Trust in news and in Austrian news brands are both down significantly this year, partly due to the influential role of tabloid newspapers in a scandal that forced the resignation of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The media are also blamed for increasing polarisation about COVID vaccines and lockdown measures.
In an exceptionally turbulent political year, disagreements around measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the political debate. The government’s proposal to introduce compulsory vaccination for all adults from early 2022 was strongly contested by opposition parties and anti-vax movements, before finally being abandoned. As protests grew, the Ministry of Interior warned media organisations about increasing incidents of intimidation, threats, and violence towards journalists.
The ‘Austrian Corona Panel Project’ by the University of Vienna found a significant correlation between frequent access to particular television news brands and people’s attitudes. In particular, regular viewers of right-wing leaning channels Servus TV and oe24.tv were more likely to be sceptical about the seriousness of the virus, critical of measures to contain COVID’s spread, or to believe in conspiracy theories, than non-viewers. In contrast, regular viewers of the public service media ORF were more likely to be vaccinated than non-viewers – and were encouraged to do so by the channel.
The political turmoil that led to the fall of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) followed allegations that he won the support of tabloid papers, in particular of Mediengruppe Österreich, in exchange for granting them generous public advertising contracts. These tabloids were blamed for playing a key role in publicising a rigged government-funded opinion poll that suggested widespread public support for the 2017 reforms within the Austrian People's Party that crowned Kurz as the leader, and later, as the country’s Chancellor. The revelations highlighted the sometimes-murky relationship between politicians and newspapers in a country where print remains both unusually influential and dependent on government advertising.
Despite the political scandal around them, commercial media received increased amounts of central government public advertising during the pandemic, amounting to €47m in 2020 and €45.3m in 2021. Large tabloids including Österreich, Kronen Zeitung, and Heute received about half the 2020 figure.1
Some media are succeeding with pay strategies including paywalls, metered paywalls, and online subscriptions. The 14% who pay for news online represents a 2pp increase on last year, up from 8% in 2018, with our respondents mentioning Kleine Zeitung and Kurier most frequently. Kronen Zeitung remains the largest daily newspaper both according to our survey, and the leading domestic ‘Media-Analyse’ report. This confirms continuing high print newspaper readership in Austria, reporting that 4.3m readers, well over half the adult population, bought daily printed or digital newspapers, in the year mid 2020–2021.
Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign in October 2021 along with many of his closest allies and Karl Nehammer, (also from the ÖVP) then took over as Chancellor in December. The subsequent creation of a separate Ministry for Media Affairs marked a break from the tradition of media policy being run from the Chancellor’s office but it remains to be seen whether it reduces the ruling party’s influence over the media.
The longstanding ORF Director General, Alexander Wrabetz, was not reappointed after 15 years and the choice by the ORF Board of Trustees of Roland Weißmann as his successor was seen as being influenced by the ruling party. The Audience Council of the ORF approved an 8% licence fee increase, to €219 per household.
Google launched its News Showcase in Austria in July and chose seven brands to represent a mixture of local, regional, and national news organisations providing high-quality content. The brands receive funding through the scheme. The amount per title or indeed for Austria has not been divulged, though it is thought to be less than existing national subsidies.2
Commercial media start-ups include Pragmaticus, a monthly magazine and online news outlet financed by Red Bull owner Mateschitz with Prince Michael of Liechtenstein, and Zur Sache, a digital news website explicitly linked to the Austrian People’s Party ÖVP. The new online daily Exxpress markets itself as an ‘upmarket tabloid’, but received a complaint from Austrian Public Prosecutors for an article which included the home addresses of both Florian Klenk, Editor-in-Chief of the left-liberal magazine Falter, and the prosecutor leading the investigation against Sebastian Kurz.
Sergio Sparviero and Josef Trappel
University of Salzburg, in collaboration with Stefan Gadringer, Roland Holzinger, and Karin Kuzmanov
Declining interest and frequency of access affected all news sources. Television continued its long-term decline with a 5pp drop since 2021. Use of newspapers declined but at 42% remains the second highest (after India) across all our 46 countries surveyed.
Pay for online news
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Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Our data shows low and declining trust in news overall and, for all key brands, as well as a low proportion who think the media are independent from political or business or commercial influence. The scandal about government advertising contracts may explain why 20% responding to a Gallup survey believed it possible to ‘buy’ favourable contributions from Austrian commercial media.
% who think media are independent from undue political or government influence (change from 2017)
% who think media are independent from undue business or commercial influence (change from 2017)
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1 https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000134119673/werbung-oeffentlicher-stellen-2021-auf-neuem-hoechststand-225-millionen-euro The total value of public advertising including Central and Regional governments and other public bodies rose from €223m in 2020 to €225m in 2021. ↩