Portugal: Media expert proposes fund to rescue Portuguese press        

by Ana Ribeiro

A veteran Portuguese journalist is calling for a multiple-source fund to help prop up daily reporting and publications in his country.

Press Fund_900 Media scholar calls for press fund to create more print publications and help established ones survive in Portugual. (Photo: Pixabay)

In an opinion piece earlier this month for Lisbon’s daily newspaper Público, José Manuel Nobre-Correia called for a plan to better provide for the “sustainability of existing titles and, in parallel, promote the creation of new titles” in Portugal. He stated that “help for the development of initiatives in terms of written information” (print or digital) could come from various sources: public funds, such as from the EU and Portugal; proceeds from the ad sales of private TV stations and telecommunications sales and services; and tax-deductible donations from institutions and private citizens.

Nobre-Correia, a now-retired longtime professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, claims Portugal lags behind other European countries in terms of daily press consumption. The daily press penetration rate in Europe’s westernmost country is “about seven to nine times inferior to that of Scandinavian Europe”, according to him.

His proposed press fund would be distributed to established media companies or startups applying with projects. Awards would be contingent on evaluation and approval by the fund’s executive board, which should be “composed of independent elements of incontestable competence in matters of media and written information”.

Digital only

For six years, until October 2014, Nobre-Correia wrote a weekly column for the Diário de Notícias newspaper, analysing European and Portuguese media. Nobre-Correia himself had ventured into online publishing in 2013, but not into print, blaming the “harsh reality” of the Portuguese publishing market. His digital monthly “Notas de Circunstância” was a short-lived venture, however, lasting less than a year.

Besides the ongoing global recession, print media have been mired in a deep crisis. It has to do with cheap or free access to information via digital media, which also typically means a loss of traditional advertising and subscriber-derived income for publications. A high-profile announcement last month was that The Independent, one of the leading daily newspapers in the U.K., would cease its print edition and lay off at least 75 employees as it transitioned into publishing only digitally.

Nobre-Correia contended in his Público article that budget and page volume cuts, layoffs and the risk of some publications closing have worsened the situation of the daily press in Portugal, which ”translates into an inevitable loss of quality”. In a phone interview with ECPMF, Nobre-Correia lamented what he referred to as the “systematic deficit” in which traditional Portuguese publications are operating. He mentioned that Diário Económico was publishing its last print edition on 18 March, and that Público itself, among other major dailies, has also been struggling.

Público had a circulation of 31.653 copies for the last two months of 2015, according to APCT, the Portuguese authority reporting on circulation numbers. Fifteen years earlier, in 2000, Público’s circulation was about 43 percent higher, at 55.136.

What keeps Público afloat is its continued ownership by the Portuguese multinational Sonae, which has multiple businesses in different areas, said Nobre-Correia. Still, in December 2015, Público announced it would stop publishing its Revista 2 and offered a severance programme for employees who would volunteer to end their contracts. Twenty-four employees left the newspaper under the programme, the Portuguese state-owned news agency Lusa reported in January 2016. Online paid content and ads did not bring in enough money in 2015 to offset Público‘s loss in print circulation and advertising revenues, and a deficit was registered, being balanced out by profit from Sonae’s other businesses.

Three years earlier, Público had laid off 48 employees, among them journalists and graphic designers, according to an article from Diário Económico. The Angolan group Newshold, publisher of the newspapers Jornal i (daily) and Sol (weekly) in Portugal, announced in late 2015 that it would pull out its shares and that two-thirds of the publications‘ employees (120 people) would lose their jobs amid the restructuring. In six years of existence, Jornal i had reportedly gone through four different owners and seven administrations.

angola_press_900 Angolan entrepreneurs, known for their close ties to the country's government, are leaving their mark on the Portuguese press. (Photo: Pixabay)

Angolan ’reverse colonisation’

According to the EJC’s Media Landscapes segment, much of the media ownership in Portugal is concentrated within a handful of conglomerates, “a trend which started to consolidate since the middle 1980s, resulting from the introduction of liberal policies strongly influenced by the European Union and the switches in property of the main newspapers from the hands of traditional families to large groups”. The CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) in a 2013 report showed concern over Angolan – including Newshold’s – growing participation in the Portuguese publishing industry. It cited the Angolan government’s poor record on press freedom matters and close ties with Angolan entrepreneurs, such as the president’s daughter Isabel dos Santos. To a certain extent, this has transferred to Angolan companies’ dealings with their Portuguese publications, which - strapped for cash amid the economic and media crisis - end up being censored or practising self-censorship reporting on their shareholders, according to CPJ:

“Buoyed by petrodollars and diamonds, powerful Angolan interests have been indulging in a buying spree in their former colonial power. Angolan capital invested in Portugal increased 35 times in the past decade, according to news reports. In a process often acidly described in Lisbon as a form of ‘reverse colonization’, Angolans have gobbled up not only significant chunks of Portugal's banking, telecommunications, and energy companies, but also invested in the Portuguese media sector.”

Mediause Eurobarometer Mediause and trust in written media (Graphic: ECPMF / Source: EC/Standard Eurobarometer 82 Autumn 2014)

Danger to democracy

Nobre-Correia, in his Público opinion article calling for the media fund, emphasised the importance of disseminating quality information for democracy to function. He also accused Portuguese politicians of doing nothing to change the situation of the Portuguese press.

Faced with such an absolutely catastrophic situation, successive parliaments and governments keep silent, remaining indifferent and inert, as if this did not concern them.

Such attitude, Nobre-Correia says, may lead one to think that “the political class in this country would rather go about its little life without journalists or newspapers meddling in it. Or in other words: without the citizens being minimally informed on what transpires in the spheres of power.“

On a regional scale, the 2014 Eurobarometer report Media Use in the European Union found that 74 percent of respondents in Portugal felt “personally ill-informed“ about European issues.

The same report, which polled people in 35 European countries, also found that 26 percent of respondents in Portugal read written press daily. That compares with 71 percent in Finland (the highest rate), 70 percent in Sweden, 56 percent in Germany and 47 percent in Denmark. The rate of daily press consumption among respondents in Portugal was the same as in Italy, and close to that in the United Kingdom (32 percent) and France (31 percent). It was higher than the rate in Spain, Hungary (both 21 percent) and in Greece, which exhibited the lowest rate of daily press readers, at 7 percent.  

Meanwhile, trust in the written press among Portuguese respondents was shown to be among the highest in Europe, at 60 percent, according to the report.

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