By Florian Kappelsberger
In a country of 8.9 million, Austria’s media landscape is naturally smaller than its counterparts in Germany or the United States. But it is dense for its size and quite complex – a labyrinth of political trenches, personal allegiances and the pitfalls of public funding. In the last few years alone, Austrian media found themselves again and again at the centre of nation-wide scandals and international attention, from the Ibiza tapes to ongoing investigations surrounding former chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP).
For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to grasp the variety of newspapers, magazines and online outlets, as well as the outsized role of the Boulevardpresse. Is the Alpine republic really a “tabloid democracy”, as one pundit quipped? What drives the government-sponsored advertising? And how are the country’s media evolving right now?
Austria’s press is commonly divided into two categories: Qualitätsmedien (i.e. quality media) and the tabloids. Among the former, the most widely read national dailies are Kurier, the centre-right Die Presse and the liberal Der Standard, immediately recognisable by its salmon-coloured paper. Furthermore, both the Viennese weekly Falter and the news magazine Profil are known for their investigative research revealing political misconduct and corruption, most recently in the Wolf/Schmid affair.
Looking at the numbers, however, the media landscape is dominated by the tabloid press. The Kronen Zeitung remains the country’s most popular newspaper with a print circulation of 696,947 copies – roughly five times as much as the most widely read quality paper, Kurier. According to a recent study, Krone even reaches 25% of Austria’s population in total. It is rivalled by the free daily Heute, which has a larger circulation in Vienna, as well as the tabloid Österreich. These papers have considerable influence on public opinion, leading Innsbruck political scientist Fritz Plasser to describe the Second Republic as a “tabloid democracy“.
The economic dominance of these few heavyweights makes it nearly impossible for smaller publications to establish themselves in Austria. Nonetheless, recent years have seen the emergence of young and dynamic media outlets such as the magazine biber, the investigative platform Dossier or – not to forget – Metropole.
A complex system of media funding
Another peculiarity of Austrian media is its reliance on public funding, in the form of either general subsidies or sponsored ads. While the former is tightly regulated, the latter remains largely obscure. This has sometimes resulted in a tacit quid pro quo: The government books advertisements with selected newspapers, expecting benevolent press coverage in return. The Presseclub Concordia, an independent association of Austrian journalists, has criticised this practice as “non-transparent, hostile to quality [journalism] and susceptible to corruption”.
Developed by chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ), this system was perfected under Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP): While subsidies to the press were cut to €8.7 million, government spending on advertisements has reached an all-time high of €47.3 million. In an ongoing investigation, Kurz’s circle is suspected of funnelling tax payers’ money to the tabloid Österreich in exchange for rigged polls and glowing coverage. These revelations saw public trust plummet in the past months, with 57% percent of respondents thinking that most or all private media are venal.
Meanwhile, the entire industry is reeling under the impact of the pandemic. Independent outlets have been hit particularly hard, losing crucial advertising revenues from businesses under pressure from successive lockdowns. The government crisis support has largely favoured tabloids such as Krone or Heute based on pre-pandemic circulation, to the disadvantage of the quality press… Meanwhile, magazines and online media have been by-passed altogether.
At the same time, Austria is witnessing a revival of openly partisan media. In February, the ÖVP’s parliamentary group launched the online outlet Zur Sache, combining positive coverage of the turquoise-led coalition with harsh criticism of the opposition. This model of owned media has been pioneered by the SPÖ since 2016 with its blog Kontrast as well as by the FPÖ site Unzensuriert. In all of these cases, the immediate party affiliation remains unmentioned on the website or social media presence, at least at first sight.
In a similar vein, a new brand of online tabloid media with clear political allegiances has developed. In the summer of 2020, former deputy Peter Pilz presented his platform ZackZack, conceived as a leftist response to the right-wing populism of Krone. Even more recently, Richard Schmitt and Eva Schütz introduced the digital outlet exxpress – a blend of conservative columns, outraged headlines and scathing attacks on the (supposed) woke zeitgeist.
The founders assert neutrality, but their personal ties leave room for doubt: Schütz herself was a middle level civil servant in the ÖVP-led Ministry of Finances, while her husband is a major donor to the Volkspartei. Chief editor Schmitt, on the other hand, is known for his cordial ties to HC Strache and the far-right FPÖ, which caused him to lose his position at Krone…
Amidst growing polarisation, economic fragility and the fallout of several scandals, opposition parties are increasingly vocal in calling for a radical reform of the public funding process. Fritz Hausjell, professor of media history at the University of Vienna, argues in favour of limiting public advertisements to €10 million per year while drastically increasing subsidies. If this were done, he told der Standard, “[the issue of] illegitimate control over politically motivated press coverage will practically resolve itself.”
As the turquoise-green coalition has yet to respond to these urgent questions, it remains to be seen how Austria’s media system will emerge from the unprecedented crisis of the pandemic.
Logos: © Kurier, Die Presse, der Standard, Falter, profil, Heute, Kronen Zeitung, Österreich; biber, Dossier, Metropole, Datum; ZackZack, Kontrast, zur Sache, exxpress, unzensuriert