Media Madhouse: The Sinking Croatian Press

Media Madhouse: The Sinking Croatian Press
Ladislav Tomičić: "If we are to attempt an overview of Croatian media, the inevitable conclusion is that the current situation is the worst in the last fifty years."
It bears the consequences of a transition from a socialist to a capitalist society, a transition which includes a four-year war period. During this period the level of professionalism plummeted drastically. At the same time a greater part of the media sector passed from public to private ownership. The privatization was ailed by non-transparency and ill-thought-out political decisions, which not only determined the conditions of privatization, but at the same time dictated which entrepreneur would gain ownership of certain media in the end. This transitional – i.e. privatization – process resulted in a devastated Croatian media field, which, as will be concluded at the end of this short overview, has further decay looming over it if it remains without state intervention. How the media functioned during the war can be presented by an illustrative recent example.
Journalists- defenders
A few years ago, several journalists from the public Croatian Radio and Television submitted a proposal to President Ivo Josipovic: they asked that journalists who covered and reported on the Croatian War of Independence in the early 90s be granted “defender status” that is, status equal to those who had fought in the war itself, within the non-combat sector. The initiative – wholly irreconcilable with journalistic ethics – was a true poke in the eye for Croatian journalism. As an anecdote, it explains how a good part of Croatian journalists saw themselves in the war: they were “defenders” who stood for “our cause”, and not proper journalists.
In the wartime period, journalists working for publicly owned media houses and the majority of those from commercial media had little choice. They could either retire from journalism, work for the few newspapers that did not “march to the beat of war drums,” or conform and as such agree to give up on the minimum of professional standards. This meant producing war propaganda, instigations and lies on an everyday basis. A sliver of hope remained amongst the few journalists who did work honestly - risking not only their jobs, but their lives as well – and saved the profession from shame. But that would be too pretentious a thesis. It would be more correct to say that they only managed to personally save face - which, in the conditions of war psychosis, was by no means a small feat. This phase of "war journalism" - based on a division between "us" and "them" - created the fundaments of the contemporary Croatian media scene, within the framework of today’s democracy. And this was the basis on which the “madhouse” was built: erected by rapacious, politically and otherwise inclined publishers, party leaders and their adjutants, transition tycoons, as well as the ever-ubiquitous "opinion makers", readily disposed to all kinds of compromise.
The first wave of privatization happened while war was still ravaging Croatia. How this privatization was carried out is best illustrated by the example of a daily newspaper from Split, Slobodna Dalmacija, which was awarded to Miroslav Kutle through a political decision – him being one of the notorious “heroes” of the tycoon-style privatization in Croatia. This privatization proceeded in spite of a strike by Slobodna Dalmacija employees, where serious threats were directed towards the leaders of the strike. The Zagreb daily Večernji list, which was privatized immediately after the war, saw the same fate – or at least with regard to transparency and the aforementioned politically dictated choices. The most brutal media takeover was that of Glas Slavonije, a newspaper from Osijek. At the very beginning of the war Branimir Glavaš – later a convicted war criminal, at that time a trusted regime man – entered the daily’s offices accompanied by armed soldiers. Needless to say, many journalists were evicted from their positions and thrown on the streets because they were of an undesirable nationality, had an undesirable political or personal background, or merely because they did not want to take part in the organized lying and spewing of hate. A further illustrative example may be that of the public TV and Radio broadcasting services – shortly after the nationalist HDZ party won the elections, a list was simply hung at the entrance of its building, naming the employees who were from then on banned from entering their workplace.
Diktat of advertisers instead of diktat of politics
As the diktat of politics was replaced by a diktat of advertisers, the madhouse mutated to an even more monstrous form. The final result was to be expected: a rapid decline in the quality of media content, accompanied by a sharp decline in the public’s trust in media. According to research done in the past couple of years, only twenty percent of Croatian citizens trust the national media.
The same problems, causes and consequences are present in neighboring countries, a fact which reveals that the current media crisis could easily be considered an aftermath of the transition from a socialistic to a democratic regime, i.e. a consequence of the capitalist approach to the media, which unabashedly favors profit over public interest.
The economic crisis, accompanied by a fall in revenue from marketing and a drop in print media sales, created a new dimension in the described journalism crisis. In these circumstances publishers oriented themselves towards cutting costs, which - amongst other things - meant a reduction in the number of employees. During the restructuring of media companies it became clear how publishers treated journalists and journalism in general. A number of good journalists were fired - the ones that deserved to be paid according to their skills and knowledge - and were replaced by beginners, whose main task consisted of filling in the blank space between the ads. The fall in costs was met with a further drop in quality, which resulted in loss of the remaining morsels of trust in journalism. The profession found itself in a devil’s circle, from which it cannot exit on its own.
The state intervened two times in the media scene, with the explanation that it wanted to help journalism – the first time during the mandate of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, the second time during the current prime minister’s term. Sanader's government reduced VAT for printed editions from 22 to ten percent, while current Prime Minister Zoran Milanović reduced it even more, to five percent, but just for daily newspapers. It proved to be a completely failed policy, by playing directly into the hands of publishers, who were in fact never strongly interested in the quality of reporting. These government measures did not have significant influence on protecting the jobs of journalists or the quality of the media, nor did they halt the decline in sales of daily and weekly editions and periodicals. This is clear from the facts published in the national report on media, produced by the Ministry of Culture. 
For example, 304,000 copies of daily newspapers were sold in 2013 - less than ten years ago, when each day 393,000 copies were sold. Revenues from the sale of daily papers sank to 570 million kuna in 2013 – a sum almost half of the one achieved in the best year for publishers (2008), when revenues amounted to 1.12 billion kuna. 
As sales in print media plummeted, so did the number of journalists employed in these publications. During the first decade of the current century there were up to six thousand journalists working in dailies, weekly publications and periodicals while by the time 2013 came around this number fell to 2,914 employed journalists. The situation is just slightly better if we look at the total number of media employees, whose number is in constant fall as well. Currently the whole media sector in Croatia employs 8,780 journalists. Most journalists now work for public and commercial radio and TV stations. However, this media sector fares even worse with regard to professionalism than print editions do.
Terror of triviality
Nonetheless, for the best indicator of the decline of professional standards one should look no further than to Internet portals. With a few honorable exceptions, the editorial policy of these portals is determined only by the number of clicks or visits to their respective websites, which means stubbornly serving the most trivial content possible to readers. Such content is often explained by the demand for it, which poses the age-old question about the primacy of the chicken or the egg. Who should bear the guilt for the downfall of online media, presented on Internet portals and other media platforms: the readers, viewers and listeners on one end, or the editorial policies on the other? Whatever the answer, there is a clear and undeniable conclusion: a media system which receives its dictates from the market cannot provide society with a satisfactory level of information.
For the first time since independence, the state has started to grasp this problem, which is exemplified by the few steps taken by the current government, with the goal of saving what could be saved. However, it is somewhat of a schizophrenic policy. How would it otherwise be possible to explain the fact that the government first ceased publication of Vjesnik, the only daily paper in state ownership, and then accommodated publishers and reduced VAT, and then - finally - shyly started encouraging non-profit media with the goal of raising the professional standards and quality of reporting? The last of the listed steps - the financing of non-profit media – did in fact result in a number of quality non-profit Internet portals coming about. These portals provide a solid number of journalists – some of whom recently lost their jobs in commercial media - with an opportunity to reach the public. Nevertheless, if the partial directing of public incentives in the direction of non-profit media is to sprout results, further steps are needed, as the editor-in-chief of the non-profit portal, Toni Gabrić, explains:
- The media policy institutions should organize a public discussion and, following the discussion, bring more solid and lasting answers to the question - what are the overall expectations of the public from non-profit media? What range of topics should they cover and in what way? Should the consolidation or particularization of non-profit media be supported, with technological and/or topic diversity? What can, realistically, be achieved with a few million kuna - the amount given by the state annually for non-profit media - and how should this funding be distributed in order to produce a better and more beneficial result? These answers are nowhere to be found, and last year’s biggest donation from the Ministry of Culture was cut down to 62 percent in the last moment, states Gabrić.
He emphasizes that sudden changes like that one do not contribute to the stability of non-profit media.
- I do not dare to conclude whether they are a result of bad intentions, ignorance or incompetence. I would say it is necessary to subtly initiate a discussion about the consolidation of the non-profit media scene, the consolidation of which – if the willingness exists within the scene itself - should be accompanied by appropriate moves by the donors of these public funds, says Gabrić.
Another positive example of a successful media-focused state incentive is the minority paper Novosti, whose editorial policies are not bent by publishers’ needs to satisfy the advertising market thanks to the fact that the paper receives funding from the state budget, which also means that the fate of the weekly - as well as the fate of its editors - does not depend on the number of copies sold. Unfortunately, it does not reach a broad public, even though the quality of the information it produces is significantly better than that of the commercial competition.
Policy incentives
One of the most persistent advocates for a media strategy that could provide a solution for the media problem in Croatian society is Milan F. Živković, media counselor to Andrea Zlatar, the Minister of Culture. He draws attention to the disservice that could be done by the dominance of commercial media in the Croatian media landscape and states that the "processes of privatization, the concentration of ownership and the overall commercialization of media content have brought about a pronounced fall in revenues and number of employees, which as a consequence has caused the erosion of the quality of information being provided and has degraded the social function of the media, in a hitherto unprecedented manner."
- Some of the reasons could be sought in technologic and economic changes, but the underlying cause of the media crisis arises from their in-depth, structural irreducibility to the commercial relation. All of us - including the 3.26 million literate Croatian citizens who do not buy newspapers - profit from journalistic work that reveals corruption and crime and possible policies for their prevention. When media supervision prevents government negligence, or reveals the damage or simply the bad policies of the corporations and the government, we all benefit from it. We all benefit if the voters bring better decisions on Election Day and do not pour their trust into a prime minister who stole public funds and took bribes from foreign corporations. This discrepancy between the produced value and the created revenue has as a consequence the insufficient incentive of the commercial media to invest in creating news. If by the way of public policy we do not design a replacement for this lost revenue, we risk losing what has remained of the media, to whose role in democracy we refer so often, says Živković.
He highlights that the problem, which the media has in market conditions, is recognized by numerous media policies worldwide. For example, the Ministry of Culture of France recently published a list of newspapers and informative Internet sites that are entitled to receiving direct state incentives which amount to about 400 million euro. Taken together with indirect discounts that come from postage, tax and transport, this sum grows to about 700 million euro per year. Croatia’s neighbor Italy gives support to its media scene by giving 161 million euro per year for newspapers owned by journalistic co-ops. Similar policies are also seen in the United States and Great Britain, where governments have indirect incentives for print media, which range between 750 and 800 million euro per year.
This is claimed in a study published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in August of 2011, called "Public Support for the Media: A Six-Country Overview of Direct and Indirect Subsidies", by the authors Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Geert Linnebank.
The problems of the Croatian media scene mentioned so far are, let us repeat once more, not significantly different from those faced by neighboring countries. This fact, taken together with the media policies developed by the governments of "old democracies," speaks clearly for the abandonment of the model of exclusive orientation towards the market and replacing it with a more complex one. Some traces of a political will for such a development in the media scene are noticeable. But for the realization of this project it is, first of all, necessary to achieve consensus of all political actors and then to create a public policy that will not be dependent on government shifts. Although from the current perspective it seems it would be much easier to build a castle out of thin air, it appears that in the countries that arose from the ashes of Yugoslavia there is no other solution for journalism to be seen.
* "Defender" is a widespread term for Croatian soldiers who fought in the war for Croatian independence and respectively a term for veterans of that war. It is also used in official contexts, e.g. "Ministry of Defenders". Being granted the official status of defender gives right to material and non-material benefits.
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