- The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has left a deep trace on all segments of the society. How much has it affected the media and which segment of the media scene suffered the most damage?
- What do you think of the current situation in the Serbian media and do media reports represent the true state of the society in which we live?
A big challenge for media in terms of content
1. It seems that the press, which had already been in the toughest situation prior, was hit the hardest. All other platforms had much more space because people in quarantine were forced, perhaps reluctantly, to “follow the news” to find out what was happening. My impression is that a pandemic, like a war or global crisis, is a great challenge for the media in terms of content, and in this case, everything was further aggravated by competition in the form of social networks which are an ideal place for spreading fake news. So, to sum it up, the crisis only validated those who were good even before it, while those media which offered bad content only intensified their activity. I firmly believe that the audience will choose those media who are trying to do the right thing.
2. On several occasions, the situation in Serbia has been assessed by relevant international organizations and institutions and none of these assessments was positive. During the pandemic, the repression of the authorities over media which had been trying to work professionally only intensified, but also towards those media which serve as a tool, meaning all TV stations which use the national frequency and most of the daily press and “big” news sites. Furthermore, the state fills the media space with a growing number of new TV stations, so as I am answering your questions, at least 4 new TV stations are being set up in Belgrade, which additionally serves to further exasperates the audience and, essentially, ruin the public space. Everyone who cares about democracy in Serbia should stand up against this.
We’ll have to compute in a few years
1. I don’t think we can estimate that yet, as the economic crisis that will follow the pandemic may badly affect the media to an even greater extent. We, who remember the year 2008, can only feel fear. During the pandemic, the media received more clicks and had higher circulation figures, but I think that the real blow – the one to marketing – is yet to come. We will have to do some serious computing in a few years.
If, however, we look at other industries – catering, tourism and the like- I think this was not a media crisis. Moreover, quality information has never been sought more than it is now, which has benefited the mainstream media. We, for example, had the largest increase in the digital edition, and at the beginning of the pandemic, our circulation figures also went up. The New York Times and the Guardian have definitely become the most important sources of information, while the professional media that we had never before heard of, such as the Lancet, have emerged. The New York Times has the largest growth in digital subscriptions ever, and that is something that our paper has reoriented to, practically compensating for all marketing losses, and even increasing revenues. I am convinced that this is the future of the media, and that we will all soon have to reorient ourselves to various paywalls and similar things.
An interesting time is coming. Let’s hope for a quick end to the pandemic.
2. The main role of the media is to inform the public. It is also their Constitutional duty. If a toxic cloud is approaching, media must report about it. I think that our media are increasingly misinforming instead of informing the public, which is why there is so little trust in the media. This is a very dangerous thing that awaits us as a society – the misinformed population – which is currently in a phase of “internal emigration”, just like back in the USSR. We, in the Balkans, have witnessed how dangerous that can be.
Weak Media Have Become Even Weaker
1. During the pandemic-induced crisis, the media in Serbia received a clear message that the government would not hesitate to exercise censorship, i.e. the real, state-imposed censorship, if it felt threatened And that sent shivers down the spine of every journalist, especially Ana Lalić, who was arrested for doing her job and informing people about the facts important for their health and existence. Financially speaking, the already weak media have become even weaker due to the economic crisis, which is also reflected in advertising, which is an important source of income for commercial media. So, weakened because of the pressure exerted by the government and big business, bad and dependent media will become even worse and more dependent on any source of money that can save their jobs.
2. There are very few countries in Europe that have sunk lower than Serbia, in the media sense. Conducted research speaks of the threat to freedom of expression and the media freedom, including the reports of the European Commission. People are not aware that we are one of the worst countries in Europe in terms of poverty, sharing the place with Moldova. No major corruption scandal was revealed by the most important media. This means that they do not actually exist to inform, but quite the opposite – to deceive. Such a situation is unsustainable and always ends badly, because unknown problems cannot be resolved – they just accumulate and worsen and in the end, someone always pays the price for that. A society with so many unresolved huge problems, stratified and driven to insanity, would have to be extremely lucky to avoid something radical happening to it.
Trusting Media is Crucial, Not Only in These But Also in All Other Times
1. The global media picture has changed since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. The changes that have been taking place in media consumption for a decade and a half, where digital media have been growing unstoppably, have been given additional impetus by the beginning of isolation due to the coronavirus epidemic. Online media consumption doubled in the spring of 2020, from an average of three hours and 17 minutes to almost seven hours. Even after the first shocks caused by the so-called new reality subsided and we began to go about our lives, access to online content stills stayed high. Thus, the number of views of video content on the YouTube platform jumped by 43 percent in the previous ten months while Tik Tok recorded the biggest growth in the crisis in the younger population (from 18 to 24 years of age). In addition to digital media, TV and streaming platforms had a large increase in viewership, and this trend will continue in the coming period, also because most of our activities, including work, now take place at home. The media have been facing many challenges in the era of the epidemic – priority reporting on the virus and pandemic, organizing the work of newsrooms from home, reducing the level of field reporting, difficult access to information sources, etc. The changing nature of the virus and many unknowns about it posed a challenge to journalists who must search daily for the most reliable information to give to the public. What shocked the media industry the most was the drop in advertising budgets, which was especially felt in the first six months after the outbreak of the epidemic. A large number of media companies are struggling to meet their financial goals this year as well; many advertisers have reduced their budgets and are now focused more on digital platforms such as Google and Facebook, so they have reorganized media appearances, especially those related to sports and music events as they gathered a large number of people and have not been taking place for months. The print media is a segment that was the most affected by the pandemic as their circulation figures declined sharply at the onset of the crisis, which eased over time but left mark on the industry and raised additional questions about the sustainability of the print media in low mobility circumstances and reduced shopping habits.
2. In times like these, media are gaining great importance and they have a great responsibility in broadcasting verified, credible and reliable information. It is up to us to report not only the numbers of patients and the recommendations of the Crisis Task Force, but also to provide a range of information that will be useful to people in everyday life, in exceptionally uncertain circumstances in which we currently live. Trusting media is crucial, not only in these but also in all other times, and we, the creators of content, must work on that first and foremost. Editors and journalists need to pay extra attention when selecting content and defending against fake news and unverified information posted on social networks. Our environment is specific in terms of the number of media outlets as we have more than 2,500 registered media outlets, which puts us among the countries with an extremely high number of media outlets in relation to the number of inhabitants. The fact that there are a lot of them is not a sign of quality reporting. I think that investing in premium content, with original stories and a clear approach to the audience is a good path to having a successful medium.
Being wiser after the event is a big problem in Serbia
1. Many people believed that even without COVID-19, the press would soon become extinct, just as dinosaurs back in the day. While we were waiting for that dark future to come, the coronavirus further embittered our present and now the main question is not how to survive in the long run, but in the medium and even short term, because the pandemic has negatively affected everyone, including the media and has significantly reduced sales revenue, particularly from advertising. It’s a well-known fact that all companies, in anticipation of the recession, had dramatically cut their advertising budgets, some even by 50 percent, and directed a relatively larger part of those reduced budgets to electronic media, television and websites, leaving the press to fend for itself.
If it wants to survive, not only COVID-19, but also the increasingly strong competition, including social networks, which many already treat as a legitimate source of information, the press will have to transform and adapt to the new needs of readers. The daily newspapers have encountered the biggest problems, but, as luck would have it, newspapers did not experience a decline at the same pace during the pandemic. As far as I know, the tabloids have ‘fallen’ the most, but I’m not afraid for them because they will always find financiers – the more fake news they publish on the front pages, the more taxpayers’ money ends up in their accounts. That is why the professional media are in a much bigger problem because they are critical of every government and no government likes them. Until they fall from power and admit that it was their fault that they didn’t take criticisms seriously. Being wiser after the event is a big problem in Serbia. As my colleague, Anica Telesković said nicely recently – “start ‘punishing’ the media when they start to resemble their bosses”.
2. A large number of media outlets in Serbia have forgotten the purpose of their existence, and that is to protect the general or public interest. Instead, many care only about the interests of their real or hidden owners or the ruling political party. The government’s accusations against some media, including NIN, which ownership structure can be easily checked with the Business Registers Agency, seem all the more schizophrenic. Of course, everyone knows the truth, but many care about the truth as they care for last year’s snow. Just look at the front pages of the tabloids in late February. If someone returned to Serbia today after a long stay abroad, they would not be able to tell if it was the year 2021 or 1941. Of course, it is not only the owners of the tabloids who are to blame for that. They wouldn’t be doing that if the authorities found them unacceptable. As long as that is the case, the society will be divided, and only a small number of professional media outlets will be concerned with the public interest, with little chance of succeeding in tilting at the windmills.
There is no light at the end of the tunnel
1. Over the past year, I have not bought a single copy of any print media – neither a daily newspaper nor a weekly or monthly. When I was in the U.S. in 2008, the then editor-in-chief of The New York Times told me that his daughter, who was a student at the time, had never bought a printed copy of the paper her father edited, or any other for that matter. “That is the future that awaits us,” he said. I didn’t believe him and only until a year ago, I firmly believed that print media could survive by applying certain innovative methods. Today, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, I think we can say goodbye to print media.
Another thing that proved to be very important in the world is the excessive overload of people with negative stories. Today, people want to hear something positive. Some media outlets, such as The Guardian, have set up special newsrooms that report only on positive things. At the moment, these are their most popular articles. Other media have begun to pay attention to “constructive journalism” which report about problems in society but also give solutions so that readers do not feel helpless.
Traditional media have never been in such a deep crisis as today, which has been best used by social networks that have become a hotbed of conspiracy theories, primarily in connection with the coronavirus. Unfortunately, I know a lot of very smart, educated people, even from my immediate surroundings, who believe that the virus does not exist but that somebody is poisoning us with toxins, that Bill Gates is to blame for everything and that we are being chipped so ‘they’ can control us. I have not yet mustered the courage to tell them that I have been vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine. And that lately I’ve been eating hot and sour Chinese chicken with bamboo shoots and peanuts.
2. Your editor told me that my answers should not exceed 1,500 characters. My answer to your first question is quite long because the answer to this question is going to be very short. The situation has never been worse. Bear in mind that I have been a journalist since 1997. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The train has stopped in the middle of the darkness and has no intention of moving forward.