Mats Svegfors: The newspapers' problems is a threat to democracy

It has often been said that what is happening to the newspaper industry has been caused by public service media. Some claim that our activities online have harmed commercial media; that we have made it impossible for newspapers to regain from the net what they have lost in print. Some also claim that if the activities of public service media online were to be limited then the newspapers would no longer have such difficulties. But this is obviously not true. What is happening is a far reaching change of the media society.
   Mats Svegfors, Director General of Swedish Radio, spoke about medias important role in the democratic society at the Eurodig conference in Stockholm.

One clear area concerns education and employment. As Thomas Friedman and others have discussed in a number of publications, digitization and the resulting abolition of distance affecting world economics have caused a radical change in the distribution of labour world-wide. What challenges does this create for our educational system? What significance does this have for salary structures and negotiations in our part of the world? Or to put it another way, what is the effect on labour market policies, in the broadest sense?

Social media can certainly enrich a well-functioning publication. But this is only one side of the coin. The instant that no one writes about or reports on the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt’s blogs and twitters in traditional media that has broad coverage, the effect of the social media becomes a mere trickle in a great American river. Much of the present discussion concerns “either /or”: traditional media versus social media. If we are to avail ourselves of the democratic potential of the new technology, it must be through social media interacting with traditional media. My co-director general, Cilla Benkö, and I have described this here in our virtual book Journalism 3.0 – Media Ecology and the Future

When we all believed that Europe’s greatest problem was the lack of a European public information forum, a significant weakening occurred on a national level. Statistics, published last week by Orvesto here in Sweden, show that the reach for Swedish daily newspapers is suddenly decreasing rather dramatically. During the last two years, Dagens Nyheter has lost 12 % of its readers, Göteborgs-Posten has lost 16 % and Sydsvenska Dagbladet in Malmö has lost 18 %. And the development among young readers between 16 and 34 is even more dramatic. Dagens Nyheter has lost 33 %, i.e. one third of its younger readership. Other dailies have lost younger readers to the same extent. When you lose readers you lose revenues from advertising. This week figures about newspaper reading in Britain have been published in London.

During the last year, The Daily Mail and The Guardian have lost close to one tenth of their readers. The Telegraph has lost 13 % of its readers. The Financial Times, perhaps the most important newspaper in the world, has lost one fifth of its readers in Britain since last year. Of course, the Financial Times is important because of its position in the world, not only in Great Britain. But it gets its revenues from advertising that mainly depend on its position in Great Britain.
   It is worth noting that I’m talking about newspaper reading, not circulation. It is a well-established fact that newspaper circulation has been decreasing for a long time. But in the next sentence it has always been added: “but people still read newspapers”. No, they don’t. People in general are vanishing from the public sphere of newspapers, which since the beginning of democracy has been essential for democratic life.

Fewer readers implies less money from advertising and that implies cost reductions, which result in the downsizing of newsrooms and journalistic ambitions.
   And these effects have been obvious in the USA since the crisis in the American economy 2008 – 2009.To take the perhaps clearest example of this, the number of newspaper journalists in the USA was halved between 2005 and 2015. This affected local journalism in particular, which is after all the backbone of any democratic society. What is happening in the USA is also happening in Europe: just not as fast, nor in as devastating a manner. This is not a matter of differences of type but of time.

It has often been said that what is happening to the newspaper industry has been caused by public service media. Some claim that our activities online have harmed commercial media; that we have made it impossible for newspapers to regain from the net what they have lost in print. Some also claim that if the activities of public service media online were to be limited then the newspapers would no longer have such difficulties. But this is obviously not true. What is happening is a far reaching change of the media society. It’s caused by digitization of the whole production system and of most products. The newspaper as a print product is by definition an analogue product. That is the strength of the newspaper but also its weakness. Public service media is not the problem, rather the solution.

Local journalism is not the only area to be affected. Regardless of the speed of globalization, foreign reporting has also been forced on the defensive. Let us take an example from the USA again: In 2003, the television network NBC had 42 foreign editorial offices; today it has only 14 foreign editorial offices and employees in four additional countries. ABC is present in 19 countries and CBS in only about ten. The distinctly global network, CNN, is present in 33 countries. Yet, strikingly, CNN is present in only a handful of sites in Europe and Africa. It is present in Moscow but nowhere else in the former Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe. Fox News, the largest of the American cable channels and the dominant opinion builder among the American Right, has six foreign offices. Interestingly, Fox is present in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Israel. It is also present in London and Rome. Fox’s foreign representation clearly reflects a right-wing Republican world map. The only question concerns Rome; but perhaps Fox recognized a soul mate within the Italian government.
   There is only one media institution in the USA that has seriously expanded its foreign representation and that is National Public Radio (NPR), which is present in 17 foreign locations, an increase of almost 200 percent over the past ten years.

Net neutrality is of vital significance. This is most certainly not just a matter of the Web as such, but of how the public sphere has changed partly as a result of developments on the Web. We might find ourselves in a very different situation in the future. Admittedly the earlier picture of only one democratic public sphere, where all citizens met, was vastly oversimplified. The major democratic meeting places over the long term have always been the daily newspapers with their various readerships. But there was a very important interplay between the different parts of, or more correctly, within, the greater democratic forum. The various means of public spheres were integrated.
   Net neutrality and the desire to perform in the public sphere of the open web, is a prerequisite for the type of collective integrated publication that must exist in the future too. Narrow economic interests and a fundamentalist attitude towards copyright can present insurmountable obstacles for future integrated publication.

Mats Svegfors
Director General of Swedish Radio

Grunden i vår journalistik är trovärdighet och opartiskhet. Sveriges Radio är oberoende i förhållande till politiska, religiösa, ekonomiska, offentliga och privata särintressen.
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