Sergio Sparviero and Josef Trappel
With the collaboration of Stefan Gadringer, Roland Holzinger, and Isabella Nening
University of Salzburg
Austria’s conservative and right-wing government has been on a collision course with independent journalism as it attempts to control the agenda – and reform public service media. In a polarised political atmosphere, the public’s trust in the media continues to decline.
Although Austria continues to have the highest use of printed newspapers in our report, subscriptions and sales steadily decline every year. In 2018, the most affected brands were Der Standard and Kurier, as they experienced a circulation decline of over 5% compared to the previous year. As a consequence of lower sales, one of the leading press distribution companies, Morawa, closed its business. Bucking general trends, the regional newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten saw the amount of copies sold grow by almost 4%.
The data collected for the Digital News Report show some unexpected trends: first, the proportion for respondents extremely or very interested in news declined to 64% from 69% in the previous year. Second, usage of the public service media ORF dropped via both broadcast and online. Third, trust in news media declined by two percentage points after a four point decrease last year. These trends are indicative of a difficult time for quality news media in Austria, currently in dispute with the governing coalition, the Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
Early in the year, the government started a review of the media landscape, aimed at shaping new policies. By the end of 2018, two priorities had emerged. First, a plan to counter the negative effects of the global tech platforms on the local news markets and second, a desire to reshape the role of the public service media. The far-right Freedom Party has been particularly critical of the ORF, arguing for the abolition of the mandatory licence fee that finances the public service media. The party was successful in getting one of its party representatives elected as the chairperson of the ORF governing body; he controversially labelled critical interviews by ORF journalists as ‘insubordinate’. The ORF has issued new rules for the use of social media, with staff asked to avoid comments that could be interpreted as taking a political position of any kind.
More generally, unsubtle attempts by the governing parties to shape public discourse led to a warning by the Austrian Press Council directed to all domestic editors advising them to consider information from government agencies only after detailed research and review. One example of the government’s approach came in an email sent by the spokesperson of the Interior Ministry led by Herbert Kickl (FPÖ) to police departments, that was eventually leaked to the press. The email suggested limiting sharing information with critical media – and focusing on information about crime committed by foreigners.
The gloomy news media environment of 2018 was partially brightened by a promising increase in the share of users paying for digital news. Our survey suggests many of those paying come from younger demographics while other data show that some regional papers have increased digital subscribers, albeit from a low base.
As use of smartphones to access news continues to increase, Austrian news organisations find more positive responses to their efforts to drive digital revenue. These efforts include a variety of methods: fees for removing advertising (Der Standard), combined digital-print subscriptions (Tiroler Tageszeitung), access to premium digital services, which also include special offers to students (Salzburger Nachrichten), and metered paywall (Die Tagespresse).
Moreover, in November 2018, 49% of the shares of WAZ Ausland Holding GmbH, the company that owns half of the Krone group and of Kurier, were sold by Funke Mediengruppe to SIGNA Holding GmbH. The latter is a property of René Benko, an Austrian real estate investor, which now owns just under a quarter of the largest and third largest daily newspapers in Austria.
Innovations by news organisations in 2018 include a new, monthly print edition focused on special themes by the non-profit, digital-born Addendum (controlled by Red Bull’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz) and a regular magazine by the digital native Dossier, which raised the resources for the project through crowdfunding. Finally, the entire editorial staff of the digital-born Vice Austria, formerly composed of eight professionals, resigned after it became known that the Austrian edition would be managed from Germany. According to Editor-in-Chief of Vice Germany Laura Himmelreich, Vice Austria will not be downsized, but more resources will be invested in video production.
Austrians have traditionally read more newspapers and magazines than any other country in our survey, but this is beginning to change. Online media now outstrips both print and TV with the smartphone (64%), overtaking the computer (52%) to become the most important device for accessing online news.
Despite conflicts with government leaders, the public service media ORF remains the most trusted news service in Austria. Following the ORF are the German public service media ZDF, liberal, quality national newspapers, and regional and local news media. The most sold newspaper Kronen Zeitung is only ranked 12th in this list of the most trusted news media.