Journalism in Europe


Journalism has a long and storied history in Europe, with the world’s first regularly published newspaper, the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, being published in the free imperial city of Strasbourg (now part of France) in 1605. The Relation was quite international in nature, with news about politics, diplomacy, and the military coming from correspondents throughout Europe. The first daily newspaper, Einkommende Zeitungen, was published in Leipzig (Germany) about 50 years later. And, about 200 years later, in 1835, the French news agency Havas was founded — which later became the Agence France Press (AFP), one of the largest news agencies in the world today.

When it comes to the development of broadcast media, Europe in many ways stands out from other regions. Unlike the United States, which allowed radio to develop largely as a commercial medium, and regions like Africa and Latin America, where radio was frequently instrumentalized to advance government objectives, many European governments saw the emergence of radio as a chance to develop national public information systems. Under European public service broadcasting (PSB) systems, citizens were taxed in different ways and the proceeds of those taxes were devoted to creating national broadcasters whose mission was to inform the public. The prototypical example of this is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC was founded in 1922, financed largely by license fees and kept at arm’s length from political interests through an independent governance structure. Public service broadcasters are still major news sources within many European media ecosystems (which also include private broadcasters and other private journalistic outlets).

However, it would be a mistake to view Europe as a monolithic entity because there is considerable variation in the media systems of European countries. For example, the more advocacy-oriented culture of journalism in southern Europe is quite different from the more detached observatorial culture of northern European journalism. Additionally, the comparably late emergence of democracy in eastern Europe has shaped the development of journalism in those countries.

Press Freedoms and Constraints

Rankings of media freedom by Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders help illustrate important differences in Europe. Northern European countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden routinely appear near the top of those rankings — and, in fact, were the top three countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. However, the eastern European countries of Belarus, Bulgaria, and Turkey (which is frequently considered part of Europe due to its participation in the European Union) are often regarded as countries where journalism cannot be freely practiced.

As a whole, though, Europe offers the most hospitable environment for journalism in the world, with countries in western and northern Europe being routinely ranked higher than the United States when it comes to press freedom. This is bolstered by the fact that some of the most active press freedom advocates are located in Europe. For example, Reporters Without Borders is based in Paris, the International Press Institute is based in Vienna, and Article 19 is based in London.

However, even in well-regarded places like the United Kingdom, journalists face growing obstacles. For example, national security laws approved by U.K. officials in recent years have made it far easier for journalists to be surveilled. Additionally, England’s defamation laws — which offer journalists far fewer protections than those in the United States — have been used strategically in libel lawsuits by celebrities and business leaders to silence journalists. In fact, for many years, a practice of ‘libel tourism’ was used by prominent members of society to take advantage of that phenomenon. Under that practice, a journalist based in a country with strong legal protections against libel charges (e.g., the United States) would be sued in a country like England by an individual (e.g., a celebrity) because it was easier for that individual to win such cases there. Libel tourism was legally curtailed in England in 2013, but domestic journalists in England still operate with relatively weak protections from libel charges.

Moreover, the conditions for doing journalism are relatively difficult in central and eastern European countries, such as Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine. While newly democratic eastern European countries have written constitutions that guarantee freedom of expression and of the press, there are still significant restrictions on access to government information. Moreover, overt government control in those places has in many ways been replaced with self-censorship resulting from political and financial pressures. This has created a challenging climate for journalists.

An illustrative example of this is Hungary. Even though the country’s constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, structural reforms and media legislation enacted and under the regime of Viktor Orbán largely undermined those protections. By 2017, nearly all daily regional newspapers had been concentrated into the hands of oligarchs connected to Orbán’s Fidesz party. The best-selling political daily newspaper at the time, the left-leaning Népszabadság, was suspended by the government and its parent company was then sold to an Orbán ally, who decided to shut down the newspaper. After Orbán’s landslide reelection in 2018, one of the two national opposition newspapers, the Magyar Nemzet, announced that it would shut down as well. Unlike other authoritarian regimes that seek to crush opposition media with blunt force, Orbán’s regime sought to slowly strangle outlets not aligned with the Fidesz party’s objectives.

In contrast, President Erdogan of Turkey unleashed a major crackdown against his media critics after a failed coup d’état attempt in 2016. Following the declaration of a state of emergency, Erdogan’s regime shut down almost 150 media outlets, including 55 newspapers, five news agencies, 16 TV channels, and 23 radio stations. In short order, Turkey’s entire news media ecosystem was reduced to a handful of pro-regime media. In 2021, Reporters Without Borders called Turkey one of the “world’s biggest prisons for professional journalists.”

Professionalization and Labor Conditions

The relatively unconstrained nature of western and northern European media ecosystems is a result of general political stability, state investment in independent media, and the establishment of mature institutions for media self-regulation. For example, the idea of voluntary press and media councils that monitor journalistic coverage and produce reports detailing its shortcomings has roots in Scandinavian countries, with the oldest such council having been established in Sweden in 1916. Western and northern European countries also tend to have strong, highly professionalized journalistic cultures and exhibit general acceptance of professional codes of ethics. In contrast, institutionalized forms of media self-regulation sometimes do not exist at all in southern Europe, and when they do, they are generally far less influential. Similarly, institutionalized self-regulation is relatively rare or weak in most media systems in central and eastern Europe.

In much of Europe, both public (state-owned or state-supported) and private (commercial) media coexist. In fact, the majority of media in Europe are commercial, profit-oriented organizations that get most of their revenue from advertising. Additionally, much of Europe has seen a considerable amount of deregulation over the past 30 years, resulting in greater private use of public airwaves as well as increased concentration of media ownership. For example, in the United Kingdom and in Spain, just two publishers control more than half of the print market, there are only four major publishing groups in the Netherlands. Moreover, some large companies like Germany’s Axel Springer are major players in the media markets of smaller European countries.

State aid to the media sector is common practice in many parts of Europe, and especially in northern Europe. This includes not only robust public service broadcasters but also direct and indirect subsidies to commercial newspapers to promote public service journalism as well as media pluralism (e.g., a diversity of viewpoints and coverage of multiple regions). In the case of Scandinavia, journalistic outlets routinely receive tax exemptions, distribution benefits (e.g., lower postal rates), and state support for innovative experiments.

In many western and northern European countries, the question is not whether there should be public or private media but rather how public and private media should coexist. A practical consequence of this dual structure is that European journalistic outlets are among the best resourced in the world — especially in western and northern Europe. This, in turn, allows for strong, independent journalism in those places. In particular, public service broadcasters generally capture the largest share of national audiences for news programming and are widely seen as credible sources of information. Consequently, their journalists are able to conduct rigorous interviews with powerful individuals without fear of losing access to them (or being subsequently targeted). Many of these social benefits are passed on to journalists working for private outlets, too, as the journalists working for public service broadcasters frequently use their position to defend the institution of journalism in those countries.

Again, the situation is quite different for southern, central, and eastern European outlets. In particular, southern European journalists tend to adhere more strongly to overtly partisan, advocacy-oriented journalistic cultures, and while state subsidies are sometimes offered to ensure media pluralism, the amounts are significantly lower than those in western and northern Europe. In central and eastern European countries, commercial media organizations often operate on limited budgets and public service media — still shaped by their propagandist histories — tend to play more subservient roles.

As of 2016, roughly 85% of households in the European Union had access to the Internet, making it the best-connected region in the world. Additionally, many European countries benefit from advanced digital infrastructures and affordable access to mobile internet. Thus, unsurprisingly, Europe has been a pioneer in the digital transformation of journalism.

Notably, the dominant traditional media corporations are also frequently the ones topping the online news markets by offering digital versions of their print and broadcast media, as well as some new digitally native spin-offs. While European countries tend to be among the most willing to pay for online news — a 2020 survey found that nearly 45% of Norwegians paid for online news — their media markets have also suffered from declining ad revenue and a plurality of freely accessible online news sites. This has resulted in major financial challenges for commercial media in particular.

Additionally, in central and eastern European countries where (semi-)authoritarian systems exist, online websites, blogs, and social media have played an important role in giving a voice to opposing viewpoints amid crackdowns on traditional media. For example, following the Turkish crackdown on news media in 2016, a number of small-scale online journalism websites popped up and gave journalists a relatively unobstructed platform for distributing their work. Those websites have since drawn more attention from political leaders and have become targets themselves. However, European digital rights groups have played a leading role in developing privacy and anti-blocking technologies that have allowed information to flow more freely.

Key Takeaways

  • Europe is arguably the most hospitable place for practicing journalism in the world, and northern European countries in particular are routinely ranked at the top of media freedom indices. This is the result of a combination of factors, including strong legal protections for journalists, stable democratic institutions, and the presence of major press freedom advocacy groups.

  • Europe is home to many of the world’s most well-regarded public service broadcasters. Those broadcasters are generally viewed as credible and capture large shares of news audiences. Nevertheless, a robust commercial media system helps offer media pluralism in many countries.

  • Europe has relatively advanced digital infrastructures and is home to many advances in digital journalism, especially when it comes to monetizing digital journalism.