Analysis: What happened at Postimees and its effect on the media in Estonia
Postimees is heading into 2020 without an editor-in-chief, short on strong journalists and in a situation where a conflict with the CEO is affecting the work of the editorial board in general. This might herald a fundamental change for the Estonian press in different scenarios.
The following analysis is based on long-term observation of developments at Postimees, scientific analyses and conversations with journalists, including current and former Postimees employees. Allow me to begin with a short summary of recent events that have culminated in journalists leaving the paper and close with possible scenarios for the future.
What happened at Postimees?
The conflict that culminated in the departure of Postimees executive publisher Merili Nikkolo, head of the investigative desk Holger Roonemaa and seven other journalists last week started with a database analysis. The investigative desk acquired data on potential money laundering in spring. The investigative desk hired an analyst from the outside. While the analyst did come across some connections, these did not amount to a story and the investigative desk dropped the matter.
Let it be said about the analyst, Jüri-Franciscus Lotman, that he is a small businessman, one of the founders of the ZA/UM group and Nihilist.fm who also had a hand in the so-called takeover of the Sirp magazine in 2013.
Lotman took his alleged discoveries to members of the board of Postimees Group, with CEO Andrus Raudsalu saying he would investigative the story personally and that Holger Roonemaa and his desk cannot be trusted.
Raudsalu wrote in English about an internal investigation at Postimees. Investigative desk employees who learned about it interpreted it as one aimed against the desk. Holger Roonemaa asked Merili Nikkolo about it in mid-December, but the executive publisher knew nothing about an in-house investigation.
Nikkolo called a meeting for December 18 that also included Andrus Raudsalu. Asked whether there is an internal investigation at Postimees, Raudsalu denied it and has done so both in writing and in an interview to ERR since then. Raudsalu described it as a poor choice of words.
Holger Roonemaa writes on social media that Raudsalu wrote on the company's mailing list that "contractual partners" have been involved in investigating a money laundering story that is volatile and top secret and won't be shared with journalists before all the material is there, which is when it will be handed over to the investigative desk for publishing. "For publishing. We are also not told who these 'contractual partners' are," Roonemaa adds.
Roonemaa and Nikkolo announce their resignation immediately before Christmas. Another editorial board meeting takes place at Postimees on December 27 where an executive claims in front of the editorial staff that there are impartial journalists. This creates further tension and leads to seven more journalists quitting. Postimees suggests they leave on the day and without compensation.
What will happen next?
Most of the journalists who left worked for the investigative desk, and because investigative journalism is slow work, it is likely Postimees will not have much in the way of these articles in the near future.
The labor market is not exactly bursting with journalists looking to work for Postimees in an air of distrust toward the management. Those who left the paper have already received several job offers and remain open for more.
The people involved say the atmosphere at the paper does not favor working and is rather described as emotional and one of conflict. Lack of trust in CEO Andrus Raudsalu saw the staff write a letter to Postimees Group owner Margus Linnamäe who was meant to take part in a meeting on Monday (December 30 – ed.) afternoon.
The past year has seen the question of whether owner Margus Linnamäe's right conservative convictions (he is a member of Isamaa) could have a direct effect on Postimees as reflected, for example, in the content of the "Meie Eesti" section of the paper, its journalists' "incorrect" opinions on patriotic topics and coverage of the pharmacy reform in an "unsuitable" form.
Considering that the stories in question were published in Postimees, we cannot seem to say there's censorship. Postimees journalists who talked to ERR said their stories have not been modified against their will.
That said, more than one journalist was treated to criticism from the previous editor-in-chief after publishing certain stories. This kind of "adjustment" after the fact affects how journalists pick, frame and focus their stories. Research shows that constant criticism leads to self-censorship or quitting. While this research mainly concentrates on public pressure from readers, similar pressure from the employer yields a similar result.
Journalists leaving Postimees is the result of these processes – journalists whose principles are based primarily on what the reader needs to know and knowing they are autonomous in their choices as concerns the will of interest groups and the owner.
Media house or journalistic publication?
The difference is slim for an ordinary media consumer, while the distinction is considerable for a journalist. A journalistic publication has the news desk at its core. Why?
The media covers everything – from entertainment, classifieds and social media to news. However, news is specific and only belongs in the category of journalism. The reason is that news, as a journalistic format, means it has been picked by journalists, verified in terms of facts and corresponds to journalistic ethics. The auditorium must be able to trust the content based on this, with the news desk and every individual journalist responsible for that content.
It forms the very heart of the credibility of the entire publication at Postimees and everywhere else for that matter. That heart has consisted of the news and investigative desks at Postimees so far.
Postimees Group is a media house made up, next to Postimees and county newspapers, of television network Kanal 2, Kuku Radio, but also a classifieds portal and the Kuuuurija program it buys in from an outside partner. The latter is perhaps the best example of the borderland where the media and journalism meet.
For the consumer, postimees.ee is the online manifestation of Postimees. In truth, it is the gateway to the entire content of the Postimees Group media house – from classified ads to pets, the Elu24 entertainment portal and Kuuuurija. The fundamental clash between media and journalism manifested in a conflict between two editorial desks this fall. The Kuuuurija program ran a story on a child taken away from their parents by local social workers because the child had fallen victim to molestation while in their care. The story has been removed from the kuuuurija.postimees.ee website by today because it seriously harmed the interests of the child and local child protection officials. The story was aired on Kanal 2 and published on the kuuuurija.postimees.ee page.
The journalistic publication Postimees had no control over the Kuuuurija story and had no choice but to run a story of its own that arrived at a different conclusion after checking all the facts.
The question now is whether Kuuuurija content is the responsibility of Postimees or the company producing the program. If we consider the fact it airs on Postimees online, it should be Postimees. But can a journalistic publication be held responsible for something it has no control over?
Therefore, for the ordinary reader, there is no difference whether they're dealing with a media product that follows someone's interests, has been paid for or is ideologically charged, or whether they are accessing journalistic content. Even though there should be because of the question of what the consumer pays for – trustworthy journalism or content for the purpose of influencing opinion.
Andrus Raudsalu said in an interview to ERR that readers will have to start paying for content for Postimees to break even in the coming years. The question is what is the auditorium willing to pay for – journalism or media content of dubious quality?
A change has gradually happened at Postimees under new management where the media house is no longer run by journalists. Executive publisher Merili Nikkolo was the last member of the board with an education in journalism and practical experience working as a journalist.
If the content of Postimees Group is divided between members of the board as verticals where the media division is responsible for Elu24 and Kuuuurija but both are published under Postimees as a newspaper, management areas and responsibility inevitably become muddled. Postimees as an organization requires a clear management structure to determine, among other things, what the publication offers the auditorium and in which format and whether it is a journalistic organization or a media content business.
Postimees is a strong trademark people associate with quality journalism today. As that trademark is attached to low-quality content and credibility wanes, it is doubtful readers will want to pay for it.
Significance for the press in Estonia?
The simple and linear answer is that there are several good journalists up for grabs who are receiving job offers. However, life is neither simple nor linear most of the time.
Looking at the media system, Estonia has until recently maintained institutional versatility, with private companies Ekpress Group and Postimees Group complemented by public law ERR. Is that enough? It is for the tiny Estonian media market. However, the more media consolidates into the hands of a few major houses, the more institutional and fundamental versatility is lost.
A University of Tartu analysis on the situation of Estonian media policy also finds that as media houses become information and entertainment mediation companies, more questions are raised as to the independence of journalistic activity that could negatively impact the auditorium's trust for journalistic content as "the principles of content formation and financing aren't transparent or publicly communicated."
If Postimees' development will see fewer journalists and more media workers, the Estonian media system will have to rely on Ekspress Group and ERR. Should either one lose its influence for whatever reason, the journalistic landscape will only be covered by a single major media house – this would not be beneficial for the reader as it would mean less choice of balanced and versatile journalism. From the point of view of democracy, the disappearance of every journalistic publication weakens the institution of journalism.
What are the future scenarios?
From Postimees' point of view, all hopes are now placed on the news desk that is run by Urmas Jaagant – a levelheaded and calm political journalist. Postimees still has journalists and whether they will stay or go will be decisive in terms of whether Postimees will continue as a journalistic organization or simply a media house.
This is a fitting time to quote University of Tartu journalistic sociology docent Ragne Kõuts-Klemm in Sirp magazine recently: "We need to recall the age-old question that helps give meaning to the role of journalism in society. Does it speak to people as citizens or consumers? Do journalists (and heads of editorial boards) think about information people need in daily content creation? Or do they consider what people want?"
It is possible that Postimees will be published in weakened form, at least in the coming months – the exodus of so many strong journalists means less quality journalism with which to populate the paper. The challenge Postimees now faces is to find a strong editor-in-chief with the freedom and capacity to run the publication, both as an organization and a financial entity. Leaders of this caliber are not many on the journalistic landscape in Estonia. The name of former Eesti Ekspress editor-in-chief Priit Hõbemägi has been mentioned who could likely be up to the task. The paper's second challenge is to keep its remaining journalists.
The people who have left Postimees or who might still leave are strong and principled journalists. There is no reason to believe their only remaining career prospects are with other journalistic organizations. There are examples in Estonia of journalists creating their own publications (Geenius, Levila).
- In the best case scenario, the creation of such small but capable publications will add versatility to the entire media landscape in Estonia. The good journalists left at Postimees can independently cover any topic and write editorials that reflect the editorial board's positions, as agreed during a recent meeting with owner Margus Linnamäe.
- A good scenario would see ERR and Ekspress Grupp grow stronger with the help of former Postimees journalists.
- A poor scenario would see former Postimees journalists become state officials and press representatives where salaries are bigger, required skills the same and the work potentially less stressful.
- The worst case scenario would see Postimees further marginalized as a journalistic publication. This would mean less versatility in the Estonian press and further consolidation of the media market. For the reader, Postimees would be a source of media content that might not be trustworthy or satisfy a citizen's need for credible journalism.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski