictable, but we also know for certain that news media and publishing is undergoing continuous disruption and transformation. The good news is that according to our ongoing research staying in touch with the news is as important as ever, especially for the so-called digital Millennials. But ask them where they found their news today, or when, you realise quickly that reading, watching or listening to the news happens anytime, from multiple sources, usually on a smartphone and often randomly with other activities. Yet this uninhibited behaviour is no longer the preserve of the young. Today the majority across the generations are just as ‘promiscuous’ in finding their news from wherever and however they happen to come across it.
At the EPC our members’ business objectives not only reflect the new reality of multiple-source news consumption, but speak directly to Europe’s ‘Digital Agenda’ because media are at the heart of the Digital Single Market.
So far so good, but while our popularity and audiences soar, a sustainable revenue base for the future of journalistically driven, independent media is less certain. Technology has radically changed not only the advertising business which diminishes our traditional revenue base, but also where our readers find and enjoy our content – with profound consequences for the future of media and publishing companies. The EPC’s task is to ensure the outcomes of this Strategy lead to the best overall framework for a sustainable, independent media sector in Europe.
Media diversity is a basic tenet of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is cherished as a citizen’s right and continues to command respect through the role that the independent media play in our democratic Europe. But it comes at a cost, and with responsibilities. The fact is, quality journalistic content – whether breaking news or in-depth investigative reports, sports coverage or feature writing – is not just popular to read and share across social media, but expensive to produce, so media companies need to make profits to stay in business, and equipped to carry the risks and liabilities of production, and publishing.
Who could fail to be moved by the first hand reports by courageous journalists covering war-torn Syria, or painting vivid pictures of the daily turmoil of displaced peoples in mass exodus from their homes, searching for a safer future in Europe. Maybe you saw the pictures on Facebook or Google, or skimmed Twitter or Snapchat, but with few exceptions what you saw was produced by media companies. But what about next time? Who will be there to walk towards the danger – trained and experienced to elicit accurate information from those who are in authority, but not always in the mood to tell the whole truth? Seeking the truth remains an honourable thing but if media companies struggle to earn enough advertising revenue or sell subscriptions online, how can they invest in their staff, their future. And if they don’t, who else will? State funded media no doubt. News agencies maybe? But we need independent, and many voices, to give eye-witness accounts and to ask the difficult questions, often risking their lives so doing.
Let’s be clear what is at stake because we must find some answers to the precarious situation we face today and ask ourselves what happens to any society which lacks an active and investigative press, with trained journalists free to operate in print, radio, TV or online. This goes far deeper than the catchwords of disruption, innovation or business models.
The future success of the independent, free media and publishers should never be defined by regulation but sometimes the market simply cannot provide for fairness. Only profitable publishing companies can afford to be independent. And only independent publishing companies are capable of producing the professional, quality journalism needed to challenge authority and strengthen the weakening democracy of the 21st century. For that, publishers need fair competition and a stable legal framework which brings clarity about rights and responsibilities. A balance is required to control new powers – from global multinationals to gigantic investment funds, from powerful NGOs to ‘self-regulated’ worldwide activities like sport for instance – that somehow evade control and legitimacy through classic democratic mechanisms. Publishers have a clear idea of what are their duties. This means that they are ready to accept sanctions when they don’t apply the principles and rules imposed by law or by self-regulatory codes of conduct. But it also means that publishers must be sure of their rights and their ability to enforce them. Unless we create a real market, founded on respect for the law, the echo chambers of the blogosphere will ring hollow if there is no hard-core professional reporting to pour over and re-tweet.
The EPC is asking the European Commission to consider holistically what kind of European media and communications sector they want as part of their Digital Single Market, what they expect for our economy, society and democracy and to take appropriate action to provide for fairness to enable all to thrive.
For a fully functioning digital content market, the legal and regulatory framework has to re-balance the bargaining power of producers and distributors through Competition Policy so that commercial agreements and content licensing become better options for both sides. Publishers and other producers of creative content have invested in technical licensing solutions to make this easy through the Linked Content Coalition and the RDI Project in internet-friendly ways using machine-to-machine communication based on linked data, exactly in the way that internet companies run their own businesses. We will continue to do so because this is the right thing to do. In a fully functioning market, producers and distributors are natural allies but if licensing is going to work it has to involve two ‘willing’ parties. While there will always be some unwilling parties who must be dealt with via enforcement measures, the law should make these the minority. At present this is not the case leading to a vast incongruity between those who invest in the production of original content, and those who redistribute it for commercial gain without recompense to those original producers. We are asking the Commission not only to address this imbalance via competition policy but also in copyright.
The legal framework for copyright needs updating to meet the investment needs of 21st century journalism and professional publishing. Copyright is always a balance between rightholders and users. We have heard a lot from users about barriers, their calls for new exceptions, but the time has come to adapt the rights of publishers, to put us on a par with other producers of creative content such as the phonogram and film producers and the broadcasters who all benefit from an exclusive related right at EU level – all without prejudice to the underlying rights of our contributors. A reinforcement of the legal position of the publisher will not affect the copyright position of the author. We are asking for a publisher’s right to protect their investment in the final products, services and technology of the publishers, while the publisher-author relationship continues to be governed by the contractual agreement between publisher and author.
Europe can no longer afford to condone a situation where the only businesses which have been able to profit systematically from distribution of publishers’ content appear to be those which depend on others not only to provide the investment of time and money for the production of that content but also to carry all other risks and liabilities of creation.
It is this challenge that sits at the heart of our conversation with the European Commission, MEPs and national governments and will define the future shape of regulation affecting publishers and the media.