Population 11m
Internet penetration 94.4%

Ike Picone
Vrije Universiteit, Brussels

Belgium has two distinct media markets – one French-speaking, the other Flemish. In these small markets, publishers continue to integrate their operations and focus more on digital platforms, though many still struggle to find sustainable revenue models.

After a round of mergers and acquisitions reshuffling the Belgian media landscape, 2018 saw Belgium’s newly structured news publishers and media companies work behind the scenes to integrate their operations. These changes are most evident in Antwerp, with the construction of News City, a new home for the publisher De Persgroep and its newly acquired broadcast partner Medialaan. This development brings together the newsrooms of commercial broadcaster VTM, the most popular newspaper/website in Flanders, Het Laatste Nieuws, news brands De Morgen and Humo, and a range of showbiz magazines. In a similar move, the publisher Mediahuis is centralising its activities, also in Antwerp, while moving the newsroom of De Standaard to Brussels. There will be around 80 job losses as a result, including 19 in newsrooms.

Meanwhile the French-language market remains equally pressured. A restructuring at Les Editions de l’Avenir has led to much commotion – two days of strikes followed the sacking of four journalists and rumours of a list of 30 journalists who were allegedly disposable put the issue on the agenda of the Walloon government.

Consolidation in the media sector continues to raise concerns about pluralism and media freedom. In its 2018 report, the Flemish Media Regulator pointed out that traditional media products are now in the hands of only five groups (including the public broadcaster), down from nine a few years ago. In Wallonia, three large publishers control the six remaining print titles. This is especially worrying as digital first initiatives, which contribute to a more diverse news landscape, continue to struggle to generate advertising or subscription revenues. After adding a membership paywall, Charlie Mag, a Dutch-language online magazine, is setting up a crowdsourcing initiative, the success of which will determine the future of the outlet. On the French-speaking side, long-form print magazine 24h01 closed in March 2019. Investigative outlets such as Apache and Médor are still operating, but their viability remains fragile. One bright spot is the federal government’s announcement that the 0% VAT rate that has been applicable to print newspapers and magazines for decades will soon be extended to digital news publications.

Readership for news brands has remained stable over the past four years, in terms of combined print/digital reach. But as the survey’s data show, print is still losing ground year after year, with television also now seeing a slight decline. This resonates with the findings of the Digimeter survey, which suggests that daily live television viewership in Flanders was just 48% in 2018, down from 60% in 2015.1 This change raises concerns for overall advertising revenues, which will also have a knock-on in terms of budgets for news. A study commissioned by Flemish Minister of Media Sven Gatz, suggesting broadcasters, distributors, and media producers collaborate on a ‘Flemish Netflix’, was welcomed with mixed feelings by many stakeholders.

In terms of new initiatives, 2018 seems to have been the year publishing brands decided to catch up on audio, with De Standaard expanding its offering from two to five weekly podcasts and Rossel and IPM collaborating though a Google DNI grant on Askinfo, a common platform aimed at distributing written articles in an audio format, specifically through smart speakers.

Although examples of disinformation are rare in Belgium, the issue has featured on the political agenda. In early 2018, Federal Minister for Digital Agenda Alexander De Croo put in place an expert group on disinformation. As a result, a fund for fact-checking initiatives was promised but postponed after the government fell. In Flanders the Minister of Media set up a Flemish Journalism Fund of €500,000 to stimulate innovative journalistic projects – again two fact-checking initiatives were among the beneficiaries. While these are welcome, there is a risk that government subsidies will be scattered across various funds and programmes, diluting their overall impact.

Ensuring a sustainable and diverse mix of quality journalism remains a key political concern. To this end, the Flemish Parliament approved a resolution in March 2018 reaffirming its ambition to develop a forward-looking and media-agnostic way of supporting independent quality journalism.

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News brands have traditionally enjoyed high levels of trust in Belgium, especially in Flanders. Remarkably, this year we see a drop in the score. There are recurring instances of both politicians and citizens adopting a harsher tone towards journalists. It is telling that the Flemish Association of Journalists has installed a complaints office for journalists who are victim of verbal and physical harassment.