For the past decade Polish media have been suffering from a series of P-illnesses: provincialisation, pauperisation, polarisation. And this year they were joined by the P for pandemic. As a result, journalists are even less likely to leave their desks now, and their recorders decay under the layer of dust, because you can record your Zoom interviews already within the app.
And this is something we have to learn how to live with, because the publishers realized the potential for generating savings here. Agora, Gazeta Wyborcza’s publisher, gave up 10 rented spaces used by local editorial teams; their reporters will be working remotely from now on. On the other hand, the coronapanic led to a two or even threefold growth in online media readership. How has the Polish journalism changed in the past decade? And how will the pandemic affect the direction and the speed of this change?
Polarization is doing great. But there is also some good news
No other media-related topic stirs up emotions among the Polish public more than media politicization. The main press conflict revolves, naturally, around the war that started in 2005 between the biggest political parties: the liberal, pro-European Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) and the social-conservative, nationalist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość). Both parties, or rather both visions of Poland and the world, have their own media, dubbed as identity media by the analysts. ‘Some 10-15 years ago it used to be normal to invite columnists with different political views to participate in the debate’, suggests Jacek Wasilewski, Ph.D., a media analyst and expert associated with Warsaw University. ‘Today it’s a no-go, because they are no longer the adversaries with different opinions, but rather enemies that you should fight. This erosion of the public sphere began in 2010, i.e. with the Smoleńsk air disaster [right wing media, then in opposition, accused their liberal counterparts of hiding the truth about the attempt on the life of the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, presumably committed by Vladimir Putin acting in alignment with the Polish liberal government – ed.].
Media politicization is most blatantly clear on the example of the Polish national television (TVP) and radio broadcaster. ‘TVP has been always controlled by the government, but it is only since 2015, when PiS came to power, that the public television has been used as a systemic propaganda tool’, believes Wasilewski. ‘There is no platform for views exchange anymore.’
The research by Mikołaj Lewicki, Ph.D. from Warsaw University shows that the audience is perfectly aware of the media bias: with respect to both the public, and the independent outlets. And although the audience prefers taking in content that is most aligned with its own views, you can tell that it is becoming more and more weary of the polarization. Lewicki shows that former press authorities are now replaced by so called authorisation points, which represent less mainstream media or personalities that interact with the other side and share this interaction e.g. on their social media.
Weariness with the polarization is also manifested by the fact that for years the only magazine of opinions with continuously growing sales has been Tygodnik Powszechny, a dialogue-oriented weekly with a Christian-democratic profile. This weariness underlay the birth of Spięcie (Short Circuit), a project where five online magazines with various ideological angles present articles of their own authors to each other. However, Jacek Wasilewski thinks it is only an exception that proves the rule. ‘Short Circuit is a great idea, but the very fact of its existence shows that pluralism is not a natural feature of the Polish public debate.’
‘Polarization in the time of coronavirus is thriving,’ suggests Agata Szczęśniak, a journalist from OKO.press online outlet which is critical towards the government. ‘Once the short-lived national unity caused by the common danger waned, it became clear that liberal media would keep criticizing actions of the government, pro-government media would praise them, and the readers of the two would follow their lead. On the other hand, I think that a new kind of audience has emerged, people who started to look for reliable news outside their media and started using browsers more than social media. Expertization of media is yet another win in this pandemic, especially when it comes to TV, previously dominated by politicians. Plus, more space given to experts from outside Warsaw. It would be a truly positive shift, if editorial teams kept engaging these contacts in future.
Government money for some, crowdfunding for the rest
In this year’s free press ranking prepared by Reporters Without Borders Poland, dropped to 62nd position, although in 2015 it was ranked as high as 18. However, this is not due to political repressions against journalists, which do not really occur and the restrictions connected with the pandemic have not changed that, as it is the case e.g. in Hungary, but rather due to instrumentalisation of public media and political attacks on media critical of the government. And also due to the economic pressure. ‘Media politicization is especially obvious when you look at the allocation of advertising from state-owned companies’, Jacek Wasilewski points out. ‘You can really spot the symmetry here: under the liberal government there were not too many adverts in right-wing media for these companies. On the other hand, their readership was not too high either.’ According to the analysis by prof. Tadeusz Kowalski of Warsaw University, from 2015 to 2018 state-owned companies spent more than 3 billion zlotys on advertising, which is much more than in previous years. This is quite a money injection for the right-wing media: for example, Gazeta Polska Codziennie, a pro-government daily generates 45 percent of its revenues from state-owned companies. Some revenues also come from press subscriptions by state institutions, as the list of subscribed titles depends on who is in charge.
Local media, even though their role is becoming less and less prominent, often have similar strings attached; however, here they are entangled not so much in national politics, but rather local political and business scheming. The oligarchic model of media ownership, so typical of many Eastern European countries, e.g. the Czech Republic or Ukraine, has never fully developed in Poland. ‘Probably it’s because Western media houses had bought great part of media already before the fall of the Berlin wall,’ believes Wasilewski. ‘Also, there is a strong tradition of opposition press in Poland.’ Such concentration of the media market in the hands of foreign corporations is of course not to the liking of the right-wing which regularly insinuates that e.g. Axel Springer-owned newspapers follow the German national interest. However, all the high-flown declarations of private media repolonization and acquisition by the Polish capital have not yet been fulfilled.
The current condition of Polish media is not so much the result of the political reshuffle, but rather of the twilight of traditional funding models for journalism that was brought about by the financial crisis. Polish editorial teams, just like their colleagues worldwide, especially in printed press, were forced to face lower advertising income and the overproduction of free, poor quality Internet content. Although the number of online subscriptions is regularly growing – in 2019 Gazeta Wyborcza ranked 15th on the list of most subscribed titles in the world (with 220,000 subscriptions to date) – Jacek Wasilewski is sceptical as to whether Poles are ready to pay for information available online. ‘They are willing to pay for entertainment, Netflix or HBO GO, but for information – not so much, not yet,’ Wasilewski suggests. ‘However, it’s changing. I strongly believe in the young people who from their early age know that games, films and news cost money. People in their 40s are aware of this fact to the smaller extent, because they were growing up on the Internet where for a long time it seemed like everything was for free’.
Wasilewski does not believe that the pandemic has the capacity to change this situation dramatically, even though in the period of the biggest panic media recorded substantial growth in readership and number of subscriptions. ‘Uncertainty level increased, people felt trapped and isolated from the world,’ he comments. ‘But the pandemic effect has been wearing off and will continue to do so.’ With declining incomes from advertising as compared to previous decades, both journalists and editorial teams started to look for new models of financing their content, including grants, crowdfunding or an additional business (e.g. for Gazeta Wyborcza it is the Agora-owned network of Helios cinemas). Wasilewski thinks that the market of grants and scholarships, so attractive for foreign freelancers and reporters, will keep growing, but rather on the European, not – Polish, level. ‘As far as crowdfunding is concerned, it will be more and more popular, however, only for issues that engage readers emotionally,’ says the media expert. ‘It’s rather rare to get contributions simply for “good journalism”’. ‘OKO.press portal is crowdfunded and does not rely on advertisements, which came in very handy during the pandemic,’ claims Agata Szczęśniak. ‘However, we fear that it might change if our readers are affected by the economic crisis.’
The end of editorial teams as we know them
In the past decade, the Internet moved to the forefront as the source of information – according to annual research by Reuters Institute this is where 86% of respondents looked for information about the world. Just like the smartphone beat the computer as a tool for accessing news in many countries in the world, a great majority of hits generated by internet news comes from social media. ‘This is what changed during the pandemic,’ says Agata Szczęśniak of OKO.press. ‘We see an increase in click-throughs from Google where people search for specific info regarding e.g. economy or health. This helped us leave the bubble, but we are still not sure if it will bring any long-term effect.’ Szczęśniak also points out that the pandemic strengthened online media outlets. ‘Online outlets of big news stations recorded growth at the time, Polsat TV acquired the Interia.pl portal, on the other hand news websites started to invest more and more in radio and TV formats, such as podcasts or video formats.’
Pandemic-triggered fear is also a fertile breeding ground for fake news online outlets. In Poland their effect is limited. ‘A typical American fake news, i.e. for example a doctored information with pictures not matching the contents, published by an anonymous medium is not a big problem in Poland,’ thinks Jacek Wasilewski. ‘Here fake news, i.e. extremely manipulated information, presenting something in a bad light, is released by the government and the public media. Which is a much bigger worry.’ In their pursuit of news, media workers, joined not only by professional, but also social media, got stuck behind their desks long ago. Over the phone interviews, handling clickable beats is what has been their bread and butter for the past decade. The pandemic limited personal contacts between the journalists and the outside world even more, but it also moved them from their editorial offices home.
‘Some media outlets are returning to the normal work format, however, the remote work style is probably here to stay for some reporters, not only as a way to cut costs, but also something that makes their life easier,’ Agata Szczęśniak continues. ‘On the other hand, in journalism, especially in the in-depth journalism, a lot of new things come up as a result of discussions in the newsroom, including all those informal debates.’ The question is whether anybody will need editorial teams as we know them today. During the pandemic, the journalistic community was struck by the news that Microsoft automated the work of journalists aggregating contents in the MSN news website and the Edge browser. It has become quite clear that the death of printed press, at least as far as news press is concerned, is imminent. But Jacek Wasilewski thinks that also horizontal portals (like Onet or WP) will not survive the technological changes, at least not in their current form. ‘If you are e.g. interested in international politics, but not in the car section and cosmetics, it makes more sense to follow Bartosz Węglarczyk [editor-in-chief of the Onet portal] on Twitter rather than visit the homepage of Onet,’ thinks Wasilewski.
Wasilewski predicts that the ‘system of opinion leaders’ is the future of journalism. Audiences will trust their comments or shares more that the brand of the given editorial team, or the brand of an algorithm in future. It is a similar mechanism to the one called an ‘authorization point’, coined by the already mentioned Mikołaj Lewicki. ‘The role of editorial teams will shift from actively pursuing news to creating an agenda,’ Wasilewski predicts. ‘They will have to decide what topics are important and deserve to be singled out in the overall information noise. It is very clear from the growing popularity of portals problematising reality, such as Krytyka Polityczna or Klub Jagielloński [portals of opinions run by the younger generation of the left and right wing intellectuals – ed.]. They do not create the news, they interpret it.’
And to finish off on a more positive note: an innovative Polish journalist project Outride.rs joined forces with the Google Assistant. All you need to do is say: ‘tell me some good news’ to see abstracts of articles with feel-good stories from all over the world on the display of your smartphone, in line with the solution journalism approach. The coronavirus pandemic, or rather the whole 2020, has been flooding us with the greater than usual number of hopeless news. If the media want to harness the pandemic-boosted interest among their readers, they will never succeed in doing so by torture. I, for one, am already a bit fed up with it.
This story was supported by Visegrad Fund.