Merle Viirmaa: Of respect for and within journalism ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Merle Viirmaa.
Merle Viirmaa.

The Estonian Media Enterprises Association turned to the government in the name of its members to ask for direct support in connection with falling advertising revenue. The association never considered making even the slightest compromise in terms of its role as society's watchdog, giving up media freedom when it made its request," Merle Viirmaa writes.

The situation caused by the coronavirus crisis has made one think more seriously about the role of journalism and a journalist's professional honor in our society.

There are both good news and bad. The best thing the crisis has done for the media market is boost the number of readers, viewers and listeners to unprecedented levels – we will be exceeding the 100,000 paid digital subscribers threshold in June at the latest. People trust quality media and are willing to pay for it. Preparedness and desire to pay for digital content is becoming the new norm.

Advertising revenue has fallen drastically in this crisis. Media executives believe the sector will miss out on dozens of millions of euros in the crisis for which new subscriptions cannot even begin to compensate.

Nowhere in the world is the media business model entirely independent from advertising revenue. However, the model is gravitating toward the subscriber, which is clearly positive in the long term as it offers media houses the chance to offer quality content next to media flow aimed primarily at generating clicks.

We asked for direct support to avoid the media being weakened

Why am I writing about this? Because the Estonian Media Enterprises Association turned to the government on behalf of its members to ask for direct support in connection with falling advertising revenue. The main reason was that most of our companies do not qualify for general crisis support measures as there is plenty of work to be done. We do not want 2020 to go down in history as the year several county newspapers went out of business.

Our members include 63 private media companies that employ 850 people who generate news media content on a daily basis. Our companies bring the state over €25 million in taxes every year.

The association never considered making even the slightest compromise in terms of its role as society's watchdog, giving up media freedom when it made its request. Such expectations would clash with journalism's most important value that is freedom of speech. On the contrary, we asked for direct support to avoid the media being weakened as it would constitute a threat to freedom of speech.

Weak media companies forced to look to their own survival would be too weak to fight for society, in which situation control over the media could move into the hands of businessmen with dubious goals and governments looking to make unwholesome agreements.

The European Union has long been warning its members states that a weak press leads to a weak and lazy society that is no longer strong enough to notice things and protect those who need protecting. It is the role of the press to maintain an exacting and reasoned dialogue with rulers and once that debate is allowed to subside, we cannot protect society and those who need representation.

We are grateful to the state for finding a little under one million euros during difficult times with which to support the Estonian private media. The sum is made up of home delivery support (450,000), digital VAT reduction (400,000) and social campaigns (110,000). Unfortunately, it is less than 5 percent of what the sector needs.

Estonians consider themselves European and we like to compare ourselves to the rest of Europe. The Estonian government's crisis support for the media is the smallest in Europe, falling well short of corresponding instruments in Scandinavia that we like to set as an example for ourselves and other European countries.

Measures employed by other European countries include major government campaigns, labor tax exemptions, VAT exemptions for publications and direct compensation for missed revenue. Several countries have hiked existing media support instruments that are not tied to the crisis. Estonia has no such instruments. It is enough to make one think about who could benefit from the private media growing weaker and how.

On in-house damage to reputation

Unfortunately, we are also forced to talk about in-house efforts to undermine the credibility of journalism in this crisis. I understand that crises see things that are unthinkable under normal circumstances. Difficult times see steps that look like battles won but could constitute a war lost in the end. Infighting between media houses damages our reputation and hurts everyone.

I'm sure there are differences of opinion, as there should be, but they can be resolved amongst ourselves. Bringing these skirmishes to the attention of readers, antagonism and intolerance weaken the entire media and undermine the confidence of journalists. Dear media executives busy railing against your competition, disparaging journalists in general equals disparaging oneself.

The interests of the media association are one and need to be protected as such. The association represents every member company and journalist and their freedom of speech. Much can happen in a crisis, however, let us be generous and seek out the spirit of cooperation. I wish media executives a balanced disposition and for them to stay true to core values. Journalism is not business as usual. Neither for the state nor the owners of publications.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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