On March 3, IPI held a launch event for the new IPI Turkey Digital Media Report: ‘The New Mainstream Media’ is Rising (And It Seeks Support). The pioneering report, prepared by IPI Turkey National Committee Vice Chair Emre Kızılkaya and journalist Burak Ütücü, studies the current capacity and needs of independent digital journalism in Turkey.

The report contains extensive new quantitative research into the reach of online media in Turkey and analyses the negative impact of search algorithms by Google and other tech platforms, which appear to favour pro-government media, restricting the growth of independent outlets. Qualitative interviews with top independent editors reveal key challenges to reaching larger audiences, including a lack of key technical and human resources despite strong innovation.

During the online event, report authors Emre Kızılkaya and Burak Ütücü joined IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen and IPI Turkey Programme Director Renan Akyavaş to discuss the report’s findings.

The webinar started with IPI Deputy Director Griffen giving a brief introduction to the report and the participants of the event.  IPI Turkey Programme Director Renan Akyavaş explained how the report falls within the IPI’s National Committee vision in Turkey and IPI’s global objective for the future of quality journalism.  Akyavaş noted that, in addition to its primary agenda of promoting press freedom, IPI’s Free Turkey Journalists campaign will give more weight to promoting independent and quality journalism in the following years. “This is why this report falls perfectly within the IPI’s global vision for upcoming years”, Akyavaş said.

Following introductory remarks, journalist Emre Kızılkaya presented the research methodology and its findings. While pointing out that average journalism in Turkey has never been at a high level except from a few exceptional individual journalists such as Uğur Mumcu and Abdi İpekçi, Kızılkaya then raised the question of whether the “new mainstream media” rising will manage to replace the mainstream media of the past in the current digital transition. He further explained that the report tries to find an answer to this question.

Panellists highlighted new statistics and datasets comparing independent and pro-government media outlets and their reach to the audience, noting that independent media’s digital reach is catching up with that of pro-government media. Kızılkaya added that independent media outlets are more diverse but are also more fragmented than the pro-government outlets.

Kızılkaya noted that, during the pandemic, independent media boosted engagement around news content on social media “up to 100%” (read ). He also underlined that while the social media engagement of pro-government media has risen, independent media still has 16.5% more interactions on social media.

Nevertheless, the report shows that independent media faces clear challenges in reaching audiences and monetizing their content online. One of the most striking findings of the report is that, as Kızılkaya explained, pro-government media are heavily favoured by the algorithms of big tech giants such as Google whenever news-related keywords and trending queries are searched. He stressed that this bias could have dire implications as this may amplify disinformation and propaganda.

Associate researcher and journalist Burak Ütücü later elaborated on interviews conducted with local media outlets and the specific challenges they have faced in the process of digitalization. Ütücü pointed out the lack of competition amongst local media was seen as one of the main challenges hindering progress, as local Tigris news agency representative Ali Yılmaz said in the report.

Ütücü also stressed that the dependency of local media outlets on public ad revenues has a devastating impact on local news’ production of critical and independent news content since the government-controlled Press Advertising Agency (BİK) has the full authority on distribution of public ads to the media.

However, the study shows that neither national nor local independent media plan to give up despite the economic and discriminative challenges they face both from the government and from the big tech companies. According to Ütücü, Manavgat Haber, a local news site, plans to overcome this problem by producing original news content and switching to a reader-first revenue model in 2021.

And in order to address these challenges the report recommends the following:

  1. Connect and unite digital journalism players: Turkey’s independent media landscape is too fragmented. Those who are committed to quality journalism should unite and combine their forces. Such a nationwide coalition of journalism would not only share digital newsmaking skills and resources with each other for more effectiveness and efficiency but can also engage with digital giants and the government as an alliance to demand fair treatment by digital platforms.
  2. Provide key skills and resources for digital media: Providing the tools for sustainable journalism, in the long run, should be a priority for media development. Turkey’s digital media have great potential, but they need access to the human resources and services, such as digital product development and business operations, that can enhance their digital competitiveness. The new structures and parameters for effective resource-sharing and fair access to the services and products required for quality journalism should be determined through more dialogue and cooperation between all stakeholders.
  3. Create an ecosystem for independent digital media to flourish: The negative impact of search engines and social networks on Turkey’s independent media must be monitored and more effectively countered. Platforms, mainly through their algorithms, must treat news outlets transparently and with fairness, prioritizing the public interest in their decisions that affect the distribution of news content. Transparency over algorithms and take-down requests are ever more important given the new demands made on the digital platforms by the October 2020 amendments to the law on social media.  Efforts must continue to improve the negative political environment for independent journalism in Turkey, which is characterized by self-censorship and politically driven prosecutions.
  4. The European Union is currently developing its regulatory rules for digital platforms through the Digital Services Act. Principles and policies endorsed will impact regulatory regimes in candidate countries and beyond.  It is essential therefore that the EU strikes the correct balance in ensuring a fair, open, transparent, and viable platform for independent media to operate.