The New Sector
A new generation of venturous news organisations is rising all over Europe. One that is strongly committed to serve its audience and democracy alike through public interest journalism. With legacy media still reeling from the crisis of their business model it is these journalistic pioneers¹ who are not simply trying to fix a broken system but to create a new one instead.
This report – for the first time – maps and outlines Europe’s emerging innovative media scene and takes a closer look at how The New Sector – as we like to call it – reclaims journalistic terrain that has (at least partly) been neglected by traditional media in the past. The New Sector serves fundamental democratic principles. By providing much needed coverage for either local audiences and communities or those interconnected across European borders it is enabling informed citizens to make good decisions.
The report also provides insight in how the sector funds itself and why financial stability is not yet in sight for many newsrooms. Given this challenge, the report highlights the role the charitable status plays for these outlets. However, whether they are legally registered as non- or for-profits, what defines them as members of The New Sector is their “non-profit state of mind” – a mindset based on the conviction of serving an audience, a community and democracy as a whole through the power of journalism.
Size: The New Sector consists of mostly small to medium sized newsrooms.
Growth: In the last ten years, the sector has seen rapid growth.
Charitable: More than half of the surveyed outlets are legally registered non-profits.
Regional Focus: 31% of the news organisations are engaged in local reporting, thereby filling a gap left by legacy media’s trend to withdraw from local journalism.
Editorial Emphasis: Almost three quarters of The New Sector are serving their societal role as watchdogs by providing investigative journalism.
News Beats: The outlets focus on the most pressing issues of our time and hold those in power to account. 88% cover politics, environmental issues come in second. Two thirds uncover crime and corruption.
Revenue Streams: Individual donations and foundation support are the biggest contributors to the diversified flows of income.
The scope of media organisations contributing to the growing independent media landscape in Europe reaches from volunteer citizen journalists who cover hyperlocal politics to 100k+ backed newsrooms conducting elaborated OSINT investigations. Given their very different types of enterprise, business models and levels of professionalism, The New Sector is all but homogeneous. That actually makes it difficult to accurately define who to include or exclude in our research.
We went with a working definition for independent and public interest news outlets. This definition may be adapted and refined throughout further research. For this report, we included newsrooms that…
- were founded at least in part to fill the gap left as commercial news organisations retreated from producing public interest journalism;
- offer benefits to their community instead of focusing on profit;
- are either non-profit news media or social enterprises that don't distribute profits among their owners/shareholders but reinvest them into the organisation or its mission;
- strive to serve the public interest instead of advancing private interests;
- who strive for professional and paid staffs – at least regarding the core staff;
- are nonpartisan;
- are transparent about funding;
- strive to be accurate, openly correct errors and prominently label sponsored content.
This working definition was inspired by the research of Magda Konieczna², the Membership Standards of the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Guidelines of the Forum Gemeinnütziger Journalismus in Germany.
We then asked newsrooms that perceive themselves as part of the public interest journalism sphere and can relate to our working definition to take part in an online survey. Participation was voluntary, obviously. We reached out to our target group via social media and newsletters and asked key stakeholders all over Europe to share the survey within their networks. 100 participants finished the survey, out of that adjusted data shows 80 valid responses.
It’s important to mention that the figures and statistics presented in this report do not necessarily mirror the actual independent media landscape in Europe. We are well aware that there’s a bias in our data collection due to the participatory nature of the underlying survey. There has also been a disproportionate response rate from Germany (which isn’t too surprising since Netzwerk Recherche is a well known stakeholder in the German media landscape).
Though we assess The New Sector to consist of more outlets, having 80 valid responses to our survey still enables us to draw conclusions about trends and shared obstacles within the whole scene. These results will be presented in the following paragraphs.
This map of The New Sector and the underlying database give an overview on who is already there, doing what. It displays those 80 outlets that have participated in our research (with a special focus on whether they are legally registered as a charity). Therefore, it is not a complete count of all independent public interest newsrooms in Europe.
The size of the dots presented in the map indicate if it’s a small media organisation run by up to three people or a well established newsroom with a staff of more than 20 - or anything in between of course. Data shows an even distribution between small (0 to 5 paid staff members, in terms of full time equivalents) and medium (5 to 20) sized newsrooms, fewer organisations have grown to the point where they employ more than 20 people. Most common newsroom size was 5 to 10 FTE. The question on how much these outlets rely on freelancers was not part of this research.
A look at the founding years of the participating media organsisation proves the common assumption right that there is a growing number of new players entering the market – not only, but especially – independent public interest media. Almost three quarters (71%) of the surveyed institutions (n=79) have been established within the last ten years. The growth came to a halt in the past two years, most likely due to insecurities following the pandemic. These most recent developments aside, the sharp increase demands for a closer look at how the sector develops and what its needs, strengths and challenges are. This report hopes to give some first answers.
The colour of the dots in our map indicate whether an outlet has actually been acknowledged as charitable by tax authorities or not. About half (51%, n=80) of those who participated in our survey are legally registered non-profits. Again, these numbers might exaggerate the real share of non-profits among the independent public interest media landscape. Still these numbers show an interesting and encouraging development: Despite all the hustle and hurdles paving the way to charitable status, we see quite a lot outlets being able to run as non-profits. Their considered decision to seek charitable status goes in line with the media economy’s desperate search for new, sustainable business models. With ad money and subscription revenue declining, The New Sector explores new funding opportunities like foundation support (see chapter on Revenue), which often requires charitable status.
What makes the sphere of public interest journalism so important to look at is that it tries to tackle one of the biggest challenges modern democracies faces: dissolving trust in public institutions³ ⁴. The global rise of populism and the lack of an adequate response by politics and media alike are only one of many problems that led to these developments. Diminishing media diversity and the emergence of news deserts added up to the problem.
Therefore it is worth mentioning that roughly one third of The New Sector is covering local or even hyper local issues and thereby filling the hole vanishing legacy media has left in many communities. Half the outlets do regional coverage. The same amount investigates European topics.
Another remarkable finding is the heavy engagement the sector shows in its role as watchdog. 70 per cent (n=80) of the surveyed newsrooms are mentioning investigative journalism as one field of expertise. This impressive share gains even more weight given the fact that economic challenges (decline in ad revenue and subscriptions) have led to a slow and silent decrease of investigative journalism in many media companies (top-notch newsrooms excluded).⁵ ⁶ ⁷
Especially interesting in the European context is the fact that half of our participants are working on cross border investigations. In our globalized world, most issues don’t stop at national borders. This is even more true for the shared political, financial and economic ground in the EU.
In line with prior results of this survey, the topics covered by The New Sector also hint to a self-perception of these newsrooms as servants for a democratic society. Almost all of them cover politics and environmental issues are the second largest topic shared among the sector. So, it is fair to say these outlets live up to the expectation to provide information on the most pressing issues of our times. With two thirds also digging into criminal investigations and trying to expose corrupt practices The New Sector is obliged to hold those in power to account.
Running a news outlet on a sustainable business model is one of the biggest challenges the media industry is facing. And this is even more true for small newsrooms. Experts have long praised the advantages of diversified revenue streams⁸ and the research in deed shows a broad range of income generating mechanisms that these outlets rely on.
Mostly it’s a mix of income flows with individual donations being the number one source of revenue across the sector. Far ahead of all the other sources of income, foundational support is the second largest contributor. Other than comparable research in the US and Canada⁹ has shown, advertisement doesn't play a big part in European public interest media.
Even though most newsrooms have diversified their business model, financial stability is often yet to achieve, as one quote from our survey indicates: “Funding stability/insecurity is our biggest challenge and concern!”
The New Sector is highly engaged in transforming the European media landscape. Its members share the intrinsic motivation to provide the public service of journalism, which is essential for democratic societies, without making profit their number one concern (“non-profit state of mind”). Therefore, they often fill gaps left behind by traditional media’s (at least partly) drawback from important fields like local or investigative reporting. To fulfill their watchdog role they cover the most pressing issues of our times and hold those in power to account.
Still, challenges lie ahead. First and foremost financial sustainability. Foundations alone cannot make up for the failing business model of a whole industry. Nevertheless, their financial support is one of the cornerstones of the rise of The New Sector, since it enables journalistic entrepreneurs to start their own project from scratch. To improve the chances for these start-ups to become profitable in the long-run, many challenges must be addressed: Legal obstacles like the lack of a tax-exempt, non-profit structure for journalism still hinder the sector to thrive in many countries. Given the legal hurdles, one astonishing detail this report revealed is the amount of news non-profits that are active in the field already. A proof of remarkable endurance of their founders. Also, audience-centered business models haven’t reached their full potential yet, since it is still extremely difficult to convert a loyal community into an audience willing to pay for news. To tackle these issues, 18 outlets from The New Sector have decided to join forces in the self-organised exchange network Reference – the European Independent Media Circle. The aim is to find organisational advice, share experiences, and swap best practices.
This report was designed to give an overview of who is part of what we call The New Sector . Furthermore it was supposed to enable networking and the exchange of experiences as well as to spark collaboration among the members of The New Sector. Therefore the report is accompanied by a searchable database with all the results from our survey. Last but not least the report set the stage for further research into the vivid scene of independent public interest media in Europe.
Dr. Thomas Schnedler, Malte Werner and Severin Pehlke
This report was funded by Schöpflin Foundation.
¹ Hepp A., Loosen W. (2021). Pioneer journalism: Conceptualizing the role of pioneer journalists and pioneer communities in the organizational re-figuration of journalism. In: Journalism 22(3). pp. 577-595. doi:10.1177/1464884919829277
² Konieczna M. (2018). Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
³ Mitchell A., Gottfried J., Barthel M., Shearer E. (2016). The Modern News Consumer: News Attitudes and Practices in the Digital Age. In: Pew Research Centre.
⁴ Robinson S. (2019). Crisis of shared public discourses: Journalism and how it all begins and ends with trust. In: Journalism 20(1). pp. 56-59. doi:10.1177/1464884918808958
⁵ Price J. (2020). How to feed The Ferret: Understanding subscribers in the search for a sustainable model of investigative journalism. In: Journalism 21(9). pp. 1320-1337. doi:10.1177/1464884917733587
⁶ Abdenour J., Riffe D. (2019). Digging for (Ratings) Gold: The Connection Between Investigative Journalism and Audiences. In:Journalism Studies, 20:16, (pp. 2386-2403). DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2019.1598887
⁷ Kizer C. (2021). Project Oasis. Research Report. https://www.projectnewsoasis.com/sites/default/files/2022-02/project-oasis-report-2021-1.pdf
⁸ Singer, J. (2018). Entrepreneurial Journalism. In: Vos, T. P. (Ed.), Handbooks of Communication Science: Journalism. Handbooks of Communication Science. (pp. 349-366). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. doi: 10.1515/9781501500084-018
⁹ Turkel E., Saha A., Owen R., Martin G.J., Vasserman S. (2021). A method for measuring investigative journalism in local newspapers. In: PNAS 118(30) e2105155118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2105155118
This database is supposed to help The New Sector to find like minded projects for collaboration or to exchange experience on editorial or non-editorial issues.
If you want to get in touch with The New Sector you can join the mailing list.
Netzwerk Recherche is the German association for investigative and data journalists. With support of the Schöpflin foundation Netzwerk Recherche is heavily engaged in supporting the evolving sector of non-profit journalism in Germany and Europe, providing grants and fellowships in it's Grow programme for non-profit media entrepreneurs.
Arena for Journalism in Europe supports collaborative journalism – journalists working with other journalists across geographical borders, and journalists working across professional borders with scholars or scientists as well as with civil society. Arena hosts the annual Dataharvest conference and develops open collaborative networks like the Housing Project and the Climate Network
Schöpflin Stiftung believes that a free press is a prerequisite for an open society and a vibrant democracy. As one way of overcoming the crisis in legacy media, the foundation turned its focus to non-profit journalism as a necessary addition to state-funded and commercial journalism.
The DFG funded project "Pioneer Journalism" investigates new and experimental forms of journalism as a principal force in the re-figuration of journalism and its organizational foundations. Pioneer journalism encompasses such forms of journalism that are dedicated to re-defining the field. This includes journalism from established media organizations and startups alike, journalism supported by accelerators, or journalism pursued by individual pioneers.
The Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans Bredow Institute (HBI) in Hamburg is one of the leading media research institutes in Europe. The institute's research perspective focuses on media transformation and related structural changes of public communication. With its cross-medial, interdisciplinary and independent research, the institute combines basic research and transfer research, and thus, generates knowledge on issues relevant for politics, commerce and civil society.
The Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI) is one of nine Central Research Units of the University of Bremen and and is among the leading European institutions for researching questions of media-related transformations at the interface of cultural and social sciences on the one hand and technical sciences on the other. A special focus of the research is the emerging digital society with regard to existing inequalities, both in terms of current challenges posed by algorithms, automation and data as well as historical questions of their genesis.