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Crisis of media? They have alienated from common people

10. 1. 2012 13:57
Interview with Aktualne.cz content director about future of media, social responsibility, Julian Assange and more

Prague - When people speak about media responsibility, they almost always refer to the content. But journalism is more than that.

Jakub Unger, a content director of the Czech branch of the Centrum Holdings online publisher and founder of Aktualne.cz and Insider dailies, gave an interview on what worries him about contemporary journalists and publishers.

The interview was published in December 2011 in CSR Forum, a Czech journal about corporate social responsibility.

"While the largest Czech traditional publishers were making hundreds or at least tens of millions in profit one or two years ago, now they start to post losses. And what do they do? They cut what is easiest to cut: people. They lay off tens of journalists, although their identity and business power lies in original content," said Unger. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but if I want to make a living by baking bread for people, I cannot lay off bakers as the first expense to cut."

Story of Aktualne.cz: 5 years of unique online daily

Is there some awareness of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the media? A responsibility in terms of corporation, institution?

We are not starting this interview in a very light and joyful manner... Let me apply this question to the Czech Republic only - currently there is no "media CSR" here. When conducting their business activities, are publishers responsible to the people who work for them, to their business partners, to their environment? Do media companies think about what footprint they leave for the future when they, for example, buy printers, servers or TV broadcast vehicles? I do not recall these questions ever being raised at any conference for media professionals. Let alone somebody organizing a conference exclusively about this issue.

I will put it in a different way: is it, or is it not, in a certain sense, schizophrenic to divide the media into content division and business division?

We cannot ignore how this division emerged. After the 1989 revolution, it was natural and desirable that the new journalism declared  "absolute independence". After years of censorship, it was the most logical and easiest model of how to build a whole industry that had been absent in the country for decades. Thus it was logical above all for newsmaking to even rigidly reject any form of dependence, including the commercial one. Today, we are still holding to this in the Czech Republic, even though it cannot be concealed that this "declaration of independence" very quickly became a sort of veil for the public. Underneath it, Czech media companies started to use standard business models of how to make profit out of content, which are employed all over the world, and by their nature do not permit "editorial independence", as they are paid by advertisers.

For me, the schizophrenia you mentioned is a symbol of the old perception of the world: we take what we fear, tie it up with rules, hide it in a closet and pretend there is no ghost inside. I believe that it would be more confident - and modern - to rely on simple honesty of the entrepreneurial idea, the power of unspoken rules and the trust in own employees and clients.

After all, if I decide to build an "independent content publisher", it goes without saying that I believe in that idea, because it has a business potential. I don't need to declare to the world that I won't be bought. Content producers and ad sellers are colleagues, each group have different professional methods and specialization, but they create the media together. They are co-authors.

When journalists do not ask...

Recently, opinion polls have shown that Czechs increasingly take interest in what the companies they work for do for their communities, environment and employees. Do Czech journalists demand something similar from their employers?

No.

Why do you think they don't?

For journalists, if they are authentic, interest in social responsibility and "welfare of the planet" is an integral part of their profession. It would not occur to them to ask what good is their publisher doing. They automatically assume that that's exactly why they produce all the news, reports, tests, sounds and images - so that the society learn the truth about the things that are relevant to them but they haven't time or abilities to learn it themselves. Even though I have no illusions about the standards of our profession, there is one word that fits here perfectly: a mission.

This is a hardly believable paradox. Journalists work every day (many of those I know are very honest in this) to better the society, but they tend to exclude their own company from this. And you know the Czech national character: when employees do not ask, their boss often does not find the motivation to be active himself. He does not ask: Do you have good working conditions here, do you like us?

Sometimes it seems to me that some personal stories from newsrooms imply that journalists allow themselves to be exploited as employees quite willingly. In the sense that, compared to other sectors, their working conditions are catastrophic. Is this inevitable in the media, is it just my impression, or is there really something to it?

Journalists live very well. If I agreed that they are miserable exploited people, I couldn't go to have a beer in my native town with people who really have hard lives. But I understand what you mean: Socially, journalists are from Teflon, they are so invested in other people's troubles that they sometimes fail to see their own. And now I cannot go to have a beer with journalists...

Does Centrum Holdings know its ecological footprint? Is it involved with communities? Does it have employee programs?

It does, in spite of all the limitations and obstacles we have been discussing for quite a while. For example, our employees sponsor an orphanage, some of them in a very selfless fashion. However I don't want to lure you into believing that this is some kind of CSR program. So far, the closest we have managed to get to the topic of ecological footprint was, unfortunately, when I bought an electric car.

Recently, CSR concepts melt into sustainable entrepreneurship concepts. On what grounds stand the concepts of media sustainability? 

How much time do we have?

Does Centrum have any strategy of this kind?

In my head, it does. And I know that also in the heads of my brilliant colleagues, even though they haven't put it on paper yet. For example, the Business and Society edition that has been included in our main daily Aktualne.cz already for one year proves that we think about this. I know that, compared to how thoroughly and deeply some large Czech companies approach the social responsibility, this is still only a drop. On the other hand, the very fact that one of the largest media in the country writes on a regular basis about how much "good" Czech entrepreneurs and companies create is, according to what I know, unique in the Czech Republic. Take, for example, the annual awards of the Business for the Society platform - the report about the event, candidates and winners reached 80,000 people in a few days. They read, voted, and got inspired.

Why you should believe in journalism

When I started in the media industry twenty years ago, the largest dilemma were ethics, the relation of the media and journalists to politicians, the so-called role of the media in the society. Today, people speak mostly about technology and about the form in which the media will survive. This, among other things, must affect negatively your professional confidence, right?

Not at all, currently I believe in journalism more than in many years before. Most recently, it was a speech of Wikileaks founder Jilian Assange in Hong Kong at a global summit of media publishing companies, where he criticized journalists for forgetting what role the society expects them to take. And for selling their mission out for hypocritical conformism.

Exactly as you indicate, the atmosphere in the hall was depressive at the moment, I felt negative vibrations from the people around me. But Mr Assange, even though he is one of the symbols of the media technology revolution, did not lecture the audience about a coming supremacy of machines. On the contrary, he forced everybody in the hall to think about the basest - human - principles and errors of journalism. And about the publishing industry. It is not in decline due to the introduction of new means of communication. After all, the ability to find, verify and deliver new information is not defined by technological means. These are mere instruments.

At some points, Assange was radical and crossed the limits, but I identified myself totally with one part of his message: Our field is declining because it has alienated from real, modern, common people. It does not offer them what they need, so the consumers leave. By the way, while Assange's two-hour litany started in a harsh manner, it ended very emotionally - the audience understood Assange and rewarded him with the loudest applause in all the conference. If the media learn to listen in humility again, they will survive for ages.

So how are they going to survive?

And we have just come back to the concept of media sustainability, haven't we? You journalist can be persistent... They will survive if they start to believe in themselves again. If they start to believe that quality information is one of the most valuable commodities. That looking for new ways does not mean to show a few colorful slides with "hot trends" to an annual conference, so that we have something to brag about in the backstage. That targeted investments in new ideas that could help people in their lives is not a waste of money, even though we still don't have any business reference case or a proof that "it will work".

We are entering an era in which the modern technology will make us rediscover the real value of unique content. But we must use this technology also for our own openness. So that people can use it to tell us what information they need, what they do and don't understand. Then we can let them pay us for our work, and believe me, consumers will gladly pay for the content.

On identity crisis

We are talking about technologies and their role. What if I ask you about the business side of the issue? We know from different open sources that a new wave of layoffs is coming to the Czech media. Is this a result of the crisis?

An identity crisis. While the largest Czech traditional publishers were making billions of Czech crowns in earnings and hundreds or at least tens of millions in profit one or two years ago, this year (2011) they will start to post losses. Where did this money disappear to so quickly? Not all of them went to Seznam, Google or Centrum.

These hundreds of millions are drowned in buildings, printers and investments into facilities that were constructed in old fashion, as if it was still 2005. Now when this money is missing, publishers cut that what is easiest to cut: people.

They lay off tens of journalists, although their identity and business power lies in original content. Instead of a well-thought plan of how to make the operation more effective (possibly including collective salary limits) and at the same time maintain strategic sources of income. I don't want this to sound arrogant, we have been struggling with the same issues for years and often it is easier said than done. I am just trying to say that if I want to make a living by baking bread for people, I cannot lay off bakers as the first expense to cut.

People in Aktualne.cz work - a lot

Some newsrooms have shrunk to one third in the last ten years. Does this mean that they were less effective before, or is this forced by economic results?

Both. Aktualne.cz is an example of the effectiveness you mention. The number of employees that work there has always been disproportionately lower than in comparable traditional daily newspapers. And it delivers its news to 1.5 million people, and the readership is still growing. Employees of Aktualne.cz would confirm to you that in our newsroom, people do work - a lot. The team is confident, shares ideas and power - from an intern to veteran editors to infographic producers, programmers or people handling the commercial content.      

Some journalists complain that recently they have no time for anything anymore. To go to speak to people, verify information in the field, conduct more interviews for a single story. They admit that they simply copy news from the Czech Press Agency or from the internet to a degree that does not guarantee authentic writing. Is this kind of journalism tradable in the long term?

It isn't. Anybody who describes their work in the way you say cannot call themselves a journalist. These are rather a sort of "content dispatchers" and they are the clearest candidates for having their jobs replaced by computers. New, unique information cannot be looked up in Google and compiled by using Ctrl+C. It needs somebody to discover it, investigate it and deliver it to other people.

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autor: MIchal Růžička, CSR Fórum | 10. 1. 2012 13:57

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