At a time when business managers demand profitability from journalists and the journalistic mission is often forgotten, Daniel Vaarik says journalism as a function need not die, but the newspaper as an institution needs to be reconsidered.
Daniel Vaarik is a former journalist, past head of the Government Communications office, and former director of Hill & Knowlton Estonia. He currently works as a consultant.
There are roughly 900,000 Estonian speakers and the nation still has four daily newspapers (not to mention its many weekly and monthly periodicals) with annual subscriptions costing 126-213 euros. An Estonian’s average monthly net income is somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 euros. Given that situation, how can four national daily newspapers coexist? Do Estonians love newspapers so much they’ll sacrifice for them?
Estonia is one of the smallest fully functional countries in a world which is not an island. So in that respect one could keep wondering what’s up with this country, anyway. How can they keep such a small place running at all? Do we have enough taxpayers to support anything? But we still seem to get by – and quite nicely.
There certainly are economic limitations to the newspaper industry related to market size, but I think it is possible to have a decent newspaper around – and more than one. We also have a culture of newspaper reading and Estonia’s recent history is very much defined by journalists and newspapers.
For example, when I was a journalism student at the university of Tartu in 1991, journalists were superstars of the revolution, along with writers, actors, singers and so on. Newspaper reading was popular then, too, though there was still no full market economy, and information technology had yet not shifted to the distribution of free news through the internet.
An Estonian writer once remarked, “Estonia isn’t big enough to have enough journalists for more than one good newspaper, so we have many average papers. So Estonians subscribe to all of the papers and read by byline instead of by headline.” That was 1995, and certainly few can afford to subscribe to multiple papers in today’s climate. How do Estonians read newspapers today?
I guess that if one thinks of a newspaper in a heavy and traditional way, that it has to have all the bells and whistles, the marketing manager needs a car and the director needs a leather chair and a big salary, and all the departments are present in a glass office building, then yes, it would be very difficult to have many such institutions in a small country.
But at the same time I believe that a newspaper does not have to be all that. My own blog [memokraat.ee] has 3,500 unique readers on a monthly basis and I write one column every week or so. I believe there is plenty of room for quality content provided on a bit leaner framework and without a hefty profit margin.
I also serve as head of the supervisory board for the independent public policy think tank, PRAXIS. Sometimes I look at the people there and I see that if they trained themselves a bit in writing, they would produce a pretty good journalistic site. Of course, the think tank’s agenda is research, and the writing they produce would not constitute a full newspaper, but their writing would bring about thinking, analysis, and discussion. If properly guided, I would term that journalistic content.
My point is that journalism as a function does not need to die, but the newspaper as an institution really needs to be reconsidered: which parts are essential and which parts are not worth it?
Recently an essay in the daily Postimees pointed out that Estonia’s most experienced journalists stopped being journalists long ago – they tend to leave journalism for more lucrative sectors. You are among that group. What is it going to take to bring seasoned people like you back to journalism? Or has the train left the station, never to return?
It is true that the best people often leave journalism immediately after they have become good at what they do. But then again, we have very good teachers working for salaries much less than those of journalists. I believe that it’s not only about money, but about the mental atmosphere in the newsrooms.
I suspect that these days the old institutions are staggering under the weight of loans; business managers demand profitability also from journalists, and the journalistic mission as such is forgotten. I actually spoke to a newspaper manager who told me quite happily that “finally journalists in my newspaper have started to understand that they need to sell the newspaper.”
To me this sounds scary, because I have always thought that a good journalist will be paid because he does not write to sell and that is the very reason he might sell. But it seems that this necessary idealism does not characterize the newspaperman’s spirit today. I doubt that I would ever return to journalism in a traditional way myself; I do not like the institutionalized media machinery today. At the same time, I might take part in less traditional journalistic approaches.
The daily Eesti Päevaleht has taken a turn toward publishing more essay and thought. That seems rather refreshing in a marketplace that seems bent on pursuing speed and quantity of news. Will this more noble strategy pay off for Eesti Päevaleht? Or will we see them give up and return to the fast-and-furious news model?
Unfortunately, I do not think that it will pay off at this time, because it takes time to build capabilities, and I doubt there is patience for that among the investors. I have seen Eesti Päevaleht improving its level of analysis throughout the last year or so, but it is still not there. The analysis has become better in quality, but it is still not stable and trustworthy enough. It will take more time, but I’m not sure there is much time and money left.
You’ve written that “there’s a perception that one media channel can’t criticize another.” It does seem when it comes to competition in Estonia, everyone tries to tiptoe around the issue. One doesn’t regularly see competitors (at least middle management) dining with each other like in the west. Will that change?
I wrote that blog post and I really think I touched a very important point. The only feedback I got at the time was journalists quarreling with each other in the post’s comment section, proving my point that they don’t know how to take or give criticism. So I’m actually very happy that you mentioned that post, since now I know there are some people out there who share my view.
It’s a major problem in Estonia that people think competition is war. Things just aren’t so black and white. Competition can also mean creating something good and not attacking each other on a daily basis (or remaining silent for fear that if you say something, you’ll be attacked yourself). But this isn’t just a media problem: in politics and business the prevailing understanding of competition is a full frontal attack.
You’ve mentioned a Blue Ocean Strategy (“create new market space making competition irrelevant”) as the antidote for what ails the Estonian media. But do you really think that’s possible in a market competing for fewer than a million readers?
Of course it is possible. For example, an experienced, witty and good journalist who can pose very sharp questions to the prime minister cannot easily be copied. It requires a special person, who would also probably be liked by readers. So why not find and hire such a person? Why not invest in that person? I’m not a particular advocate of Blue Ocean or any other branded strategy, but I mention it as an example of how we might begin to think in new ways about competition.