Austria: tabloid media and politicians getting along wonderfully

Politicians curry favour with Austria’s powerful tabloid media. But the relationship is by no means one-sided.

Coffeehouse in Vienna (© picture-alliance/dpa
Coffeehouse in Vienna (© picture-alliance/dpa
Observers attributed Sebastian Kurz’s victory in the 2017 parliamentary elections to his anti-migration and anti-Islam election campaign striking a chord with voters - even though neither economic data nor the general mood in the country gave any cause for panic. However, his political messages, with their clear enemy stereotypes, were a perfect fit for the tabloid media, which happily seized on them and reinforced them.

Kurz is not the first Austrian politician to benefit from this mechanism: the right-wing populist Jörg Haider was also a virtuoso at playing the tabloid press. And for years the Social Democrats fed the top dogs among the tabloid media with billions in state advertising.

Austria’s governments come and go, but the dominance of the tabloid press and its influence remains constant. The powerful tabloid newspapers have dominated Austria’s media landscape since the post-war period. The Kronen Zeitung was at times Europe’s most powerful newspaper - in proportion to size of the population. Since 2000 the free papers Österreich and Heute have also gained a foothold and risen in the tabloid market. Selling advertising space to political parties and ministries is a key source of income for many Austrian media companies.

Another particularity of the Austrian media landscape is the dominance of large publishing groups. The powerful Raiffeisen Bank and various private foundations with close ties to the Catholic Church are among the major shareholders in these companies.

This financially powerful environment makes it difficult for new independent media to gain a foothold in Austria's media landscape. Newer products like the monthly magazine Datum have managed to carve out only small niches for themselves in recent years, despite offering high-quality journalism. Despite their high quality, newer products like the monthly magazine Datum have failed to break out of their niches in recent years.

But even the large publishing companies have been hit hard by the decline of the advertising market. Publishing group News has had to let a fifth of its employees go, and Styria Media Group has discontinued both the print and online versions of its business daily Wirtschaftsblatt.

Online pay models are a relatively recent phenomenon. Dailies like Die Presse and the Salzburger NachrichtenSalzburger Nachrichten put some content from their print editions behind paywalls, while at Falter and the monthly magazine Datum all of it is. NZZ.at, whose content was accessible online and on subscription only, failed to achieve success and was discontinued in April 2017.

The left-liberal daily Der Standard and the liberal-conservative daily Die Presse dominate the quality newspaper segment. However, neither of the two can even begin to compete with the tabloids in terms of influence on public opinion.

The public broadcaster ORF continues to dominate the television market. ORF, which operates four TV channels, reached ten times as many viewers in 2015 as the most popular private channel, Puls 4, which is owned by the ProSiebenSat.1 Media company. ORF is subject to political influence because the parties, via the broadcaster's board of trustees, are involved in the selection of its chairman. This influence, however, is not apparent in ORF's journalistic content. Since May 2018 the former FPÖ politician Norbert Steger has been chairman of the ORF board of trustees. He and his party colleagues had accused ORF among other things of lacking objectivity in their reporting and of spreading fake news. According to Steger the staff members responsible for this could be dismissed as a result.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 11 (2018)

Last updated: May 2018
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