Opinion: ERR News has proven its worth over past decade

Dario Cavegn.
Dario Cavegn. Source: Author's own collection.

ERR News is 10 years old, writes former managing editor Dario Cavegn. In this time, it has gone from an original team of six with a budget to a team of one with no money at all, picked itself up, and over the last few years become the undisputed leader among Baltic English-language news portals, both in terms of its network and its readership.

This rise has been supported by several large-scale events that have made the Estonian state painfully aware of the importance of its own independent news in English. Beyond Estonia's 2017 EU presidency, these are the Russian invasion of Georgia and later Ukraine, the occupation and annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing efforts by the Russian regime to undermine the Baltic states in the international media.

Additional English-speaking editorial staff costs money, while there is only little money to be made in this particular niche. It was fairly obvious from the start that if there was a strategic need for more Estonian news in English, the state would have to fund it. This meant a real chance to develop ERR News.

But to actually use this opportunity, what was needed was a drastic reduction of ERR News' range of topics, a very clear editorial direction preferring hard over soft news, and a larger number of shorter, to-the-point news updates over lengthy feature pieces. This was done starting 2016, and immediately had a positive effect on the portal's readership.

The daily news is always more important

The lack of up-to-date information about the Baltic countries has led to many attempts at getting English-language news sites going. Some were started and failed, some are just getting by. Those who do the term any justice at all are few and far between, and mostly state-funded.

The latter point is almost self-evident, considering the importance of regular and independent news in the effort to counter disinformation campaigns and fake news originating mainly in Russia.

To be clear: Regular news here means the kind of information you need to get a basic idea of how a country works, how its administration and economy are run, and by whom. It means knowing what the government last said or did, what is happening in society and the economy on the whole, and what the decisions, rules, perspectives are that will affect everyday life.

Daily news has to go far beyond magazine-style articles and reporting in terms of both its frequency and timeliness. Without this basis, it isn't possible, especially for a non-native outsider, to have an educated and informed opinion about what is happening here.

In other words, it is only the kind of background like ERR News provides it that makes other more magazine-like portals about Estonia and the Baltic states, such as Estonian World or UpNorth, viable at all.

This is why in the more recent years, ERR News' main priority has been and should continue to be the provision of exactly such a basis. In my own time as editor, I could see first hand how important this is as I responded to requests for information and context from journalists, universities, and other institutions abroad.

And taking this direction has paid off. Readership has grown substantially since 2016, and there is no other English-language portal throughout the three Baltic markets that ever managed to get anywhere close to the density, timeliness, and range of ERR News.

Difficulties come built-in

Anyone who has ever tried to report about the Baltic states in English knows how challenging it is to build up and run even just a low-frills website. The lion's share of your readers will be abroad, while the ones complaining about not seeing what they want to see, the 20-30 percent expat readers, will vocally dislike you for not covering enough local news.

Meanwhile if you are state-funded, the government's interest is precisely in the larger audience abroad, since their strategic communications advisors will want you to help neutralize any disinformation campaign the country might be facing.

Then there are what I have come to call the "purists", often relatively high-ranking, to very high-ranking, officials who grew up in English-speaking countries, maybe themselves former journalists. Their type couldn't care less about the local media, and only ever reads the New York Times, the Washington Post and Le Monde. But they will happily compare you to those papers, putting you in the uncomfortable position of having to defend your work while you're at a disadvantage of a few million euros, a few hundred staff writers and at least a few decades' worth of pedigree.

I was once told by a Latvian MP that "the local news in English" couldn't possibly hope to see an increase in staff and funding so long as the "frequency and timeliness" of its reporting didn't increase. How we were supposed to achieve this without additional staff and funding she didn't say. Superior idealism, perhaps, combined with a permanent cabbage soup and spam diet.

Still substantially underestimated by local politicians

The domestic importance of news in English has been underestimated as well. In Estonia alone there are more than 25,000 EU citizens who can vote in local and European elections, but who are almost completely ignored by the local political parties. Before the last local elections, it was this very publication here that hammered the point home with them that there is an actual Estonian city's worth of untapped voters.

Then there is the fact that ERR News is apparently still too easy to ignore. Yes, a public broadcaster's news, run in three languages by some five or six teams of editors, will get on any press chief's nerves. But there is also the depressing fact that to e.g. the Office of the President, an occasional piece in the New York Times, Le Monde or the Wall Street Journal is ever so much more glamorous than, say, granting an interview to what they see as little more than a local rag.

Glamorous enough to forget that any journalist abroad will eventually have to get their information about this country from somewhere. Even the occasional big shot writer at the New York Times. And unless they speak the local language, in Estonia's case that source would very likely have to be ERR News.

It befits the strange times that we live in that ERR News' most outspoken supporters have recently been in military and national defense circles. That is the case because it is rather difficult to counter a maliciously planted rumor if you don't have a credible news service, one that offers more than a hastily written press update in diabolical English, or a gallery of 16 images of the sun rising over a frozen bog.

Hard news first, soft news second

For all of these reasons, and because any publication that goes beyond reporting the daily news still depends on it whether they like it or not, the mission of Estonian Public Broadcasting's English-language service has to be to first and foremost take care of the basics.

And though this may be difficult to understand for some, this means that if the portal wants to be taken seriously and wants to make sense to the regular reader, there is a clear order of priority regarding its reporting, starting with the big three: Politics, the economy, and infrastructure. Everything else necessarily comes later.

These three topical areas cover society from an ideological perspective. They allow ERR News to report about the world of work. They make it possible to reflect what the news is in the country on any given day. And they provide sufficient practical information for expatriates and visitors alike to have a reason to come back from time to time.

As long as this sort of coverage isn't there and done properly, there is little sense in reporting about all those topics that are interesting to smaller and more specific audiences, like sports, the arts, culture, and lifestyle.

Hard news first, soft news second, precisely because there isn't anyone else in Estonia today with the resources and the nerve to report the former. The country's one state-funded portal has to take on this leading role, anything else would amount to an undue deviation from ERR's mission as prescribed by Estonian law.

ERR News has done well recently, and no doubt will continue to do so. The service to the public that it provides is unique in this country, in that it isn't just bound to the consensus of the Estonian media expressed in the Estonian Press Council, but indeed adheres to the higher standard of the national public broadcaster.

It is by original requirement balanced, always supervised, always aware of context, and as such does not need to justify itself against lesser competitors. What it does need to do is work on the details of its overall credibility, including clarity and quality of language, and pay continued attention to the selection of topics it chooses to run.

Beyond that, I hope that the state and ERR's own upper echelons will continue to see the value of their own English-language news, and contribute what they can to go on developing it over the next 10 years as well.


Dario Cavegn was managing editor of ERR News from February 2016 to August 2019.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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