COVID-19 when seen as the successor of the 2008-09 financial crisis might destroy the media as we know them up until now.
Being old enough to remember manual typesetting and young enough to use a mobile phone as notebook, camera and a recorder at once, I wonder what the present situation with COVID-19 will bring to the media industry in Central Europe.
The experience of the 2008-09 financial crisis brings caution, whereas the online world a glimpse of hope.
A bumpy and interesting journey
The journalism and media industry in this region has gone through a bumpy and interesting journey during the last thirty years. It started as a boom of independent media in the early 1990s, consolidation later on in the hands of mostly foreign owners who have brought capital and know-how, the financial crisis has sped up the process of sell-off to the hands of domestic private owners.
At the same time, we have seen the development of public media that were mostly considered by politicians as a sort of state media – speaking about the BBC as a role model at one end, but influencing and pressing journalists for favourable coverage at the other end.
For example, there was a huge international outcry when the Polish conservative party Law and Justice (PiS) took over the Polish public television and radio in 2015, right after its landslide electoral victory. But similar purge happened in Polish public media before, when the United Polish Left or the Civic Platform (PO) came to power. The only difference was that the purge was not so huge and visible.
But now, the landscape is quite different. Private media in Central Europe have consolidated ownership. In Poland and Hungary, the governing parties took over the public media. There was a shift towards online journalism already past 2008-09 crisis which is now gaining cosmic speed as nations are sitting in lockdowns.
Now more than ever, people are looking for information from reliable and trusted sources. Therefore it is more and more about trust which is – in the case of the Czech Republic – highly given to public media, especially Czech television. Higher than usual is also the interest in private independent media previously known for their quality reporting and coverage of events.
As the business model of traditional media has changed in the 2008-09 period when a classical advertisement has almost disappeared, the media had to look for additional sources of income and journalists were forced to do more work with fewer resources. Experimenting in the online world has started on a much greater scale to find viable business models there.
This trend will now continue but previous experience is warning to be cautious. Now everybody is doing podcasts while before all media were going into video production. The former is much easier and cheaper than the latter.
For example, in the Czech Republic, the online video news was heavily distorted when dominant player Seznam.cz (a sort of Czech Google) has undercut the prices of advertisements in the video which had a damaging impact on other publishing houses’ incomes.
The business model of independent quality media will be changing most probably again while those are being appreciated as an important source of information. There will be even more shift to digital platforms which will demand new skills from journalists as it happened after the financial crisis.
Harsher political environment
The public media will have a much harsher political environment to deal with, while private media would struggle to find new business models.
Sometimes those two worlds will mix together as it was shown in Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orbán has taken control over public media through parliament decisions and over private ones with help of friendly businessmen and through advertisement market capture.
There is one significant trouble for private online media which is not so visible: how to succeed in this when dealing with a small language market.
Stories about New York Times success or examples of innovations in the digital world in the US media or even 240 thousand of online subscribers of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza sound nice – but one will never reach anything like that in the market of ten million Czech speakers (even if we include our five million Slovak brothers who consume Czech-language media as well).
Slovak colleagues offer a glimpse of hope when looking into innovation in the online world as for example daily newspaper SME with its widely successful podcast series or Dennik N with its Czech offshoot. But the latter was possible only with the back up of a group of wealthy local businessmen.
This leads us to one important conclusion: without strong financial backing there is now very hard to do any quality journalism in Central Europe, not speaking about necessary innovations.
A costly activity
Widely praised investigative journalism, which is now in high demand in Central Europe due to fragility of democracy here, costs a lot. It is not possible to be done in the long term by small, energetic, highly motivated online-based teams only with the support of grants and small online advertisement income as we witness now in Hungary.
There is the indisputable role of public media in investigative journalism as we see in case of Czech public media or in case of Czech online daily Aktualne or weekly Respekt (disclosure: both are part of the same publishing house where I work for).
The situation of closed borders due to COVID-19 brings another hugely important topic: the quality of foreign news reporting. This was heavily damaged in the 2008-09 financial crisis when media were cutting the correspondents or stringers abroad first.
Journalists had to learn how to work with online tools or social networks which might help them now. But the first-hand experience cannot be replaced. And as we see that interest now is very concentrated on domestic news around pandemic, I would say that there might be another wave of disinterest in foreign news and global trends since, surprisingly, many people in Central Europe are happy with border closures and illusion living in security zone while elsewhere there is COVID-19 storm raging on.
The Czech government was the only one in the region that prohibited its citizens to travel abroad, while others only highly recommended this measure. The majority of Czechs does not object.
Exciting but testing
From the individual perspective of a journalist, we are living in extremely interesting times that need critical coverage and reporting and a lot of innovative skills and ideas. That’s exciting.
But COVID-19 seen as the successor of the 2008-09 financial crisis might destroy the media as we know them up until now. There will have to be a lot of individual energy and devotion to come out of this with something which may be labelled later on as creative destruction.
Of course, the media do not work from an island. The profession of journalism in Central Europe in the last three decades was closely tied to the notion of an open society.
Since the idea is step-by-step destroyed by populists and nationalists in the aftermath of the 2008-09 crisis, this will only gain speed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state of independent quality media, therefore, will be a litmus test for how an open society – and liberal democracy in general – gets along.