Regional overview: Local media suffer most

Regional overview: Local media suffer most
The obstacles for local media are dependence on local governments, lack of funding from advertisers, and weaker independence and professionalism.
The sixth flash report of the SEE Media Observatory, focusing on the prospects of local media, revealed that they are the most disadvantaged sector of the media industry in the region.
The sixth flash report of the South East Europe Media Observatory, focusing on the situation of local media and their prospects, revealed that local media suffer most of all from the financial crisis in the Balkan countries, while being unable to fulfill their mission in the community in most cases. Economic hardship, inability to develop their human resources, lack of clear policies or lack of their enforcement, in addition to political and economic pressure and unfavorable ownership patterns, are among the most common challenges presented by the local media landscape in all five countries in this region.
Shrinking market
The advertising market in all countries shows signs of shrinking, while local media are the ones that suffer the most as a result of the overall financial crisis and poor advertising resources. Advertisers often prefer national or regional media rather than small local media, directly affecting the sustainability of local media outlets. The influence of local media in the region is in continuous decline. Even in countries like Croatia, with a rich history of local media, current economic patterns have changed the landscape trends beyond recognition. As Davor Glavas reports: "Nowadays, loyalty of readership is rather unimaginable. This is due not only to new communication platforms that have transformed access to information (including local), but is primarily due to the crisis of the media and advertising market, which has affected local media the most.”
Local media in other countries do not fare any better. In Albania the local newspapers are rather unstable and irregular, while less than 5% of the overall advertising market is estimated to go to local media. In Macedonia regional and local TV stations accounted for respectively 6.64% and 2.55% of the income of the TV industry in 2013. Similarly, in Bosnia 34 local TV stations in 2012 had a share of around 7.7 percent of overall revenues in TV broadcasting. In Croatia the radio advertising market dropped almost 80 percent in 2014 compared to 2009. 
Against this background, many countries point out the importance of public funds to sustain local media, either through designation of specific public funds for media or through state advertising. While in some countries public spending has become a vital resource to local media, this aid has rarely come without a cost. Allocation of funds for local media or distribution of state advertising is rarely transparent and/or fair. Vesna Nikodinovska from Macedonia reports that state advertising often remains the main source of financing for many regional and local media, increasing their dependence and opening channels for direct influence on editorial policy. In other countries, due to specific pattern of media development or failed privatization processes, local governments directly own some media outlets. In Bosnia “these media are placed in a position of direct dependence, given that they receive funds directly from public budgets, with no guarantees of editorial autonomy.” Similarly, in Albania the process of municipalities distributing advertising is hardly transparent and data indicate that often all funds for media advertising go to one particular media outlet, based on the outlet’s editorial policy, its political affiliation, or other economic interests. In Serbia, research has shown that only a small number of municipalities organize public tenders for media subsidies and that local governments tend to disproportionately fund the media they own, resulting in unfair competition to privately owned media. Hence, local governments clearly affect the sustainability of local media, as well as their editorial policies. In fact, in some countries it was not uncommon for local governments to directly support particular content and news stories, with no clear guarantees of preserving newsrooms’ editorial independence.
Policies for local media: lack of vision and enforcement
The policies for developing local media vary from one country to the other. In general though, they tend to be insufficient, unrealistic, or are not properly enforced. Even when the policies are designed to encourage pluralism of media content, it rarely happens that media content is monitored. Croatia is a country with a more advanced policy towards this media sector, establishing the Fund for Promotion of Plurality and Diversity of Electronic Media, which results from three percent of subscription fee for the public broadcaster and goes to production of public interest content on local radio and TV stations. In spite of dubious practices in some cases of the fund, it has become an essential element of support for local media, especially minority media. Sanela Hodzic reports that in Bosnia there are no tax breaks or subsidies for specific public interest content and there is a policy deficit on the overall status of public local broadcasters. In Macedonia the issuing of a high number of licenses has resulted in a fragmented market, while in recent years “there has been a lack of reasonable regulatory policy, concrete ideas and measures for development of community media.” Similarly, in Albania a preference to leave things to the market forces rather than intervene has been clear in the last 20 years. As a result, all countries lack strong mechanisms for encouraging public interest content in local media, while there are rarely incentives or policies that foster development of minority media and community media.
Local media structures and journalism
Apart from the external environment, internal features of local media greatly shape the ability of the media outlets to serve the local community and produce professional journalism. Two such main factors include the ownership pattern and the situation of journalists. In spite of the ownership schemes, a common thread among all countries is the mainly clientelistic relation of media owners to local governments or advertisers. In some cases, such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, the influence of local government is visible, given that municipalities directly own a significant number of media outlets, which leads to direct control of editorial policy or self-censorship of media as a result. 
However, private ownership is by no means a guarantee of independent journalism that caters to public values and interests. In Albania the prevailing model is that of media sustained by funds from the other businesses of their owners, casting grave doubts on the independence of local media, especially when considering the triangle among local businesses, local governments and local media. In Macedonia the media owners are also involved in a clear clientelistic scheme in the context of deepening political polarization in the country: “Media owners changed their political attitudes depending on who was in power, struggling to maintain other supporting businesses, thus choosing survival instead of independence.” 
Against this prevailing trend of imposition of editorial policy from owners and other actors, journalists’ voice and ability to affect the situation is weaker than ever. The economic crisis has hit the human resources sector in local media the hardest, while pressure on local journalists tends to be greater than pressure in national media in almost all countries. In Croatia the widespread model of local media, especially radio, working in “networks” owned by a handful of individuals with the purpose of saving costs, “tends to reduce the proportion of locally produced and locally-oriented programming, thus intervening in the very essence of local media.” In Serbia, Janjic reports that local journalists face greater pressure than their colleagues in national media: “Employees do not enjoy the protection of collective labor contracts, salaries are irregular, and social security contributions are generally not paid.” The situation in Albania is no better: “Struggling to survive, local journalists frequently find themselves working for more than one media outlet in total informality, with no work contract and no benefits. In these conditions, local journalists are in a position similar to that of slaves and you can hardly discuss professionalism or independence.” 
In this context, all country reports questioned the public value of local media content, indicating that research and surveys have shown that there is lack of plurality in voices, public interest content does not prevail, and local media are rather more committed to producing entertainment content and emphasizing the editorial line that is close to the heart of media owners or funders of media outlets. The lack of clear policies that assist development of local media or their selective implementation has not helped in this regard. Furthermore, the ongoing financial crisis has hit local media the hardest, in turn affecting newsrooms and journalists the most, in attempts to cut costs and survive the crisis. It is unclear whether new technological developments are perceived as a threat or as an opportunity for local media in the region. Digital switchover is expected to negatively affect part of local media in some countries, which might not be prepared or cannot afford the costs of transition. On the other hand, the online media might appear as a way out for local media, cutting costs and possibly investing in human resources. The effects of these processes will be visible in a few years. What is clear for the moment is that local media are the most disadvantaged sector of the media industry, suffering dependence on local governments, lack of funding from advertisers, and weaker independence and professionalism. 
Media Ownership and Finances