Under Pressure, Independent Newsrooms Across the EU are Rising to the Challenge

Media outlets have developed innovative strategies to uphold their credibility and protect the vital role they play in healthy democracies.

 Founding members gather to launch the independent news website Telex in October 2020.

 Founding members gather to launch the independent news website Telex in October 2020. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo)


When Polish media outlets went silent for 24 hours to protest a planned tax on advertising in February 2021, they collectively defied the government’s increasing legal and regulatory threats against news media operations. Once again in January 2023, many of the country’s largest private media outlets stood together against government interference, this time by republishing an investigation by one of their competitors, the television network TVN, after the broadcasting regulator launched a probe into a TVN documentary that was critical of the government. Rather than defending themselves in isolation, newsrooms are increasingly recognizing the importance of solidarity and joint action to uphold their mission.

A free press plays a vital role in democracy, upholding the kind of journalism that allows people to make informed choices about their lives and communities, exposes corruption, and encourages civic engagement. In the face of economic hardship, legal attacks, smear campaigns, and harassment, a dynamic group of news organizations across the European Union are finding new ways to push back against the forces that are undermining their ability to effectively operate, according to our latest research report, Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe.

At a time when the economic foundations and power of news media are increasingly coming under pressure, our research unearthed strategies that are helping European newsrooms bolster their independence and defend their credibility.

Turning to consumers to support the value of quality journalism

Challenged by digital disruption, and with the advertising revenues that once underpinned the media industry dwindling, outlets across Europe are having to find new ways to fund independent reporting. A vibrant, independent press cannot function without strong economic foundations. When weakened, these economic foundations are vulnerable to exploitation, and can be used to undermine editorial autonomy and exert political influence.

In Hungary, where the government led by Viktor Orbán has actively skewed the market against outlets that are critical of the government, the quest to find alternative means to survive has become a vital battle for outlets that provide essential information and dare to scrutinize those in power. In the face of economic coercion, diverse Hungarian outlets such as Telex, Klubrádió, Átlátszó, Partizán, and Direkt36 have launched crowdfunding campaigns, collecting microdonations, and developed membership schemes to garner financial support from audiences who trust them. Many have also formed foundations to fundraise under a law which allows taxpayers to donate a percentage of their income taxes to support the activities of a nonprofit of their choosing.

While not all outlets can rely on audience-based revenues to fund their bottom line, these cases show that people appreciate the value of professional journalism and are willing to step in to support its mission when the incentives to do so are there.

Bridging information gaps and reaching audiences where they are

As legacy outlets adapt to radical shifts in how people consume their news, a flurry of experiments with new formats and channels—including newsletters, podcasts, and video explainers—are helping newsrooms to reconnect with fragmented audiences online.

Public service broadcasters can especially play a crucial role in bridging information gaps, and can serve as a platform for dialogue across various segments of society. Recent experiences in Estonia and Germany showcase public broadcasters’ efforts to reach key audiences and reassert their relevance in the new information landscape.  

In Germany, public service broadcasters are experimenting with content online to appeal to younger audiences that have defected to social media platforms. For example, public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have developed a platform-based network tailored for consumers in their teens and early twenties, while some reputed news programs have garnered large followings on TikTok.

Meanwhile, Estonia’s public broadcaster has launched a dedicated Russian-language channel to counter Moscow’s propaganda and deliver independent news to the country’s Russian-speaking population. At the height of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, dedicated government support for Russian-language media enabled the channel to invest in content about foreign affairs, as well as its online video-on-demand platform.

Reinvigorating commitments to professional standards and transparency to rebuild trust

Earning public trust requires continuous engagement and commitment, and more outlets are seeking to remedy some of the causes of reader disenchantment by demonstrating strong business and editorial practices. In Italy, the digital outlet Il Post successfully shifted from an advertising-based model to a membership model by focusing on a form of explanatory journalism that reengages readers through clear and honest reporting. When the first wave of COVID-19 hit Italy in 2020, the outlet garnered tens of thousands of new followers with a daily newsletter focused on providing accurate and data-driven information about the pandemic.

Some outlets are not just rethinking how they communicate with their audiences, but are also building more accountable and transparent governance mechanisms as a core component of their business models. In France, the independent investigative news portal Mediapart publishes everything from declarations of interests of its journalists to subscriber numbers and turnover. Meanwhile, the independent site Les Jours has tested “equity crowdfunding” as a way to involve its community directly in its capital, allowing readers to make a donation in exchange for an equity share.

Finding strength in numbers through networks of support and collaboration

Cross-border collaborations, support networks, and advocacy efforts are providing important safety nets for outlets that are facing intensifying legal and political retaliation for exposing sensitive stories about corruption and abuses of power. In 2021, Hungarian investigative outlet Direkt36 was part of an important international investigation that exposed the use of Pegasus spyware to target Hungarian media, lawyers, and politicians. Being part of an international investigation provided them with the necessary technical, security, editorial, and legal capacity to see this work through.

For investigative projects in Poland and Italy that are often overwhelmed with frivolous lawsuits aiming to frustrate investigations and drain their resources, legal aid and defense funds managed by global networks like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) are providing vital lifelines for outlets to continue to do their work. In turn, broader partnerships such as the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) are uniting civil society organizations from across Europe to expose the magnitude of these threats, share resources, and advocate for meaningful reform.

Future-proofing independent media’s vital role for democracy

These pockets of resistance, solidarity, and innovation give reason for optimism in a news industry that is beset by broad and systemic challenges. Yet media managers and outlets are not able to change systems as a whole. Amid digital disruption and democratic backsliding, the European Commission has begun to pay more attention to the structural threats that are undermining conditions for independent and diverse media on its home turf. There is no single silver bullet to tackle these challenges, but concerted action is of the essence. Fostering environments where media can continue to play a constructive role in democratic debate will require a combination of policies that encourage sustainable funding models to emerge, incentivize trustworthy journalism in the online sphere, and guard against political interference and abusive legal attacks.

People attend 'Free People, Free Media' protest at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland on December 19, 2021

Explore the Report

Based on interviews with media professionals and experts in Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland, Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe examines the playing field for independent newsrooms, and how they address issues of financial viability, and set about promoting trust and accountability.