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March 24, 2010, noon

Michael Freund of Der Standard on the state of Austrian media, point of view, and government subsidies

It’s hard to imagine, but in other parts of the world, the newspaper industry isn’t in quite the same tailspin we see in America. One reason many European outlets have faired better than those in the U.S. during the age of the Internet, and now an economic crisis, is a business model less dependent on advertising. European newspapers charge higher newsstand and subscription rates and readers embrace a long-standing tradition of supporting their media through direct government subsidies.

While I was in Austria last week attending the Milton Wolf Seminar on NGOs and the future of news, I spoke with Michael Freund, a writer and editor at Der Standard, a major Austrian daily, about the state of the country’s media and how readers think about government subsidy of the news. Freund explained that while there are some legitimate questions about independence, in general, Austrians believe that news should be protected from completely commercial interests. It’s a different mindset.

The question of whether the U.S. government should bailout the newspaper industry has been controversial. The idea, at first, feels like it runs against a basic tenant of independence (even though the U.S. media has long enjoyed indirect, but significant subsidies that buoyed the industry for years). As the media landscape worsens, it’s a question that will certainly linger.

A transcript of the video is below.

Michael Freund: Hi, my name is Michael Freund, or Michael, I’m head of the Media Department at Webster University, Vienna and I’m also editor and writer at the Viennese daily paper Der Standard, where I write about culture and the arts and occasional book reviews.

I was asked to say a few words about the Austrian media industry and what it’s like — whether its dying or not, so let me try. Let me start by saying that Austria is, as you probably know, a small country in the center of Europe. It’s a Western country — it has had a Western-style press, electronic and print press, since World War II with a couple notable differences from what you know, possibly, in America.

For one thing, the television, the radio, the electronic media, the broadcasting has been not state-controlled, but state-sponsored and state-instituted — and still is, but it had been a monopoly, until, I don’t know exactly, about ten years ago. Until it became untenable because the other media transpired through the borders: Private TV came through cable, it came thru the air, it came through satellite, so it was not really a feasible position to assume Austria had only one broadcasting company, which it had until about the ’80s, until through the other channels that I said, the media came through.

The other interesting thing is that Austria has had, for many decades, a very strong partyline press — meaning there were newspapers that belonged to or were literally owned by or influenced by political parties, official organs of those parties, and they all vanished. As daily papers, they don’t exist anymore, as weeklies they don’t exist anymore, and instead, you might say a commercially oriented print media scene has taken place — which, of course is not without its own pressures and interests, both commercial and political.

Laura McGann: Do those newspapers — do they have a point of view that were adopted from the politically sponsored publications of the past or would you consider them more independent?

Freund: I wouldn’t say they were adopted, or direct successors. But, of course they have a point of view. You cannot not have a point of view. Everybody has a point of view, including all publishers and editors. So, yes, there are some media that are considered more liberal, others are considered more conservative. Some lean toward the Social Democrats, others toward Christian Democrats or the Green Party — yeah, right wing press as well, you have those. So there are pressures, there are leanings, but they are not officially affiliated or tied to parties.

McGann: Has that helped — or could you talk about how print media has faired in the rise of the Internet in Austria?

Freund: It has fared not so well, like in most other countries. I should say for one thing, it was the first one in any of the German-language countries, meaning Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, to go online, and it was in the mid ’90s. I think it was ’95. And it has had since then, a fairly strong, predominant effect — Internet presence. As far as I know it’s making money, but not a whole lot of money, and that’s true for many other publications. Newspapers, as far as I know, as much as in the States, have not found a way to really monetize the Internet in a totally profitable manner. So, yes they break even, but they may even make money with the banner ads or their cheap operations, or they associate with others to save costs. But, people are looking for ways to find — trying to find the solution to break even, not to lose on both the print and electronic side. As a matter of fact, in a few weeks, the iPad will be commercially introduced in the U.S., not yet in Austria, and there is hope that with a intelligent model that iTunes provided for the music scene, there may be some way to get people to pay moderately for content they really want, meaning from sources they trust, rather than just some blogs or individual sources where you don’t really know where the stuff comes from and its not fact-checked and it’s not edited. I think people who are interested in reading something at the level of, say, The New York Times might be willing to pay for it. So far they haven’t, but things may change.

McGann: What is the attitude among the media-consuming public in Austria toward government subsidies for the media?

Freund: Well, for one thing, Austrian Radio Television, the one called ORF, the Austrian publicly sponsorsed electronic media, is state-sponsored and people have accepted it as a fact because it’s always been like that. It doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable, but by and large, Austrians, as many other Europeans, see some sense in making sure that certain media don’t die or don’t fall completely into the hands of extremists who are purely commercially interested people. So, the BBC, for example, has for many decades a state-subsidized, state-sponsored institution — and it is an institution. It’s not a coincidence that some of the best American programming makes use of BBC stuff, including National Public Radio, including PBS, their TV shows, their radio news, those things. They come from something which, unfortunately, to a lot of Americans smells like socialism or something horrible and worse, communism, you know, but it’s just a way to make sure a certain plurality — not plurality, but quality, of fact-finding, of accurate reporting gets a chance.

McGann: What about fear that coverage of government will be manipulated in some way?

Freund: The fear is there. And it’s sometimes not unjustified. The government tries to intervene, people call up, they talk — nothing is documented — everyone knows, but no one can really prove it. There are all kinds of attempts to land your people into this editing room and that desk, that happens. But look, that happens in commercial stations as well — there may be other interests. How many very critical reports of let’s say, the tobacco industry have you found in American magazines whose advertising depends heavily on the tobacco industry? Just a question.

POSTED     March 24, 2010, noon
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