Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

Concentration of Ownership in the Belgian Daily Press

Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

Concentration of Ownership in the Belgian Daily Press

Article excerpt

Belgium is witnessing a growing tendency toward press ownership concentration especially among regional and provincial newspapers.

Press concentration is a world-wide phenomenon. This does not mean, however, that it is the result of similar factors in different countries. Sometimes, it is; sometimes, it isn't. In general, concentration operates in at least three directions: horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Although all three forms of concentration occur in the Belgian media landscape, there is a growing trend toward horizontal integration of press enterprises in specific geographic areas-a concentration type that is legally prohibited in many other countries (among them, for instance, the U.S.).

This study provides the basic data which illustrate this concentration and briefly discusses its economic and political implications.

Basic facts

Since 1970, the number of Belgian newspaper titles have decreased from 43 to 35. Also circulations have dropped by more than 10% to about two million copies in 1986. The French-language press situation is most alarming. While the circulation of Flemish dailies seems to have stabilized in recent years, the circulation of French-language papers has decreased further (see Table I).1 As a result of the economic crisis in Belgium and the decrease in spending power, many readers find newspapers too expensive. The price of a daily has increased from 3.50 francs in 1970, to 10 francs in 1975, and 22 francs (55 cents) today.

In 1970, there were still 19 newspaper publishers; at present there are only 14 left. Many family enterprises have been taken over by the business world, mainly banks and financial holdings (such as the GB, the BBL and the KB). Also French media tycoons like Robert Hersant, Editions Mondiales and Hachette have their eye on the press market, especially in the Belgian French-speaking South.

Nevertheless, there still are some prosperous press concerns considering expansion and new initiatives. For instance, the VUM (Flemish Publishing Company), which publishes the popular newspapers HeI Nieuwsblad and De Gentenaar, and De Standaard, a so-called 'quality' newspaper read by the Dutch-speaking political and economic elites, is one of the most profitable Belgian press concerns at this moment.

Apart from this press group, only two-not coincidentally, regional-newspapers go against the trend and enjoy a considerable increase in their circulation: Met Belang van Limburg in the province of Limburg, and Vers l'Avenir in the Walloon region. But CIM figures for 19861987 indicate that, even in these cases, a saturation point has been reached.2

The system of indirect and (since 1974) direct state subsidies-officially implemented "to maintain diversity in opinion newspapers"-hardly alters these trends. On the contrary, by excluding the ideologically more diversified weekly press from direct press aid, one can observe a narrowing rather than an expansion of the pluralistic opinions expressed in the press. Moreover, the indirect subsidies system's ability to maintain diversity can be questioned as well. The tariffs for postal subscriptions, for instance, has gone up more than 700% since 1974. Also, the weekly press is denied postal delivery on Saturdays.3

Regional Characteristics

Regional concentration tendencies in the Belgian press can be called alarming.4 Of the 24 French-language newspapers, 16 are clearly regional in nature and backing. It would be more appropriate to call them provincial or local papers. In Frenchspeaking Belgium, only La Libre Belgique and Le Soir can be called national papers. The conservative and Christian-Democratic establishment paper, La Libre Belgique, attracts readers from all over Belgium. Le Soir is called a national "quality" paper for its independent coverage of local and national events. However, it is mainly distributed in the Brussels metropolitan area and in the Walloon part of the province of Brabant. …

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