Interview: “Journalistic innovations by publishers have been extremely small-scale and hesitant.”

CHRISTOPHER BUSCHOW, University of Weimar

You recently took a look at how the city of Vienna supports journalism. Why Vienna? And have you come across examples that you think are worthy of emulation?

I think that in Vienna, the value of the local media landscape, of local journalistic reporting and of public discourse within the city community has been recognized. The Vienna Media Initiative, which began in 2019 and which I support as a juror, is awarding a total of €7.5 million over the next three years to innovation projects by publishers and new journalistic start-ups. A number of things have been done right in this program’s design, in part by drawing on experiences in the innovation-research field. For example, additional financial resources for innovation are being provided instead of giving subsidies to existing entities, a competitive selection procedure has been created instead of engaging in “watering-can”-style funding, and the state is being kept at arm’s length through the use of an independent expert jury. Media policy in Germany can learn from these experiences.

In your research, you focus on startups and innovation in journalism. In times of strained budgets, how can publishers manage to experiment with new strategies?

From the point of view of the research community, journalistic innovations by publishers have been extremely small-scale and hesitant. In the past, the focus has often been on cost-reduction programs, job cuts, and in some cases on shifting business to non-journalistic activities such as classified-ad markets. But this is hardly the way to develop a promising future for journalism – to accomplish this, established companies must shift much more strongly into an experimental mode. I have written elsewhere that companies in the private-sector publishing industry should exercise their journalistic responsibility, a role they regularly claim for themselves in public debates, in part by supporting journalistic innovations outside the confines of their own organizations.

At this year’s M100, we want to set the course for a modern media policy. Currently, where do you see the greatest need for action that will ensure we still have a pluralistic, independent and resilient fourth estate in 10 years’ time?

In Germany, the perspective of media innovation policy has to date received insufficient attention. The public sector identifies key barriers and obstacles that journalistic innovation regularly fails to overcome and takes action to break these barriers down. Typical support instruments include financial support, training and coaching programs, and network activities. This increases the likelihood that there will be any innovation taking place in journalism at all. In Germany, there is currently €220 million in support provided from the federal budget, but there is no adequate support concept. As the example of Vienna shows, our European neighbors have long since launched structured programs in this area. In this regard, my colleague Christian-Mathias Wellbrock from the University of Cologne and I are making a set of specific proposals for Germany in a report that will appear this September.