JFF #019 – Journalism Funding in Poland, Czech Republic, and CEE

[Cross-posted from the JFF site, where you can subscribe to the newsletter version.]

Welcome to October’s edition of Journalism Funders Confidential, in which we’re taking a dive into public interest journalism in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Poland and the Czech Republic in particular, and how it gets funded. 

It’s a slightly different and longer edition than for other parts of Europe, as both our interviewees and our research told us to pay attention not only to what’s happening inside countries but also between countries in the region. 

And defining that region was another conundrum – so diverse but with much in common, such close yet distinct histories, such shifting and overlapping sub-regions. We can’t possibly do justice to this region in one edition (the leads and research we have would take 20 newsletters to cover properly…), but by giving you a high-level overview, sharing what our interviewees told us is and should be happening, and signposting you to resources to help you go deeper, we hope it gives a solid jumping-off point.

Please, as ever, tell us what we missed, what was interesting, and what you’d like to see in next month’s edition – we’ll be covering France – at info@journalismfundersforum.com or https://twitter.com/sdp.

Sameer and Adam

The Big Picture in Central and Eastern Europe

Across Central and Eastern Europe, democracy is being contested in ways not seen since the end of communism. Closing space for civil society continues to be a key tool for governments across the region, amid other power-grabs and acts of repression, as the EFC’s Warsaw Declaration in 2018 made clear. But huge protests in many countries – against government corruption, democratic backsliding, threats to women’s rights, election fraud, and the killing of journalists – have birthed new movements, political parties and even governments.

Against this backdrop, the vital signs for independent public interest journalism look shaky. While a handful of countries are holding firm, even improving, in terms of press freedom, many countries across the region are continuing to slip down international press freedom indices. 

Journalists are feeling the pressure, as Meera Selva’s excellent Reuters Institute report from early 2020 shows. Through interviews with journalists from across the region, Meera identifies six key challenges that independent media face in the region:1. Anti-journalist rhetoric by politicians and rival media
2. Online and offline attacks on journalists
3. Media capture and the weaponisation of state advertising
4. Deteriorating legal environment
5. Concerns over a journalist’s ability to protect sources
6. Lack of collaboration and solidarity

Our interviewees said that 3 & 4 are the key drivers – and added in the capture of public service media, intensifying media concentration, the sidelining of media policy analysis and the instrumentalisation of internet regulation. We’re taking a look at two countries where these regional threads come together – the Czech Republic and Poland. 

One went further: “We need to fix policy above all else – if we can’t fix the funding model to make it transparent and fair, nothing will happen, as this affects everything else.” So this time we’ll cover individual media a little less, and funding a little more.

In addition to the Reuters Institute report, a couple of deeper sources stand out:

What do the media environments in Poland and the Czech Republic look like?

Poland – which has one of the region’s largest media systems – is often grouped together with fellow “illiberal democracy” Hungary in how its government undermines democratic norms and institutions, and the rule of law. It continues to slide on press freedom, as a deliberate strategy to muzzle and squash independent and critical media. 

“The Polish media landscape,” says the 2020 Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), “is composed of strong and concentrated TV networks, which dominate news provision, weakening, but still influential and opinion-forming newspaper groups, growing news portals and start-ups offering journalistic commentary, investigations and analysis.” Add to this the government’s capture and instrumentalisation of public service media (MPM: a major risk to media pluralism; Polish government: restoring pluralism to a liberal-dominated media), and, as the 2020 Digital News Report shows us, its attempts to increase polarisation and politicisation of the media, e.g. against LGBT+ citizens, and a precarious situation emerges. (The MPM is also extremely worried about the status of women in the media sector.) Our interviewees said commercial media and startups are coping well, for now, but that this can’t anchor a plural landscape.

Few people (~20%) are accustomed to paying for news in Poland – although this is growing, with Gazeta Wyborcza in particular, receiving the Polish equivalent of the ‘Trump Bump’, almost doubling its number of digital subscribers from 133,000 in 2017 to 240,000 now, putting it among Europe’s top 10 newspapers for digital subscribers.

Some independent media and journalists are finding success using crowdfunding platform Patronite. Our interviewees noted two examples making waves: independent documentary makers the Sekielski Brothers, who crowdfunded their three-part doc on the Catholic Church in Poland; and new independent Radio Nowy Świat, which has raised over 4m zlotys (~€880,000) since June.

Other news startups and innovators of note include the internationally-minded and networked non-profit newsroom outride.rs, investigative newsroom oko.press, a slew of individual reporters setting up niche media businesses, and Polish YouTubers, podcasters and influencers who are “starting to get more serious”, said one interviewee. The pandemic has, they say, led citizens to realise much more concretely the relationship between information and their own health, and they’re starting to want to support media they trust – but they are still worried about the parlous state of local media.

The Czech Republic’s slight slip in its democracy ranking, and its backslide on press freedom (40th now, 13th five years ago) are related in part to the climate set by President Zeman, who openly talked about ‘liquidating’ journalists, and, more recently, the business dealings of its Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who in 2013 bought the publisher of two of the country’s most influential newspapers. (Media concentration of this kind is the biggest alarm bell in the Media Pluralism Monitor’s report on the Czech Republic.) These developments and the way Babis handled them sparked enormous public protests in Prague in 2019. 

CMDS’s comprehensive report on funding journalism in the Czech Republic provides a much deeper must-read scan of how money flows in the media, and where it comes from. Trust in news in general, in comparison to Poland, is low, but with a fairly well-trusted public service media (62%), the situation could be worse. At the local level, however, this recent research by Lenka Waschková Císařová shows emerging Czech news deserts, with half of all local papers closing down over the last decade.

As elsewhere, COVID-19 decimated advertising revenue for Czech media, especially at the local level, but for those with wealthy owners, n-ost researcher Vojtěch Berger says in their recent report, “[i]ronically, its oligarchic ownership structure could be what enables Czech media outlets to weather the coming storm – even while that same structure represents a huge long term threat to journalistic independence.”

Ownership concentration aside, the Digital News Report is less concerned about the state of Czech media, although reading CMDS’s analysis, fears remain that, if the government’s power-grab works and deepens, the Czech Republic is well along the highway to join Poland and Hungary. 

The success story mentioned by all our interviewees is Denik N, a Czech joint venture with Slovakia’s independent digital daily, which appears to be bucking the trend that Czechs don’t pay for media. Others mentioned environmental movement Hnutí DUHA’s journalism at Sedmá generace (Seventh Generation), internet TV station DVTV, and independent digital magazine Heroine, which covers gender from a lifestyle perspective. As in Poland, influencers and movements using Instagram and other social media are gaining huge youth audiences.

And we haven’t even mentioned misinformation or disinformation or the regional network of organisations working on freedom of information in innovative and effective ways yet…

Who’s funding public interest journalism in Central and Eastern Europe?

Closing space for civil society and international philanthropy has made it harder for many foundations, e.g. Open Society, and their grantees, to operate in large parts of the region. From anti-semitic assaults on OSF founder George Soros, to stigmatising recipients as “foreign agents”, illiberal and authoritarian states are feeding into and on an increasingly globalised set of right-wing-generated conspiracy theories designed to undermine the legitimacy of both of philanthropy itself and of open societies more broadly. 

Against that backdrop, the need is spread across the whole region, but interviewees – and other sources – report that support across the region is very uneven. Some countries have multiple sources of potential funding, some have a couple, and some are not on the radar at all. Other pressures noted by interviewees include funders’ desire for tangible impact or expectations of sustainability, funders being unable to fund for-profit organizations, staff turnover and lack of institutional patience in philanthropy.

As with many other parts of Europe, we couldn’t find anything comprehensive on journalism funding by philanthropy in this region, though the 2015 EUFORI country studies on funding for research and innovation in Europe, give solid background on the history of the charitable, philanthropic and funding environment in countries including Poland and the Czech Republic.

A number of European funders are or have recently invested in the wider region, or parts of it, and this has included funding for journalism, freedom of information and freedom of expression. This includes the UK-based Sigrid Rausing Trust (Europe & Former Soviet Union), Oak Foundation, and Luminate, Austria’s Erste Stiftung, and German Stiftungen (sometimes through intermediaries like n-ost) such as Robert BoschFriedrich EbertZeit, and Friedrich Naumann. The Evens Foundation and Fritt Ord have supported work on journalism and trust in four countries. A few US funders also provide substantial support within the region – notably the National Endowment for Democracy.

Within the region itself, sources that prioritise or advertise a focus on media and journalism seem few and far between. The Visegrad Fund offers some grants in this area, and the Prague Civil Society Centre has some touchpoints with media through its innovation programmes. (Ukraine merits its own edition, with the quantity of initiatives and funding we encountered – but the Media Development Foundation is a great starting point.)

At the Europe-wide level, pooled fund Civitates has made a number of grants to groups in the region, including collaborations between media and civil society – its journalism grants have not been announced yet. The Brussels-based European Endowment for Democracy has had a particular focus on misinformation and disinformation, and supporting independent media.

In its Blue Book, the EEA & Norway Grants specifically mention “[s]upport for freedom of expression, investigative journalism and media” under its civil society line. There is funding for journalism through the Active Citizens Fund in other parts of Europe, and maybe in the Czech Republic and Poland. The Eastern Partnership, which has held biennial conferences on media (in 20152017), had a focus in 2019 on sustainability and donors in the region (here’s a factsheet on their funding till 2015).

Our interviewees said that it’s a mistake to stop funding media policy research. They understand why donors have stopped focusing on it – one put it bluntly: “Ten years ago, the feeling was that the government would listen to media policy research. Now not only are governments not interested in receiving advice, they are actively invested in eroding the same rules and instruments you’re researching – so why bother?” 

But governments across the region are using public funds and laws to capture public media, weaponise state advertising, and twist plurality and ownership rules. Add to this tighter controls on online content under cover of fighting misinformation, and truly independent and progressive media will have even less room to operate, let alone thrive. 

And what about journalism funding in Poland and the Czech Republic?

Neither country has a large or prominent source of philanthropic or independent funding for journalism, though some local funders – like the Stefan Batory Foundation (named for a celebrated 16th-century Polish king) – do support independent media.

While we’ve seen support from big tech (e.g. Google DNI funding in Poland and Czech Republic), one of the most interesting shifts mentioned by our interviewees is the increasing interest of local business people in supporting and funding independent media. Some are donating directly to individual outlets, others (including business angels) are investing in or buying media, and some are making more substantial and substantive contributions to the journalism ecosystem.

One such example – The Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (Nadační fond nezávislé žurnalistiky/NFNZ) in the Czech Republic – is being closely watched across Europe as a potential model. Founded by a group of independent business people who met at a mixer in Prague, it grew out of their shared concern for the health of the media environment and alarm at growing media concentration and has a budget of around 11m crowns (€400k). The NFNZ makes grants to independent media outlets, conducts research, and has developed a quality rating for Czech media that has made a few waves.

Our interviewees told us that one of the most promising routes for international philanthropy to support local media may be by partnering with these or other groups of local business people and investors across the region.

What should donors and supporters be looking to do?

It’s difficult to offer a blanket set of recommendations to donors and other potential supporters of independent public interest journalism in the region (we know, for example, it is underinvested), and our interviewees themselves didn’t agree on all points, but here are some pathways that we think will resonate both with colleagues in the region and beyond:

  • support media policy scrutiny, better data collection and more integration between media and digital policy research,
  • support the emerging ecosystem of niche media entrepreneurs, and complement self-funding, crowdfunding and no-funding,
  • support popular media, as well as high-prestige or elite media outlets,
  • help journalism in the region to break its own silos – connect it to commercial and civic tech, and other disciplines, to help it progress,
  • connect philanthropic funders with local business people who care about independent journalism to find areas of common interest and action.

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