New ideas in journalism aim to strengthen democracy

The world of communication is in a state of upheaval: Fractured publics turn to different sources of information. Facts are no longer recognised as such, because confidence in the media is dwindling. This poses a threat to the stability of democratic societies. The project “Innovations in Journalism in Democratic Societies: Index, Influence and Prerequisites in an International Comparison”, brings together researchers from five countries who, for the past three years, have been investigating how new forms of journalism can strengthen democracy.

There are many forms of innovative journalism: They include investigative research teams, journalistic start-ups with crowdfunding, data journalism or the creative use of social platforms such as Facebook and YouTube – involving both opportunities and risks. The research team, led in Austria by Andy Kaltenbrunner and Matthias Karmasin (Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Klagenfurt), focuses on the question of the prerequisites for journalistic innovations – and how these can then contribute to the development of democracy.

Traditional media systems are coming under pressure across Europe, and some have had to react very swiftly following severe crises and the loss of thousands of jobs in legacy media: In Spain, for example, nearly 3,000 new digital journalism outlets emerged in the 2010s – from national fact-checking platforms to a host of local digital media. In the UK, leading media such as the BBC with its iPlayer and an innovation lab or the once rather modest The Guardian, which is now one of the largest online news outlets in the world, have demonstrated how digital transformation can succeed. In Germany, ARD and ZDF are reaching entirely new, young target groups with their Funk project, groups that linear public broadcasting already seemed to have lost. In Austria, digital audience engagement projects in traditional publishing houses such as the Standard or the Media Lab of the Austria Press Agency with its AI focus served as interesting benchmarks. Fledgling projects such as the investigative platform Dossier or the successful podcast Erklär mir die Welt (Explain the world to me) demonstrate that start-up culture is indeed possible in Austrian journalism. Altogether, 20 researchers conducted a hundred case studies in the five participating countries.

The findings so far have also led to recommendations for media policy and the media themselves in Austria. “Unfortunately, funding for the media has been handled in a very antiquated manner for many years, often indirectly and even in a politically non-transparent way through the allocation of advertisements,” Andy Kaltenbrunner notes: “What is needed now is targeted innovation funding in journalism, especially for the development of completely new projects. At the moment, however, almost all public money goes towards maintaining the existing stock. This will not make us competitive against international platforms.”

The main project partner of this large international study is the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (D) together with the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (CH) and the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences / University of Klagenfurt and the research company Medienhaus Wien in Austria. The project is supported to the tune of 1.3 million euros by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Austrian Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research (FWF) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF).