Vrije Universiteit, Brussels
Belgium is a small media market. It effectively has two distinct publishing sectors for the French and Flemish speaking populations, both with strong public service broadcasters that have been outstripped by commercial brands online. Recent mergers and acquisitions have raised concerns about media concentration and pluralism in the news.
In the past year, Belgium’s largest publishers, De Persgroep, Mediahuis, and Roularta, continued to consolidate their market position by scaling-up their activities through mergers and acquisitions, strongly reshuffling the Belgian media landscape. This reorganisation of ownership seems to be inspired by the desire to consolidate and expand core activities rather than to branch out into new ones.
Mediahuis is exiting the audio-visual sector, selling its stake in De Vijver Media, which runs the television channels Vier, Vijf, and Zes and audio-visual production company Woestijnvis. After having acquired the Dutch publishers NRC Media in 2015 and Telegraaf Media Group in 2017, the company is clearly betting its future on news publishing. Meanwhile telecom company Telenet has bought De Vijver Media. Linear broadcasters fear that Telenet might choose to limit local content access to its premium offerings.
Earlier, De Persgroep and Roularta traded assets. De Persgroep acquired Roularta’s stake in Medialaan, the largest commercial broadcaster in Flanders. In turn, Roularta took over De Persgroep’s share in Mediafin, a joint venture with Groupe Rossel, which publishes financial newspapers De Tijd/L’Echo.1 Roularta now owns a profitable, digitally savvy news brand and further strengthened its magazine portfolio. De Persgroep in turn can now focus more prominently on monetising cross-media audiences in Flanders (and the Netherlands), owning the most popular news brands in commercial television (VTM), print and online news (Het Laatste Nieuws/HLN.be), and magazines (Dag Allemaal).
In the French-speaking community, there was heated debate about the possible acquisition of Les Editions de L’Avenir by the Groupe Rossel. Fears of media concentration lead politicians to ask the Walloon government to temporarily put Les Editions de L’Avenir in public hands. Meanwhile, Rossel and news agency Belga struck a deal which will see Belga become the sole provider of news articles for the free daily Metro and its website metrotime.be.
All this took place against the backdrop of readership levels for publishers’ news brands that have remained stable over the last three years, when taking into account total print and digital readership.2 But as our Digital News Report data show, print is still losing ground year after year, with television also now seeing a slight decline.
The public broadcasters VRT and RTBF remain firmly rooted in their respective regions when it comes to offline news, while still lagging behind when it comes to online news. In Flanders, the revamping of the online news offering and renaming it vrtnws.be has not yet improved usage. The revamp coincided with the new management agreement between the VRT and the Flemish government, which confined the VRT’s online remit to mainly audio-visual news in order not to disrupt the online news market. By 2021 both public broadcasters are planning to build new offices on their shared current location, embedded into a bigger media-centred urban development project called Mediapark.Brussels. The first sketches of the building show VRT’s ambition to become a meeting space for citizens and media professionals.
Belgium’s media market seems trapped in a paradoxical situation where Belgian companies concentrate locally to better compete globally (for advertising) with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Netflix. This has raised concerns by journalism organisations and policy-makers regarding diversity in the news. After acquiring Medialaan, De Persgroep announced it would regroup and relocate journalists, layout, and production for all outlets in a central newsroom called News City. For newspaper De Morgen and magazine Humo, this also means working under a single editor-in-chief. While journalism organisations fear lay-offs, De Persgroep argues this will guarantee the future of its news brands.
Finally, in relation to the growing calls for holding platforms accountable, the Court of Brussels has found Facebook’s use of personal tracking data to be non-compliant with Belgian privacy law. Facebook has appealed the decision.
Sources and Devices for News
Television news (70%) is gradually losing ground to online, though social media use for news has also started to decline. The use of smartphones for accessing news has grown 8 percentage points since 2016.
News brands have traditionally enjoyed high levels of trust in Belgium, especially in Flanders. Belgium did not hold elections in recent years and together with trusted public broadcasters, this might explain why fake news has not generated much attention from policy makers yet, although an expert group on fake news has been set up by the Minister of Digital Agenda Alexander De Croo.
- https://www.persgroep.be/en/news/de-persgroep-expands-its-participation-medialaan-and-sells-its-50-interest-mediafin-roularta ↩
- The methodology for the official press metrics of the Centre for Information on the Media has been updated, with the print and digital circulation numbers merged. It is not possible any more to distinguish digital from print readership. ↩