Belgium has two distinct media markets: French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders. Publishers’ pivot to digital subscriptions seems to be paying off, even if online audience growth and paying for news may have hit their peak.
In Belgium, the slowing interest in news after the COVID-19-bump persists. The constant need for information about the energy crisis and war in Ukraine is less acute than during the pandemic. Industry figures from the Centre of Information on the Media (CIM) show, taking newspapers’ combined audience across print and digital together, that their audience declined by 2.7%. The picture differs by region. In Flanders, all newspaper brands except De Tijd see their combined reach decline. In Wallonia, 'quality' newspapers, particularly La Libre, Le Soir and L'Echo, are on the rise – although this is likely to be caused by a better representation of respondents from Brussels in CIM’s updated methodology. Overall, however, we are simply seeing combined online and offline reach for newspaper and news magazine brands returning to pre-COVID levels.1
Surprisingly, this drop in readership has not led to a fall in turnover. Major media groups like Mediahuis, DPG Media, and Roularta remain profitable in the face of challenges. Mediahuis, for example, had slowing subscription growth and increasing costs last year, but still managed to increase turnover due to its expansion strategy; more foreign acquisitions, sharing back-office costs across subsidiaries, and increased subscription income meant a reduced but healthy profit margin. Clearly, relying on higher subscription revenues alone is not enough, and might not be in the future, as according to this year’s Digital News Report data, paying for news is declining slightly – with 16% of Flemish and 14% of Wallonian news users paying for news in the last year, down from 18% in both regions in 2022. The top brands Digital News Report survey respondents mention paying for online are Het Laatste Nieuws, Le Soir, and De Morgen.
News organisations are also responding to the popularity of Instagram and TikTok by starting their own channels. VRT and HLN led the way last year and now the ‘quality’ news brand De Standaard has entered the TikTok arena. The challenge is that, unlike Facebook, these platforms do not send traffic direct to news sites, so it is unclear how this bet will turn out. The same is true for podcasts. At a time when our survey shows podcast use for news stagnating in Belgium, some key news brands are arriving late to the podcast party. De Tijd and VRT with their respective daily current affairs podcasts De 7 and Het Kwartier are just a couple of striking examples.
Meanwhile, the Flemish government is taking steps to support digitalisation, with its innovative use of EU COVID-19 recovery funding to grant €35m to make the Flemish media sector more resistant to big tech. Project calls cover the better use of data, combating disinformation, and transforming local broadcasters.2 One planned project is a partnership between the CIM and multiple media companies for a cross-media audience metrics system.
These forms of digital support coincide with questioning of the much larger print subsidies. After years of criticism led by online-only news organisations, the government has commissioned an audit of its support scheme for the distribution of printed newspapers. This follows a scandal about the awarding of these contracts. The government’s recent decision to cut this print subsidy from €170m to €120m demonstrates that the policy has passed its sell-by date.
While new support schemes aim to secure the future of the media sector in a ‘post-truth’ and ‘fiercely digital’ world, several newsrooms are under pressure. French-language public broadcaster RTBF itself hit the headlines in February 2023 after a former RTBF journalist took his life. The event triggered an outcry with employees and journalism organisations denouncing management for an uncaring push to digital first. This coincided with results from an independent study reporting that 38% of RTBF’s employees said they were completely exhausted.3 Similar stories emerged at the news division of Flemish public broadcaster VRT NWS, where journalists asked for more attention to wellbeing at work, a reduced workload, and increased resources.
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pay for online news
Flemish speaking 16%
French speaking 14%
Listen to podcast in the last month
Flemish speaking 27%
French speaking 28%
Trust in news overall
Flemish speaking 51%
French speaking 36%
Trust in news I use
Flemish speaking 58%
French speaking 43%
The COVID-19 trust bump has now completely evaporated, with overall trust in news back to its pre-pandemic levels. Flemish-speaking Flanders (51%) and French-speaking Wallonia (36%) continue to feature a significant trust gap. In both markets, the respective public broadcasters VRT and RTBF remain the most trusted news sources, even though various commercial organisations feature similarly high trust scores.
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1 P. Laloux, ‘Le Belge lit moins de journaux, sauf "Le Soir"’, Le Soir, 13 Oct. 2022.
2 Department of Culture, Youth and Media of the Flemish Government. https://www.vlaanderen.be/cjm/nl/nieuws/35-miljoen-voor-relanceplan-mediasector
3 J. Baloni, ‘La grande fatigue de la RTBF après le suicide d'un journaliste’, L’Echo, 18 Feb. 2023.