Since the 1960s, the circulation of newspapers in Belgium has been decreasing sharply: the average daily (paid) circulation has more than halved from 2.5 million to 1.2 million between 1960 and 2016. However, this figure masks major differences between the evolution of the newspaper markets in the two parts of the country. Unlike the French-language press, which has been suffering a spectacular decline in readership over the last six decades, newspaper circulation in Flanders has experienced only a modest decline and has more or less stabilised in the last years: Whereas French-language dailies lost about three quarters of their circulation since 1960 (from 1.4 million to 330,477), in Flanders the decline in daily circulation was limited to about one fifth (from 1.1 million to 891,564). The figures demonstrate that the French-language press, which prevailed over the Flemish press until the late 1960s, lost its dominant position on the Belgian newspaper market and now accounts for 27 percent of the total circulation in Belgium.
The decline in readership and circulation, among other drivers, started off a process of concentration in the newspaper market. Ever since, dozens of newspaper titles have disappeared: The number of titles fell from 48 to 15 between 1960 and 2016. Het Volk was the last title to disappear from the market, in 2008, a few years after it was purchased by Corelio (today better known as “Mediahuis”). In the same period of time, the number of independent newspaper publishers shrank from 34 to 5. As a result, newspaper markets in both parts of the country are characterised by high levels of market concentration and shrinking (external) diversity. A research by Steunpunt Media (2015) looked into the effects of media concentration on diversity and revealed a growth in the amount of news articles shared between different newspapers that are owned by the same group between 1983 and 2013.
In Flanders, the market was divided between De Persgroep, Corelio and Concentra until 2013. However, in 2013, a landmark deal between Corelio and Concentra was cleared by the Belgian Competition Authority, merging both newspaper businesses into joint venture Mediahuis. The publisher owns quality newspaper De Standaard (100,053 copies), popular title Het Nieuwsblad (238,804 copies) and regional newspapers Het Belang van Limburg (93,414 copies) and Gazet van Antwerpen (87,834 copies). Not only did the merger create the biggest newspaper publisher in the Flemish market (accounting for 58.9 percent of total circulation), but it also resulted in a duopoly situation. Its competitor De Persgroep accounts for the rest of the market, operating the quality newspaper De Morgen (54,750 copies) and the popular title (and market leader) Het Laatste Nieuws (274,832 copies). In 2017, De Persgroep sold its 50% stake in Mediafin, its joint venture with Groupe Rossel, the largest media group in the French-speaking part of the market, to Roularta, which is mainly active in magazines and regional media. Mediafin operates the financial newspapers De Tijd (41,877 copies) and L’Echo (15,964 copies).
In Wallonia, the press is controlled by Groupe Rossel, IPM and Tecteo publishing a total of 7 newspaper titles. Groupe Rossel is by far the biggest publisher and accounts for 51.9 percent of the market. It owns the quality title Le Soir (65,659 copies) and also publishes popular titles under the company name Sudpresse (90,220 copies). Moreover, it controls 50 percent of Mediafin, which publishes financial newspapers in both parts of the country. The second, much smaller group is IPM, which publishes two titles: quality newspaper La Libre Belgique (35,524 copies) and popular title La Dernière Heure (42,015 copies). In 2013, Corelio, the media company in the Flemish-speaking part of the country, now known as Mediahuis, sold its stake in L’Avenir to utility group Publifin for 26 million euro. L’Avenir, formerly known as Vers L’Avenir, has a circulation of 81,095 copies. Publifin also expressed its interest in purchasing IPM, but the deal was, at least temporarily, called off. However, the financially precarious situation of the French-language press, whose circulation has declined dramatically by more than 35 percent since 2000, may continue to put further consolidation on the agenda.
Media ownership in Belgium is largely determined by language interests (De Bens & Raeymaeckers, 2010). In 1999, the diocese of Namur sold its 74 percent share in the catholic newspaper group Vers l’Avenir to Corelio, which acquired the remaining shares in 2005. However, Corelio’s divestiture of the regional newspaper to Publifin put it back in Walloon hands. Other recent developments include joint investments in which Flemish and Walloon publishers team up to control newspaper titles. The former independent financial titles De Tijd and L’Echo were taken over by Mediafin, a consortium of Groupe Rossel and Roularta. Similarly, Mediahuis and Groupe Rossel participate in Mass Transit Media, which commercialises the free daily Metro (110,594 copies in Flanders, 98,582 copies in Wallonia).
In order to enlarge scale economies, Flemish publishers started international investments, especially in the Netherlands. In 2003 De Persgroep expanded to the Dutch market after acquiring the shares of Het Parool and in 2009 it acquired the titles of media group PCM, which publishes de Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and Algemeen Dagblad (NRC Media was later sold to investment fund Egeria). De Persgroep increased its international presence with the purchase of MECOM, which owns publishers in the Netherlands (regional titles) and Denmark (in 2014, for € 245 million) and Kempen Pers (in 2015). In 2014, Mediahuis completed its purchase of NRC Media for € 90 million and integrated Concentra’s interests in the Dutch Media Groep Limburg; in 2017 its € 243 million bid for the last remaining newspaper title in Dutch ownership De Telegraaf (Telegraaf Media Groep) was accepted. Finally, Groupe Rossel operates the French newspaper publisher La Voix du Nord and has 49.4 percent of the shares of the French free daily 20 Minutes (from Norwegian media group Schibsted). It is interesting to notice that the international expansion of the media groups is aligned across cultural identities: Media companies in the south of the country tend to expand to France, while their competitors in the north of the country were very successful in invading the Dutch market.
The news outlets run by each of these publishing companies are outlined below:
- Mediahuis: De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad, Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen, Metro as free daily (with Rossel).
- De Persgroep: Het Laatste Nieuws, De Morgen.
- Roularta: De Tijd/L’Echo (via Mediafin).
- Groupe Rossel: Le Soir, Sudpresse (La Nouvelle Gazette), Grenz-Echo and De Tijd/L’Echo (via Mediafin), Metro as free daily (with Mediahuis).
- IPM: La Libre Belgique and La Dernière Heure.
- Publifin: L’Avenir.