Fighting the media crisis through innovation exchanges: lessons from the Stars4Media Pilot Project.
European news media today face an unprecedented crisis. It is, first of all, a crisis of identity: ever since digital platforms have entered the media field as new gatekeepers, traditional news media have struggled to re-position themselves in a digital-first media landscape. It is also an economic and societal crisis: financial resources and trust have both kept declining ever since, with worrying trends at play. Yet, the issues at stake are huge as news media are important players in our democracies. The European Commission has addressed the crisis of news media amongst others by starting to channel resources towards media innovation. In this regard, the Stars4Media pilot project was launched, responding to a proposal voted by the European Parliament in 2018. Stars4Media is the first European project for cross-border cooperation of media professionals focusing on innovation in the news media field and beyond. Since November 2019 imec-SMIT, VUB coordinates this pilot project. In what follows, highlights of the project will be presented, as well as a description of the adaptation of the project to the Coronavirus crisis. Finally, building upon the lessons learned from the implementation of the first pilot, a set of policy recommendations is presented.
ANSWERING THE MEDIA CRISIS: THE STARS4MEDIA PILOT PROJECT
The ambition of the Stars4Media pilot project is to support the European news media sector overcoming a long-term and multifaceted crisis. From the increasing pressure of social media and digital news platforms on the advertising revenues of traditional news media, to the steady decline of print revenues and broadcasting licensing fees and the challenges in strengthening the relationship with users online and offline: many dynamics are at play, making the crisis complex and dismissing simplistic ideas of silver bullets solutions. Stars4Media addresses the complexity of this crisis by providing a ground for experiments with bottom-up, cross-border and collaborative initiatives on an EU-scale. The mix of these three axes is key for supporting the generation of long-term solutions, rather than simply providing short-term aid.
Small teams of media professionals from cooperating media outlets based in at least two different European countries, were invited to submit proposals for initiatives. These were typically 3-months projects for kicking off an innovative idea across two main areas: Trust in media and Data for media. A total of 105 media professionals were involved in the virtual and physical collaborative exchanges. Typically, initiatives were formed by two media outlets, with a total of six media professionals with complementary media skills.
While journalists represent the main actors of the cooperation, many other media professionals have been involved to leverage the benefits of a multidisciplinary co-creative process. Initiatives include, for example, the cooperation of two teams of professionals for the production of a podcast that pioneers the involvement of the knowledgeable community of readers. In order to ensure the innovative component, journalists have co-created the production-side with sound-designers and marketing specialists.
In line with a variety of profiles involved in the pilot project, the eligible proposals encompassed a remarkable diversity of topics, ranging from popular issues like ‘AI/Tech solutions for journalism’ or ‘fighting nationalism and populism narratives’, to very niche ones, like ‘digital overload/stress management in media’. In the last category, for instance, an initiative implemented by four freelancers was chosen: two mindfulness coaches, a journalist and a graphic designer who work together in creating a free online program designed to support journalists with knowledge and evidence-based practices to counter digital overload in a healthier way. In the area of ‘AI/tech solutions for journalist’, one exemplary initiative is a cooperation between a Finnish tech start-up and a Spanish news agency, to test an innovative tool designed to enable content creators to better manage the hidden information (embedded metadata) contained in visual contents.
The variety of topics, in turn, has resulted in a long list of diverse results, such as, among others, migration-related reportages, solution-journalism podcasts, research analysis on editorial transparency, experiments in innovative business models, or AR solutions for journalism, just to mention a few.
STARS4MEDIA FACING THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS
At the very beginning of the project implementation, the call for proposals published by Stars4Media was disrupted by the unfolding consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The approach of Stars4Media was altered insofar that it responded simultaneously to the problems of the long-term crisis (lack of innovative solutions), and of the current health crisis (lack of physical mobility). The project did not sacrifice the aspect of cross-border cooperation, but instead strengthened its virtual component.
To respond to the Covid-19 crisis, the two original areas, Trust in media and Data for media, were joined by the third area with a focus on the Coronavirus. The goal was to attract initiatives dealing with the issue how the media sector could adapt to the global pandemic. The decision to include an additional ‘Coronavirus area’ was well-received: 4 out of 21 Stars4Media initiatives (accounting for 20% of the whole budget for beneficiaries) focused on contributing to a deeper understanding of the ongoing crisis and creating innovative solutions for helping the media sector dealing with the most pressing consequences.
THE WAY FORWARD: ‘RISING STARS’ PILOT CONTINUATION, STARTS4MEDIA SECOND EDITION?
In the past, initiatives to support projects for the media industry have rarely focused on stimulating cross-border collaboration for the emergence of innovative and sustainable practices. In light of the structural crisis, a bold and comprehensive action of the EU institutions aimed primarily at innovation could help the sector to revive from the crisis with long-term solutions. In our view, the EU could build upon the modest yet tangible success of the Stars4Media pilot project and assure its continuation into a permanent European Media Innovation Action centred around media professionals’ exchanges.
The continuation of Stars4Media might be integrated into the larger NEWS Grant Programme to support news media and quality journalism suggested by some 40 MEPS in April 2020: EU leaders must stand up to protect the news media sector.
LESSONS LEARNED AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS: HOW TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT ACCELERATING SUSTAINABLE MEDIA INNOVATION
(Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash)