Сould you tell us first about your decision for EURACTIV to join Mediahuis group?
First of all, I'm not alone. I'm not the only shareholder, there are many other people in the management, likewise in the network of 13 countries in Europe, including in Bulgaria. Therefore, a lot of people were consulted on the two main reasons for integrating EURACTIV in the Mediahuis group.
I will point out the big picture and the small one.
The big picture is that I think we need media consolidation across borders because it reinforces pluralism, it strengthens distinct brands which work in different countries. When media concentration is exclusively national it has a negative social impact.
Now let me come to the company picture, which is our internal reason for moving on. I stated to the team that I would no longer be the majority shareholder when I turn 70, and that I was taking a lot of time to have plenty of room for maneuver. I'm 60 and I think it's better to do things too early than too late. The management has been very autonomous for a long time. I was not even on the board. I will continue to be on the advisory council of EURACTIV, and it's good to have fresh ideas and fresh energy with a lot of synergies. So that's why I am doing it now.
Why did you choose Mediahuis group?
We wanted a group that is European, not just European, but pro-European and based on the continent (not in the UK). Also a group that is aware of languages and has several brands in different countries. This is exactly what Mediahuis group does, with a European expansion vision.
Why do you think the deal will be a success?
Our choice of partner was very much driven by strategy and values. I don't know if it's the case in other media mergers, but it was definitely the case for this one.
And what is the media sector environment now in Brussels?
When you talk about the environment in Brussels, you probably mean the EU, the European specialized media. In fact, in what some people call "the EU bubble", we see the same thing as at national level, which is concentration. Media are disappearing, e.g. "European voice" which was taken over by Politico. Some others struggle to remain alive. I think it's a pity.
I believe the cooperation between specialized media and national generalist media should be much stronger than it is today, feeding EU news to a broader public.
What is the role of AI in this sector? Does it lead to concentration?
As far as AI is concerned, I think it's also about media economics. I have written an OpED about the rise of fixed costs in the media. We used to be a variable cost industry. There were a lot of freelancers, printing and huge distribution costs. Now we are a fixed cost industry with three main costs. One is top people, fewer juniors, but more experienced people. The second is technology and the third is marketing innovation. It's better to spread these fixed costs over a larger volume either at national level (but then it leads to fewer titles), or cross-border cooperation. Content does not always travel well across borders. But technology does: technology is language neutral. Marketing innovation is also usually language neutral. That is why I'm foreseeing a big increase in cross-border cooperation, either respecting different entities, or cross border consolidations. The Mediahuis/EURACTIV deal is one example of the latter. There is going to be a wave of consolidation and that is a game changer.
Coming back to AI: to me, it's as important as the Internet has been so far. Some media tried to reject it, but those who have learned to use it as a tool to support journalism have succeeded. Probably this interview could not be done by some AI engine! But the monitoring of basic legislation, which is part of EURACTIV's role, should probably be supported by AI. The media then provide some value added by real people.
In this context, what do you think of the latest legislation coming out of Brussels? Not only the European Media Act, but also the Digital Market Act and all the other Commission initiatives that try to regulate technology in different sectors including the media?
There are a number of pieces of legislation, and I would add one to your list, which is the AI Act, that is being finalized. A lot of people have said that the EU is over-regulating the sector. I don't think so, because EU legislation prevents you from having incompatible national legislation. And if there were a lot of national legislation on AI, for example, it would probably not be as well researched, and probably be more politically motivated, with ideology coming in and so on. So I think the EU level is the right level for those kinds of considerations. Some people are afraid that we will regulate more than the US, but the same argument was used against data protection legislation in the past and now we are setting world standards. I hope it will be the same with AI, that the EU will be open, flexible vis à vis artificial intelligence, but with limits that preserve the privacy of individuals, the sanity of our information spaces. Therefore, we could again set some standards, in such a way that AI companies can also be developed in Europe.
Overall, I think it's a good package of legislations. The Media Freedom Act is not finished. There are still important debates to be had. I think it's very important to complete this process before the end of this mandate of the European Parliament, because it could be a source of inspiration, notably in countries where press freedom is not obvious, and that includes a number of countries in Central Europe, as you know very well.
My main regret is that the process is very slow.. Most of this legislation was initiated at the beginning of its mandate four years ago, and the perspective is that not everything will be finalized by the end of this mandate, and certainly not everything will be implemented. So we need to speed up the pace. That is my main message.
Do you think that this legislation will help media consolidation or it will rather focus on preventing media concentration?
Traditionally, competition rules are there to prevent excessive concentration. So a lot of people oppose competition and pluralism on the one hand and concentration and economics on the other hand. Actually, I think all these are compatible, even mutually reinforcing, under some conditions. In fact, the Draft Media Freedom Act does refer positively to consolidation, especially cross-border, because we should look at the big picture. The Information space today is not dominated by the media: it is dominated by social media platforms. Most of the advertising money and some of the subscription money is starting to go to them. The media sector is really a minority player in this global information market. We are an army of dwarfs facing an oligopoly of giants. The media should either cooperate much more or consolidate, preferably across borders. We need European media champions.
People understand that media consolidation is happening anyway, so let's take the initiative and try to shape it. There is also a debate, initially in France, but now in many countries, including Germany, about "strategic autonomy". And strategic autonomy is not just about batteries for electric cars or weapons to help Ukraine, it's also about the media landscape. And if we don't help our media to consolidate, then they will either die or they will be taken over and fall in the wrong hands. The wrong hands could be foreign actors. They could also be oligarchs. And you know very well what I'm talking about.
Could you tell me how Europe's MediaLab would help prevent this?
Our focus is on the health of the media sector. There are a lot of good organizations working on press freedom, and that is of course the ultimate goal. We think that media economics and media innovation are very important for media freedom. That is our focus. We are now in the third edition of the program called Stars4Media. It was initiated as a pilot project of the European Parliament and it's now a flagship of the European Commission's Journalism Partnership Programme.
We have already helped 100 media companies to cooperate across borders and we intend to continue. We are also thinking about diversifying this program. We have developed Stars4Media-FACTCHECKING, to make it sustainable in Central and Eastern Europe. We have partners in Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria, who are helping media companies in Ukraine and in Belarus (in exile). We are also applying for funding for a new media program called Stars4Media-TRUiST, which is about trust indicators that influence the algorithms of GAFA, the social media platforms. Rather than being tempted to censor disinformation, it's better to promote quality content in a positive way. Firstly, it would give journalists like you a legitimate sense of pride, and secondly, it would increase advertising revenues, therefore, it would allow the media to invest more in IT and in journalism. These are strategic projects. We have another programme, I will not describe in detail, which is about the governance of the media sector. I don't mean policy, I mean corporate governance. A lot of media in Europe are actually SMEs, owned as family businesses, sometimes a bit traditional, sometimes run by old journalists who are not necessarily business people. Sometimes the practices in terms of board governance are not quite up to standards. We think there is something to be done. With the first three editions of Stars4Media, we mainly helped young innovators to have more impact and faster careers. Now we want to tackle the old ones! People like me who need to move on faster and be replaced by young, innovative women like yourself.