• Analysis
  • Long read
  • 10. November 2020

The invisible regional deserts that suffocate the Czech democracy

Vojtěch Boháč / Headline picture: Denisa Faltýnková /
Vojtěch Boháč / Headline picture: Denisa Faltýnková /
While dozens of newsrooms of various media are based in Prague with its one million inhabitants, the remaining nine million people in the country are served by a significantly smaller number of journalists. Over the past ten years, areas where virtually no media are located have been expanding inexorably. As a result, there are invisible but ever-growing media deserts stretching over the Czech regions and suffocating the local democracy. 

When you go to have a beer in a pub outside Prague, you can hear people talking about the media that write about every reconstruction of the road in the center of the capital, but tell you little about what is happening in the rest of the country. This was not always the case.

“There used to be six of us in the local newsroom and it was possible to work on different cases,” says about the situation at the beginning of millenia Iveta Nádvorníková, who has worked in Svitavský Deník newsroom for 20 years. She adds that this was similar in another regional media outlet,  MF Dnes of Pardubice whose reporters used to bring news from the whole region. 

“Investments in influential media houses were more advantageous for the business of major financial groups rather than for the Czech democracy.”

“We would flick through the newspapers of other regional media every morning to see what they had and to carry on working on the topics. It wasn’t unusual that after we published an important news story somebody else worked on it as well,” says Nádvorníková about the times when their newsroom would often receive a phone call from television staff asking for contact details to be able to follow up on their story. 

But life from local and regional newsrooms was about to disappear. With the advent of the Internet, the advertising money that the media had lived from began to move to the accounts of major Internet platforms overseas.

The gradual disappearance of the watchdogs of local democracy has played into the hands of oligarchs with business interests in the regions and politicians who have realized that they can easily collect points on cultural wars. No one came to the media’s rescue and the regional ones have started to die out without anyone noticing.

The end of traditional media

The first comprehensive research of local media took place in the Czech Republic exactly twenty years after the revolution. At the end of 2008, the media scene seemed to have stabilized. In each district, there were often a few newsrooms with large numbers of journalists who were to keep an eye on those who held power and to ensure that it was not abused.

According to a 2009 study carried out by Lenka Waschková-Císařová from the Masaryk university, there were 46 district and 14 regional newsrooms which were locally owned. The research did not count other 71 district dailies of Vltava Labe Press, nor the 14 regional supplements of MF Dnes. In 2009, several periodicals competed in the regional coverage of events, not only in each region, but also in most districts.

“We wrote about behind-the-scenes political struggles at the town hall and at the same time we published reviews of poetry collections by Brno authors,” recalls Karel Škrabal, then editor-in-chief of the Brno newsroom and later director of regions at MF Dnes, the extent of the regional newspapers’ interest in the 2000s. 

“The Daily Rovnost had the same ambitions as we did so it was a fierce competition, maybe even too fierce, in either case we kept a close watch over each other,” Škrabal explains how the newsrooms competed for major scoops. The biggest mistake was that we had thought it would always be like that,” he smiles. 

Further research from last year showed that less than half of the 60 regionally active and owned media remained. At the same time, the number of journalists in the remaining newsrooms fell sharply.

Nádvorníková recalls vividly when she joined the nine-member newsroom of Svitavský Deník in 2002.  In addition to five journalists, there was also a photographer, a sports reporter and two supporting staff members: “When I started working there, there were people who dedicated their time to teaching, explaining and showing me everything,” she describes her beginnings.

“Nowadays there’s a sports reporter, advertising manager and I. No one else,” she explains how the same number of reporters who used to cover one district now has to handle the whole region. Each district newsroom used to have three pages covering the news, whereas today there’s one article from the district and one column of small reports.

Roman Gallo, the manager of the 70 Dailies of Vltava Labe Media network, where Nádvorníková works, confirms the numbers. “If the Daily had about five people in each newsroom 15 years ago, today we always have one contributing editor at the small district level,” he explains. Gallo himself does not assess the situation so harshly, because according to him, a large part of the journalistic work has moved to the central level.

Storm that swept established orders

It is almost impossible to compare the media before 2009 and ten years later. This is not the case of the Czech Republic only, but nearly the whole world. The advent of the Internet and social networks has gradually reduced the price of advertising. Internet platforms such as Google and Facebook began to take over the position of the main provider of advertising space. They are able to attract readers to third-party content, with whose authors they do not share advertising revenues, which allows advertising to be significantly cheaper.

The financial crisis reinforced the dominance of internet platforms. The advertisers were drawn to them by the lower prices of the online service. “In November 2009, the  advertising revenues fell by 30 percent in one month. They never returned,” Robert Čásenský, then editor-in-chief of the MF Dnes Daily, describes the situation in the Czech Republic. He adds that this was followed by about four more waves of budget cuts when the regional and central newsrooms of Mladá Fronta shrank by about one third.

A storm that swept the income of the Czech media hit nearly the whole world. In his book Breaking News, the longtime editor-in-chief of the British Guardian Alan Rusbridger describes that after the crisis, the advertising-based model of media financing, which had worked in most Western media for over a hundred years, disintegrated.

His claims are confirmed by the Pew Research Center’s 2018 survey.  It estimates that between 2006 and 2017, U.S. newsrooms alone saw advertising revenues drop from $ 49 billion to $ 16.5 billion.

“People reminisce about the 90s when money was coming in in the newsrooms by itself. Everyone, even in small towns, understood that they needed advertising after the revolution,” portrays the rise of capitalism in the Czech media the researcher Císařová.

But then the year of 2008 crisis came and money began to disappear. “Media entrepreneurs in the districts understood that they could no longer make money from advertising, so they had no reason to carry on. Some people kept the media, even at the cost of subsidizing it with their own money,” Císařová describes the beginning of the spread of the news deserts.

No money, no trust

The term news desert has only recently appeared in the United States. It was coined to describe areas from which the journalistic organizations that traditionally gave voice to local citizens and scrutinized the local governing bodies, have disappeared in the past two decades due to the disappearance of advertising revenues.

The simultaneous advent of social networks all over the world has fundamentally affected what or who people trust. Their past confidence in traditional leaders such as the media, politicians or successful entrepreneurs, shifted to a  new model in which the opinions of friends, family and similarly-minded people have begun to gain more importance. Before 2008, over 60 percent of people in the Czech Republic routinely trusted the traditional media. Ten years later, the figure went down to about 30 percent.

While the traditional local media began to have difficulty making ends meet, the professional public discussed new concepts such as citizen journalists or hyperlocal media brought by the rapid rise of the Internet and social networks. 

“It was naive to think that there would be citizen journalists who would work in their free time to fill online pages with information about local events and news about what was happening on their street,” Císařová reflects over morning coffee in the center of Brno.

If not media, then who or what

New Facebook groups have not usually developed into a quality replacement for the precision of  traditional media. Nevertheless, the attention of readers has been caught by local groups on social networks, regardless of their quality and balance of the content.

“They do not compete with the media formally. But in fact they do so by attracting a lot of attention from people in the districts,” Roman Gallo explains the trend of groups in which people often share information about what is happening at the local level, but the quality of the content does not meet the requirements to be described as journalism.

While classical journalism should impartially examine what actually happened, bring the views of all parties involved and lead to a balanced understanding of what was happening, the emerging groups had a noticeable link to local activism, according to Karel Škrabal. “They could have a good cause, such as building a bike path or a football field, but there is already some policy behind it and it cannot be said that it is pure journalism,” Škrabal describes what researchers often call a polarizing influence of local media disappearance. 

“When we have a picture of what journalism should look like and professionalism is part of it, how can it be replaced by anything? One cannot come from work and search for balanced information around. We have already given up the nice idea,” Císařová explains why the professional public quickly abandoned the idea of replacing the local media.

Market collapse, media collapse

Local media were a leader in the field of local advertising prior to the rise of Internet platforms, partly because there were still strong local markets. These media thus represented an ideal mediator among the local sellers of goods and services and the community. This was the basis of their entire economic model. As local markets began to disintegrate and Facebook, Google, and other platforms also offered locally targeted advertising, the economic sense of local media virtually disappeared.

“Unfortunately the post-revolution spirit of the Czech society has seen the media as a commodity like any other. All efforts to help them or to protect them by imposing regulations were viewed with distrust,” Jakub Patočka, the editor-in-chief of Deník Referendum (the only nationwide news media based outside Prague),  describes the preconditions for the demise of local media. 

In addition to the reluctance to support print media with subsidies, there are other pitfalls awaiting the local media in the currently set system, Císařová explains: “Almost all printing houses belong to Mafra. They can easily charge their media competitors with a higher price which is liquidating for the local media under the current economic situation.”  She adds that also the distribution network ceases to exist as the newsagents and post offices slowly disappear. The introduction of registration of sales (EET) was another blow to the distribution of local newspapers. These could be paid for by putting money into a money box in shops which won’t be possible any more. “The system [of registration of sales] doesn’t take the local media into consideration and it stops working for them,” she says.

It is worth mentioning that the concept of hyperlocal journalism was adopted in 2010 by the PPF financial group. They wanted to invest 200 million Czech crowns in a network of 80 hyperlocal media based on community journalism. However, after an unsuccessful start, the group decided to back off from the intention and announced that it had changed its strategy and would no longer invest in projects below EUR 200 million.

Knock-out

As the small regional media were disappearing from the map of the Czech Republic and the number of journalists in the large ones continued to decline, the biggest blow was yet to come. If we compare the period after the financial crisis to a long drought weakening the entire media ecosystem, then we can call 2013 the bark beetle raid, against which the weakened media had no strength to defend themselves.

The German owners, who had previously held both regionally important publishing houses mainly for profit, began to look for ways to get rid of them before they would slide into the red in the new decade. In 2013, Andrej Babiš acquired Mafra, of which MF Dnes and its regional newsrooms are a part. Two years later, the Penta financial group bought the Vltava Labe Media publishing house, which publishes a network of regional dailies. “When the business hadn’t worked any longer, the media began to pass one by one from Western owners to those who understood that they would not make money, but it would be an important tool of influence for them,” Patočka describes his view on the situation.

Also according to other journalists, investments in influential media houses were more beneficial for the business of major financial groups than for democracy in the Czech Republic. “The statement of Dospiva [co-founder of the Penta investment group] or Babiš that they want to take care of the development of those media has definitely not been fulfilled,” Čásenský says about the arrival of the new owners. “But that’s probably enough for the purpose they bought it for,” he sighs.

The departure of regional newsrooms to the edge of society did not take place only symbolically. At least at Mladá fronta it was literally the case after Babiš’s acquisition. “Our newsrooms had always been on the main streets and main squares of the towns, they used to be a crossroad of local life,” Škrabal says. After 2013, due to the budget cuts the newsrooms were moved to houses owned by Agrofert closer to the city outskirts.

“When you look at newspapers like Mladá fronta or Deník – without wanting to hurt them – I think that there are almost no journalistic ambitions there. Investigative work is taken over from them by small independent newsrooms, but not in the regions,” Škrabal describes. In his opinion this media transformation is due to the fact that most of the investigative work in the regions would have to be directed against Babiš and Agrofert.

“When you are an investigative journalist nowadays, what else do you want to report on than their mafia practises in public life? Possibly the Russian and Chinese influence over Dukovany, but there isn’t much else,” he adds. 

He then explains that the acquisition of the media by the business-political “mafia” has a fundamental influence on the ambitions of journalists themselves, who suddenly have to overcome completely new obstacles in their work. “One day you work, I think, in the best newspapers and the next day you are a rag that everyone wipes their mouths with,” Škrabal describes Babiš’s arrival and explains that when a journalist in the Agrofert media criticizes events in other political parties today, it is easy to label them “Babiš’s manure” and no longer deal with the criticism. “This leaves you with a feeling of frustration because there’s nothing you can do about the situation. You feel that Agrofert rules here and you either stick with Agrofert or you end,” he summarizes the situation.

Impacts of local media absence

According to Patočka, the absence of the media outside Prague also means that the center does not understand and solve the most pressing problems of the region. This means that the local oligarchs can not only do their business undisturbed, but also win political points with populist slogans.

“Prague is big enough to give and foster the people’s illusion that it is actually the whole world. That you are able to understand everything important that is happening in our country and experience it through the reality of Prague. This is, of course, a complete delusion, a complete nonsense. And then those people are amazed and don’t understand why someone votes for Babiš and Zeman. They talk with contempt about people who see the past regime better than the current one,” Patočka says.

Although the disappearance of local media has still not become a largely discussed topic in the Czech Republic, studies from abroad give us a hint about the impact of this trend. In places where local media are disappearing, the voter turnout and citizen activity at local level have declined. Due to the absence of scrutiny, the pricises of  public contracts have gone up. And as a result of the shift from local media to the national ones which cover a more adversarial state-level politics, the polarization of society has intensified. 

“When we have politicians at the local level who are supposed to be accountable to the public, but at the same time we have no information about what they are doing and why, we are in trouble,” Císařová comments. She sees another big problem in the fact that there is often no information to find about politicians coming from the local level to Prague, due to the absence of local media.

“If you don’t have the watch dogs at the local level, there will appear politicians in the parliament who, for example, received a university degree by plagiarizing something. How did it happen? Well, they had been local politicians and nobody cared, nobody questioned them,” she explains.

When we talked to the journalists who, despite all the difficulties, were still in the regions, they had perceived the threat to the newsrooms in a similar way. “The demise of the regional media would significantly reduce the quality of democracy. And it’s not just that no one would be keeping an eye on the politicians. We also provide a platform for many people who have something to say and are a valuable source of thoughts, ideas and inspiration for the region,” says Tomáš Trumpeš, the editor-in-chief of Boskovice Ohlasy, about the role of regional media.

Closed for great interest

The importance of local media has once again been shown by the huge increase in interest in local topics since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed local news readings well above the long-term average.

“We worked from morning till night and the interest was enormous. People wanted to know what was the situation here in towns and villages,” Nádvorníková describes.

However, since the economic effects of the pandemic threatened the smallest local entrepreneurs the most, even the importance and interest in local news failed to prevent a further drop in local newsrooms’ revenues.

“Part of our income comes from cultural events advertising, and this has logically dipped. Some of our larger contributors have also limited their contributions,” Trumpeš describes the situation in Boskovice. Although the already tight budget of his Ohlasy has further decreased with the crisis, he still sees hope in the fact that people have once again realized the importance of local news.

“Given the fact that we see our future mainly in the direct support from our readers, we perceive it positively,”  he explains.

The interest in local events thus remains great and is still growing in the current situation. At the same time, no one has yet come up with an economic model that would enable quality local journalism, and any help from the state is also not in sight. “Sometimes it’s a struggle, because when I’m alone in the district, I can’t travel around the region and there’s no time to call the mayors,” Nádvorníková describes the current situation where there is no money for people’s work.

“You do it mainly because you like the job,” she sums up the work of a local journalist.

This story was supported by Visegrad Fund.