The last year has been marked by several incidents indicating undue interference by politicians into news media, along with new policy measures to increase support to the industry and improve transparency over public sector advertising contracts.
In 2022, evidence of murky relationships between politicians and news media leaders emerged. Matthias Schrom, the Head of TV News at the public service media ORF, resigned after the Corruption Prosecutor's Office (WKStA) released WhatsApp chats demonstrating his willingness to accommodate complaints from former Vice Chancellor Strache about unfavourable coverage. Around the same time, an investigation into alleged bribery and corruption involving Thomas Schmid, a former Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) top official in the Finance Ministry, revealed conversations with Rainer Nowak, the former editor-in-chief, publisher, and managing director of the newspaper Die Presse. In these conversations, Schmid expressed gratitude and support for Nowak's ambitions to become ORF's Director General.
In the event, the ORF appointed a different Director General, Roland Weißmann, viewed by critics as a highly politicised choice, although the governing parties are entitled to appoint the majority of the board, who then appoint the director. ORF’s funding system is set to be changed by January 2024, following a decision by the constitutional court. The current TV licence fee, based on the presence of a TV or radio set in a household, will be replaced by a household levy similar to the German and Swiss models. Additionally, ORF has to cut costs, by €300m, before 2026.
The government has also been reviewing its wider media policy as it applies to the press. After recent scandals, there are new rules aiming at increasing transparency about how advertising by public institutions (worth €225m in 2021) is allocated to different publishers, following suggestions that political parties and leaders can influence coverage by leveraging advertising spend. Politicians’ constant attempts at influencing the press were cited in the 2023 Press Freedom Index from RSF, where Austria was ranked 29th, far from the 11th place it had in 2018.
The media policy package supplements existing subsidies of around €8m pa with an extra €20–25m pa aimed at supporting quality journalism, linked to factors such as the number of journalists and foreign correspondents, and effective gender equality plans. The package also seeks to promote content diversity by supporting greater reporting of regional events, along with EU and international topics. A new subsidy of €70m was created for digital transformation projects at news companies. The scheme may continue, although the amount of future funding remains unclear.
Austria still has a high level of readership of print (40% in our survey) but as print declines, some brands are placing their hopes on digital subscriptions. A minority (14%) of our survey respondents report paying for news online, with the main titles mentioned being Die Presse, Kronen Zeitung, and Der Standard. Data from the Austrian Circulation Control (ÖAK) office show Die Presse with nearly 60,000 subscribers, of which just over 40% are digital, Kronen Zeitung with 523,000 subscribers, 6% of which are digital, and Der Standard with 46,000 subscribers, of which 24% are digital. However, among our respondents paying for online news, 30% say they get a reduced or free rate.
The overall picture for newspapers is difficult, faced with rising paper and energy costs and a 5% drop in 2022 in subscription sales for the top ten dailies. The impact was evident in April 2023, when two prominent cases of struggling newspapers emerged: Kurier announced the layoff of about 10% of its 200 staff, while Kleine Zeitung offered voluntary redundancy to all editorial staff.1
Red Bull, which owns the television channel Servus TV, ranked third for weekly use in our survey, is now estimated to have a brand value of nearly €6 billion, making it the most valuable brand in Austria. However, the company lost its founder and main owner when Dietrich Mateschitz died in October 2022.
An April 2022 Gallup survey of 1,000 respondents found that, while 63% had a very or quite high-level trust in Austrian media’s reporting on the war in Ukraine, only 45% considered it independent of the government's position; with 31% either not trusting (14%) or sceptical (17%) of the reporting. Reporting of COVID-19 has also been contentious, with similar levels of distrust both of the vaccine and the reporting. One right-leaning digital-born site wochenblick.at was criticised by the Press Council for multiple ethics violations in its reporting on COVID-19, including an article arguing that the immune systems of billions of people were at risk from the vaccines.
Sergio Sparviero and Josef Trappel, with additional research by Stefan Gadringer and Pauline Reichenberger
University of Salzburg
Austrians still have one of highest rates of daily newspaper readership in the world, but the proportion accessing weekly has fallen by 30 percentage points since 2015. TV audiences are also down significantly, particularly with younger people.
Pay for online news
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Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in media has seen an 8pp drop since the 2021 COVID-19 peak, probably hit by the recent scandals involving politicians and prominent media personalities. But this only brings trust levels back close to the 2019 figure. Trust levels by brand are very similar to last year, with public broadcaster ORF News the most trusted brand, closely followed by Der Standard and Die Presse.