Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels
Belgium is a small media market, further fragmented by language. It effectively has two distinct publishing sectors for the French- and Flemish-speaking populations, both with strong public service news media.
In the past year, Belgian media groups have directed their gaze north and south of the country. After buying Dutch news company NRC Media in 2015, Mediahuis bought out its partners in Media Group Limburg and is acquiring Telegraaf Media Group, one of the largest Dutch publishers. Most Dutch newspapers are now owned by Belgian publishers Mediahuis and De Persgroep, who are pursuing scale as a key strategy for sustainability. Group Rossel sought to further strengthen its position in the north of France, but ultimately failed to acquire a local newspaper.
All this took place against the backdrop of yet another decline in readership for all newspapers. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, print sales were down by 4.2%. Digital subscriptions have helped contain losses but do not make up for an overall revenue decline (-2.2%). De Morgen is the exception, compensating a big loss in print (-7.9%) with digital editions. Other main broadsheets De Tijd (+1.0%) and De Standaard (-0.7%) have broadly maintained revenues. Amongst tabloids, Het Nieuwsblad (-5.3%) sees an important decline compared to its main competitor Het Laatste Nieuws (-0.1%), even though both remain the top online news brands.
Again, the decline has been steeper amongst French-language newspaper groups (-6% in print, -2.7% in print and digital editions). We should note here the strong orientation of the public towards media outlets in France itself – in contrast to Flanders which has never felt strongly culturally connected to the Netherlands. Le Soir (-7.9%) and Sud Presse (-7.2) suffer the biggest blows in print, but end up at -3.0% and -2.3% respectively when including digital editions. La Dernière Heure (-4.9%) and German-language Grenz Echo (-3.8%) lost the most in total.1
Public broadcasters VRT (Flemish) and RTBF (French) continue to consolidate their position in TV and radio, while trying to further develop their online and mobile offerings. After much delay, VRT finally launched its online media player VRT NU. It also launched VRT NWS to replace deredactie.be. VRT NWS aims to become a cross-channel brand, offering news users an online starting point from which to branch out into different channels and formats. This will be supported by an ongoing reorganisation of the newsroom into thematic editorial clusters feeding news to TV, radio, and online channels.
VRT and RTBF operate in a political context of cost-cutting and reduced room for manoeuvre. Pressured by the large publishing groups, VRT management has agreed to limit its online scope to video-centred content in the period to 2020. In a collaboration agreement with De Persgroep, VRT short-form videos are now being published across the print company’s network of news sites.
When it comes to trust, the public service broadcasters play an important role, as both are in the top three news brands offline and online, and are strongly valued by their users for accuracy and understanding complex issues. Roularta, through its sites Knack.be (Dutch) and levif.be (French), was the latest in a line of news outlets to close online comment sections because of the uncivilised tone of its contributors. Most controversy, however, surrounded a €350,000 damages claim issued by a real estate developer, and a close collaborator of Bart De Wever, leader of Flanders’ largest party, the centre-right NVA, against Apache, a small-scale investigative news site that scrutinised underhand construction deals. Journalists and academics strongly reacted against what they saw as an intimidation attempt. Mr De Wever from his side called Apache ‘a slanderous medium’.
One other key development was the allocation of €200,000 by the Flemish government for four media innovation projects, including a digital platform for freelance journalists to pitch their stories. This was the first such public media initiative since the Media Innovation Centre (MiX) ceased to exist in 2015 and since VRT saw its funding for media innovation evaporate in its new management agreement. Ironically, in early 2017, the big publishers pulled the plug on Media ID, a single sign-on system across the big Flemish news sites, regarded as MiX’s flagship project, which enjoyed over €2m in subsidies.
News brands enjoy high levels of trust in Belgium, which might be due to a general lack of explicitly partisan media, no recent press scandals, and well-functioning self-regulation through the Council of Journalism. Flanders shows higher levels of trust than French-speaking Wallonia, with Flemish publishers fiercely protective of their editorial independence in reaction to the partisan image they had after the Second World War.