Hungary: Who Damaged The Free Press?

December 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

A recent opinion piece, published on the EJO website, offered a rosy picture of the state of media freedom and of democracy in Hungary – a view that few analysts would share; in fact, many would argue that both media freedom and democracy have in recent years been deconsolidating and Hungary is being Putinised. This post will attempt to add what I believe is missing from the previous article.

The author, Szabolcs Tóth, senior writer for the pro-government newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, suggested that “foreign media ownership distorted a small market and left it highly vulnerable” and that “a newly emerging free press in Hungary was put on the wrong course by western investors. It was a course that lead to at least some of the current troubles here.”

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Hungary: Western Investors Damaged Our Free Press

November 25, 2014 by · 3 Comments 

Recent stories about Hungary in the western press have given the impression that Budapest, the capital, has been descending into a totalitarianism not seen in Europe since the invading horsemen of Genghis Khan. Criticism of the centralizing policies and authoritarian style of Viktor Orban, the prime minister, usually includes a comparison to Vladimir Putin. Orban is depicted as a ‘Victator’, engaged in a full scale war against press freedom. But let me offer you a different news angle. A story about how western investors stifled Hungary’s free press for decades after 1989.

‘Viktor Orban Steers Hungary Toward Russia, 25 Years After Fall of the Berlin Wall’, proclaimed the New York Times recently. This was only one of many articles suggesting that Hungary is on the verge of becoming a Russian satellite state.

If Hungary’s news industry is drifting towards the Putinist model of a controlled state media it has a long way to go. The most popular online news sites in Hungary, and around half of the main newspapers and broadcasters, are vehemently critical of the government. Something you cannot really call a totalitarian media landscape. However, they are all struggling with vanishing advertisers and are financially overexposed to their owners’ business interests and government PR spending.

This story is about how foreign media ownership distorted a small market and left it highly vulnerable when search engines hijack ad revenues, and social media demolish traditional news distribution.

The New York Times headline was right to refer to the fall of the Berlin wall. The year 1989 was exactly the time when a newly emerging free press in Hungary was put on the wrong course by western investors. It was a course that led to at least some of the current troubles here.

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Panic Over Profit: US Newspapers Mistreat Readers

November 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Call it desperation, or panic, but in a bid to hang on to every last cent of profit, regional and local newspapers in the US are neglecting their most loyal customers – print subscribers, according to Matt DeRienzo, a former editor at Digital First Media, writing in the recent edition of the Nieman Lab’s newsletter. DeRienzo believes that in a bid to maintain profits as print circulations fall, local legacy media organisations have generally increased subscription prices and become less accessible to their readers. “Local newspapers have gotten really good at mistreating their most loyal customers,” he wrote. Read more

Media Stars, Metrics and Utility in Journalism

May 26, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

The Tow-Knight program in Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York is coming to an end. In the last three and a half months, we argued with people from Kickstarter and Contently about who exactly is going to finance journalism in the future. Brandon Diamond showed us innovations in the huge Huffington Post Lab, and Julia Reischel explained her ideas for her local blog Watershed Post. The giants from Facebook tried to convince us about the potential their marketing had for journalism, and the paywall-for-everybody-pioneers from TinyPass argued that they too had the solution.

Meeting these companies and talking to them have been a core part of our own project and the lectures at City University. There are three issues we talked about a lot in many of our presentations and debates. It was quite clear that the media in my home country, Germany, is very different. In this article, I highlight some of the key differences.

1. Journalism as a service

Our professor/director Jeff Jarvis is a strong advocate of the following hypothesis: “Journalism” describes a practice that is more than just a fourth estate, more than the act of shedding light on underappreciated topics. Instead, journalism can be “a service, enabling the user to live a better life.”
But what does that exactly mean, “better?” “Informed faster” as is the case with the well-curated newsbits of cir.ca? Or a BuzzFeed-like “more entertained?” Probably.

There are also sites that offer even more services for a specific target group, like the Facebook page “Jersey Shore Hurricane News,” which was put up after Hurricane Sandy. To this day, people affected by the catastrophe can find useful news about how to deal with its consequences. Should somebody who only looks through the comments on a site like this and who curates the postings be called a journalist? I tend to say yes.

But this is a phenomenon that in many ways has been limited to the U.S. The German media environment can learn from this and should adapt a broader conception and definition of journalism.

CUNY-TowKnight-WordMark2. Personality brands drive innovation

Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight.com try to fulfill this service-oriented promise of journalism. They also point to another phenomena: New journalism ventures in the US nowadays rely heavily on well-established personality brands. There are several more examples, apart from ex-WaPo columnist Ezra Klein (Vox) and 2012 election-hero Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight), which David Carr sums up here.

This kind of persona-cult does not seem to work in Germany, because people hardly remember projects like Zoomr, a news-website marketed by ageing news-anchor Ulrich Wickert. And TV-personality Cherno Jobatey’s efforts to create a German version of the Huffington Post were reviewed rather patronizingly and critically.

From my understanding, journalism in Germany is seen more as a joint project of a team — and that there are less journalism-personalities in general who could monetize their popularity at new places.

3. New metrics are possible

I don’t want to know the number of German editorial offices where managers still think that unique users and a good Google Ranking count as the holy grails of online journalism. Or do management boards nowadays at least value followers and shares as acceptable metrics?

Here again, the US debate seems much more elaborate to me. The key take-away of this Contently article, for example: Sharing does not at all mean that the sharer actually read the piece. So why not put the share button at the end of article, therefore guaranteeing that the sharer at least scrolled all the way down? Why not count the number of shared quotes, thereby getting an idea if the reader actually thought about the content?

The tools to support all these debates are being brought into the market by small companies. One example: Startup Beatroot.co tries to add a new angle to traditional metrics by looking at offline events and speakers and therefore measuring something like the “real world” impact of articles. Currently in beta, the website shows a dashboard with clicks, shares and offline impact, thereby allowing a quick overview of the effects caused by a piece.

Admittedly, one can argue about all these aspects and their true maturity in both markets, the German and the U.S. one alike. Do we really need a more modern understanding of journalism, a star cult-like attribution of journalism’s products or elaborate new metrics? Maybe not.

But a debate about these things surely seems more productive then the 27th feature asking, “Is BuzzFeed a part of journalism’s apocalypse?” or the millionth panel about opportunities and problems of a paywall introduction. Maybe these questions and observations can lead to fruitful answers and new projects.

This post originally appeared in German in carta.info and has been translated into English by the author for the version that appears here and was first published at PBS Mediashift Idealab.

This article is available on EJO also in Italian, German, and Latvian.

Photo credit: plewicki / Flickr Cc

Another Brick in the Wall? A Study on Paywalls

May 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

More and more online news outlets are experimenting now with paywalls, but academic research on the subject is still in its its infancy. A new study by Merja Myllylahti (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand) published in Digital Journalism tries to narrow this gap in knowledge. It considers the impact of different paywall models on revenue of media corporations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Australia, and New Zealand. The EJO carried out a similar overview.

Myllylahti’s analysis included nine cases: The New York Times Group/The New York Times (USA); Pearson Group/Financial Times (UK); Piano Media (Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland); News Corporation/The Times and The Sunday Times (UK); News Limited/The Australian (Australia); Fairfax/Australian Financial Review (Australia); National Business Review (New Zealand); Sanoma Group/Helsingin Sanomat (Finland); and Alma Media/Kauppalehti (Finland). Read more

Interview with The Economist

November 29, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

The Economist is one of the rare news publications that are surviving, and thriving in the economic downturn.

It managed to set up an innovative digital product and keep its print version profitable. It enjoys the privilege of maintaining foreign bureaus and correspondents writing for it in Hong Kong, Nairobi, Moscow, Cairo, Brussels, Washington, and Los Angeles to name a few, as the rest of the newspaper industry undergoes a painful crunch. Read more

Relocating Newsrooms: Smaller, Closer, Faster?

November 28, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

In the U.S., many newspaper companies have sold their headquarters in the city centers and moved to smaller buildings in the suburbs. Those that haven’t are sharing their buildings with others firms. For example, San Francisco Chronicle has moved in with Yahoo! Inc., Los Angeles Times with a call-center and Seattle Times with a wine company. In one extreme case, a casino and a luxury resort is to be built at the facility where the Miami Herald was printed until a few months ago. The Malaysian tourism company Genting bought the newspaper company’s property at the seaside for 236 million US dollars. The Miami Herald’s newsroom is now located in suburban Doral, approximately 20 minutes by car from the Miami city center. Is the financial crisis of the newspaper industry responsible for these drastic measures? Probably so, but there may be more to it. Read more

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