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Policy Brief | Fighting the media crisis in the EU: lessons of Stars4Media focusing on innovation exchanges

This Policy Brief has been authored by Luciano Morganti (imec-SMIT, VUB), Giordano Zambelli (imec-SMIT, VUB), Catalina Dumbraveanu (VUB), Olivier Braet (imec-SMIT, VUB), Christophe Leclercq (Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV), Nathalie Bargues (Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV), Renate Schroeder (EFJ), Stephen Fozard (WAN-IFRA).

Since November 2019, for 12 months, the first edition of the Pilot Project Stars4Media was implemented by SMIT-VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV) (the project initiator), the European Federation of Journalists (journalists’ organisations), and WAN-IFRA (publishers).

Stars4Media is co-financed by the EU pilot action – “Exchange of media ‘rising stars’ to speed up innovation and increase cross-border coverage”, whose budget was voted by the European Parliament in 2018. It is the first pilot project for cross-border cooperation of media professionals fostering innovation in the news media sector. It does so by enabling physical and virtual collaborative exchanges between media professionals, from at least two media outlets based in different EU countries, around practical Initiatives. A Second Edition proposal has been submitted by the same Consortium and successfully evaluated in November 2020, Stars4Media will start again in January 2021.

The scene behind Stars4Media 

Today, European media face an unprecedented crisis. It is a crisis of identity, as the media sector has been looking for a renewed role ever since platforms acting as gatekeepers entered the field. It is also a crisis of financial resources, as the traditional business model for generating revenues from news, struggles to pull through.  Lastly, it is a crisis of trust, as, in the midst of a populist and nationalist drift, the media have a  fundamental role of building and strengthening democracy by providing unbiased, independent and trustworthy information in a digital world and perform their crucial role in open societies.

This multifaceted crisis is weakening the sector to a point that for many players the worsening trends of a decades-long financial decline create a serious risk of market failure, as warned in a report by Reuters Institute. This entails layoffs and worsening labour conditions for media professionals, and although the media industry is a business, its healthy functioning and financial independence are essential conditions for media pluralism, media freedom and democracy.

The current European Commission, after the election in 2019, has openly insisted that strengthening Democracy is one of its key priorities. Needless to say, additional pressure generated by the pandemic risks blowing away any little progress of the recent past, while further accelerating declining trends in the media sector. Projects supporting the media sector have already been put forward in the past, but often they have focused essentially on journalistic cooperation or EU coverage, rather than innovation and sustainability.

In addition, major digital platforms also invested resources through the Google News Initiative or the Facebook Journalism Project. However useful, such programmes have limitations due to their funders, which have ulterior motives and negotiate hard versus the media sector. In light of the structural crisis, a bold and comprehensive response of the EU aimed at innovation and independence could help the media sector climb up from the crisis with long-term solutions.

The Commission, after openly recognizing the utmost importance of professional media and journalism during the Coronavirus crisis, has renewed its commitment to support news media, in the words of Commissioner Breton. Emphasis has been put on the major recovery plan through NextGenEU and a revamped Multiannual Financial Framework, as a way to support the sector through existing programmes like Creative Europe, the Digital Europe Programme, InvestEU, and the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Apart from a number of small pilot projects, the MEDIA programme, under the overall Creative Europe programme, is focusing almost exclusively on film and audiovisual. Europe can help media innovation via policy measures and could also bundle better and extend its action: 42 MEPs have suggested a NEWS sub-programme. This would support the media sector playing a stronger role in the EU democratic landscape, and help it overcome the aftermath of the Coronavirus crisis. In this framework, a pilot project like Stars4Media can test flexible and small scale approaches, in view of much needed permanent projects under a NEWS action.

Confronting the Media Crisis: the Stars4Media Pilot Project

The goal of the Stars4Media pilot project is to help media organizations overcome the challenges of a European media sector weakened by a revenue crisis combined with a crisis of trust.

To address soundly these systemic issues, Stars4Media provides a ground for experimental bottom-up innovation, training and cooperation. The mix of these three axes is key for generating long-term solutions, rather than short-term aids. Concretely, small teams of media professionals were invited to submit proposals in the form of ‘initiatives’ across two main topics: Trust in media and Data for media. An independent jury composed of distinguished and experienced media experts selected 21 out of 41 eligibles proposals for initiatives. 

As a result of the jury evaluation, a total of 105 media professionals were involved in the virtual and physical exchanges. Typically, initiatives are formed by 2 media outlets, with a total of 6 media professionals. A relatively high number of freelance journalists also applied to the project. Each media professional working on an initiative received 6000 euros, of which 20% own-contribution. The Initiatives started in June 2020 and lasted between 4 and 12 weeks. The final results were presented at the Media4Europe conference, on 14th October 2020.

A key aspect of Stars4Media is the interdisciplinarity of the profiles selected. While journalists represent the main beneficiaries of the initiatives, many other media professionals have been involved, such as marketing specialists, graphic designers, videomakers, sound engineers, developers, etc.

Exchange process of a typical Stars4Media Initiative. The exchange happens at 2 levels: cooperation at senior level and exchange/implementation between media professionals at a junior level:

The eligible proposals encompassed a remarkable variety of topics/areas, ranging from quite popular subjects like ‘AI/Tech solutions for journalism’ or ‘Innovative business models’, to very niche ones, like ‘Digital overload/Stress management in media’. This last example, for instance, was an initiative implemented by four freelancers: two mindfulness coaches, a journalist and a graphic designer who worked together for creating a free online program designed to support journalists with the knowledge and evidence-based practices to improve digital well-being. In the area of ‘AI/tech solutions for journalists, the cooperation between a Finnish tech start-up and a Spanish news agency was impactful. It resulted in an innovative tool designed to enable content creators to better manage the hidden information (embedded metadata) contained in visual contents.

The 5 most popular topics/areas addressed by all eligible proposals for Initiatives received:

In line with the variety of topics, the results of the selected initiatives were diverse: migration-related reportages, solution-journalism podcasts, research analysis on editorial transparency, experiments in innovative business models, or tech solutions for visual journalism, just to mention a few.

Stars4Media: facing the Covid Crisis

At the very beginning of the project implementation, the Stars4Media consortium had to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The approach of Stars4Media was promptly re-invented to respond simultaneously to the problems of the long-term crisis (lack of innovative solutions), and of the current health crisis (lack of physical mobility).

As the cross-fertilization of innovative solutions among European media was the core of the original concept, the project did not sacrifice the aspect of cross-border cooperation but instead strengthened its virtual component. Virtual cooperation was complemented, where possible, by physical exchanges.

Allowing transnational collaboration remained crucial to experiment with innovative solutions while exchanging best practices. For more than 2/3 of the media professionals involved, the aspect of virtual cooperation did not create major obstacles. Rather, it was an occasion to optimize the internal workflows and the overall implementation of the initiatives. Even more interestingly, a virtual collaboration created unexpected benefits in several cases.

Perceived benefits of virtual cooperation (data from the 21 interviews with initiative leaders)

Furthermore, in order to provide a sound and bold response to the challenges that the pandemic was presenting to the media sector, a third topic was proposed: ‘Coronavirus’. The goal was to attract initiatives on how the media sector might adapt to the health crisis.

The decision to include an additional ‘Coronavirus’ topic was well-received: 4 out of 21 Stars4Media initiatives (accounting for 20% of the whole budget for beneficiaries) worked directly towards either contributing to a deeper understanding of the ongoing crisis or towards creating innovative solutions for helping the media sector dealing with the most pressing consequences.

 

Stars4Media – Lessons learned and policy recommendations: how to create an environment accelerating a sustainable media innovation 

The Stars4Media consortium has come up with a strategic set of lessons learned and policy recommendation. These are meant to upgrade the programme and make it even fitter for speeding up innovation and sustainable cooperation among European Media.

  • The cross-border partnerships are perceived as a valuable opportunity

As a result of a final survey addressing Stars4Media beneficiaries, according to 80% of the 56 team leaders, the cross-border partnerships they have started with Stars4Media are set to continue. The continuation of the partnership has been identified by the team leaders as the strongest benefit of the programme. This indicates that the aspect of cross-border cooperation is perceived as a benefit, even by partners that had never cooperated before their participation in Stars4Media.

  • A pool of media experts should be involved in coaching applicants during the pre-selection phase

During the selection process, the 41 eligible proposals have been evaluated by a jury, across seven criteria (see Figure 3). Each proposal received scores (from 1 to 5) for each of the seven criteria. A score analysis showed that financial sustainability and innovation were overall rather weak aspects of the proposals. To counter this weakness, a stronger involvement of media experts acting as coaches during the pre-selection process will help applicants in the second edition to submit proposals with sounder sustainability and innovation dimensions.

  • Future grants and projects are seen by the beneficiaries as the most likely opportunities of monetization, after Stars4Media

The same survey found that 68% of the initiative leaders believe that grants are the most likely opportunities for future monetization. Smaller percentages (never higher than 40%) are associated with the other options available: new investors, new revenue lines, new business model, enlarged audience, and new partners.

This finding may reinforce the previous point about the weak performance of the initiatives in terms of financial sustainability. The same media experts that will act as coaches in the pre-selection phase, will also continue their coaching activities throughout the implementation of the initiatives, to ensure stronger impact and sustainability.

  • Most initiatives focus on editorial innovation, little space is given to technological and marketing innovation

The vast majority of selected initiatives have delivered results in the area of editorial innovation, while smaller space has been given to technological and business/marketing innovation. While this can be an indication for a larger interest in editorial innovation, this could also show a lack of communication effort by Starts4Media for triggering marketing/technology-oriented proposals. Aware of this unbalance, the Consortium has worked on a more comprehensive communication strategy, for the second edition.

  • Cross-border virtual collaboration is not an obstacle, even for partners cooperating for the first time

In light of the consequences of the pandemic, virtual cooperation was set as the norm, complemented, only where possible, by physical exchanges. Initially, Stars4Media was promoted as a programme for physical cross-border exchanges of media professionals. However, for more than two-thirds of the media professionals involved, the aspect of virtual cooperation did not create major obstacles. Rather, it was an occasion to optimize the internal workflows and the overall implementation of the initiatives. Even more interestingly, virtual collaboration created unexpected benefits in several cases.

Policy Recommendations:

  • Involve senior mentors to ensure stronger and more innovative outcomes

The experience of Stars4Media tells us that young media professionals are very receptive to experimentation in innovative business models, editorial products and technologies. However, in order to ensure even more innovative initiatives’ results the involvement of senior media professionals is essential. For this reason, they should be also considered as strategic actors throughout the entire development of the next initiative, with ad-hoc financial compensation for their engagement.

  • Assure the right amount of financial contribution to the media professional willing to innovate

The micro-financial contribution that Stars4Media has provided to the media outlets is not sufficient. This is only 6000 euro (divided into 80% co-financing and 20% own-contribution, hence only 4800 EU contribution per participant ), which compensates a small part of the total costs for the media (in terms of human resources, and expenses related to the implementation of the initiatives). Full cost coverage for the beneficiaries was never the intention, but in the current context, one should support more. Media companies also have some preparation and administration burden, which  does come into their equation. Media professionals including or especially freelancers, when not properly compensated on a financial level, might lose the incentives to invest extra time and commitment to innovative exchanges. It is important that an appropriate and consistent financial contribution is allocated to the media professionals and media outlets willing to participate in this kind of exchange programme. 

  • Develop programmes with a high capacity to act and react

Flexibility and a quick capacity to act and react is key for implementing a programme aimed at pioneering cross-border exchange and innovation-centred cooperation for the European media sector.

Adopting a flexible and agile approach is essential to succeed. This means that access to finance should be facilitated, red tape should be avoided whenever possible and simple yet efficient schemes should be created, so as to let the media professionals concentrate on the content and innovative dimensions of their initiatives.

The way forward: ‘Rising stars’ pilot continuation, Stars4Media Second Edition

Stars4Media Second Edition will widen the scope of the action, with a target of 30 Initiatives and 185 professionals involved, while streamlining the process of initiatives selection-implementation-evaluation already tested in the first pilot. The design of Stars4Media Second Edition builds on the original idea of a European-wide response to the crisis of the media sector. To accelerate innovation through European cooperation, this second edition will harness these key dimensions: the flexibility, the virtual component of the exchanges, the innovative approaches, junior professionals supported by senior mentors, and a more consistent financial contribution to the media professionals.

The Stars4Media Consortium has started advocating for transforming the Pilot into a much needed permanent media innovation and exchange programme. Members of the European Parliament, as well as relevant decision-makers at the European Commission, have been involved in a dialogue on policy solutions to support news media (Open Letter co-signed by 28 MEPs and media stakeholders: Health, trust and journalism: a Coronavirus Plan for the Media).

It is now the moment to think strategically: the EU should build on the modest yet tangible success of the Stars4Media Pilot Project and assure its continuation into a permanent European Media Innovation Action. This would be the perfect complementary action to go together with the NEWS action to support news media and quality journalism suggested by some 40 MEPS in April 2020: EU leaders must stand up to protect the news media sector.

Interested in discovering more about Stars4Media? Join our LinkedIn community and visit www.stars4media.eu

Stars4Media is co-funded by the European Commission (grant agreement number: LC-01337350), in implementation of year 1 of the pilot project ‘Rising stars’ voted by the European Parliament.