Private media firms: State aid needed or some local papers face bankruptcy

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Estonian newspapers (photo is illustrative). Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

A body representing private media firms in Estonia says many regional newspapers face going out of business in their print versions if they do not receive state aid.

The Ministry of Culture says aid may be forthcoming, but this needs to be clearly enumerated and developed as crisis aid as a component of the coronavirus supplementary budget.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue into sharp relief, Merle Viirmaa-Treifeldt, board member of the Estonian Association of Media Enterprises (EML) said in an address in which she urged the culture ministry to support local newspaper delivery to the tune of 50 percent of costs through the first half of this year, along. The sector already appealed for aid during the initial COVID-19 wave in spring 2020, though digital subscriptions were reported to have off-set at least some of the losses.

Viirmaa-Treifeldt wrote that: "Since the press constitutes a part of the cultural field, the EML proposes supporting the home delivery of regional newspapers on the same principle as the ministry had in mid-2020."

That local papers, long the subject of pressure due to delivery costs in more outlying areas, may go bankrupt was particularly poignant in 2021 given it marked the bicentennial of the launch of "Marahwa Näddala-Leht" (in modern Estonian, Maarahva Nädala-Leht, roughly translating as "Rural people's weekly paper"), founded by Otto Wilhelm Masing (1763-1832), one the first, if not the first Estonian newspaper at a time of rising literacy rates which presaged the national awakening later in the century.

"It would be extremely unfortunate if Estonia celebrated the 200th anniversary of the publication of [pastor, linguist and the person responsible for the introduction of the "õ" letter in to the Estonian alphabet] O.W. Masing's newspaper, 'Marahwa Näddala-Lehe', with the bankruptcy of several local newspapers," Merle Viirmaa-Treifeldt continued.

Meelis Kompus, the culture ministry's head of communications, said that the media companies themselves had ditched the idea of 2021 being a themed year marking that anniversary, which mean that money, around €200,000, earmarked for the task had to be quickly rerouted

"Since the coronarvirus crisis has deepened in the meantime, and areas that have suffered the most have had to suspend their activities, the Ministry of Culture has found it unfair to direct this crisis budget to the crisis reserve in the current precarious situation," he said, noting that support money should find its way to regional papers as crisis aid, rather than disolving into the general support funding for the creative sector.

The sector faces declining advertising revenues at precisely the time when home delivery becomes more expensive – close to 10 percent more, Viirmaa-Treifeldt  added.

Seventeen local papers from across the country, including Harju Elu and Lääne Elu belong to the EML. Six of the papers are Postimees-owned, including Tartu Postimees, Viru Teataja and Saarte Hääl.

Many smaller newspapers and newsletters, often supported by local advertising, are also to be found across Estonia.

They should not be confused with municipal publications, which often resemble newspapers and are generally free-of-charge, but are largely used to promote the activities of whichever ruling body is in office in that particular locale.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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