Estonians can celebrate a peculiar anniversary this year as the country's tabloid journalism turns 100.
The first regular Estonian tabloid Esmaspäev (Monday) started to be published in Tallinn in 1922.
Printing house owner, journalist and politician Aleksander Veiler's newspaper took after London and Scandinavian weekend papers, offering readers interesting factoids from the wide world, news briefs on new divorces and entertaining short stories a la "A naked woman's tricks in the Nõmme detention house" or an analysis on how a fifth of those who get engaged break it off.
"Talking about regular journalism, it started with Esmaspäev in 1922, which was a weekly. Oh the sensation of it all. Whether we're talking about stories about important, let us say princes and princesses, pieces about local movie stars or athletes or articles on crime – everything was used," scholar of journalism Tiit Hennoste said.
One innovation Esmaspäev imported were so-called reader games that quickly proved very successful.
Hennoste suggested that Esmaspäev, in print for almost 20 years until 1940, also affected other more conservative dailies that also started printing lighter stuff and humor. The Soviet occupation completely destroyed the free press, which is why we can talk about so-called yellow press again half a century later, during the period of reawakening when the first cooperative papers appeared in kiosk windows, next to waffles and Western bubblegum. The pivotal moment came in 1989 with the emergence of weekly Eesti Ekspress that ran explosive pieces uncovering KGB agents, as well as downright sensational stuff, but nevertheless came off like the Bee Gees appearing at a local kolkhoz gathering, considering the journalistic landscape at the time.
"The period was full of scandal in general, with something always going on," Hennoste recalled. "But it was also a period of very lax ethical norms in society, as well as in journalism. The journalistic ethics code didn't appear until the late 1990s, and if I were to look at Eesti Ekspress pieces from the first half of the 90s, I'm pretty sure almost all of them would be challenged in the ethics committee today, with plenty ending up in court."
News invented on the spot
Limits were constantly being tested in the newly free society, including in journalism. A sketch show blatantly reported that Finnish 100 markka notes were going out of circulation, which ended up causing a panic... Experts agree that the Post, which ran from 1993 to 1996, was the purest, most brutal tabloid that has ever been published in Estonia as it made no bones about anything, often preferring fantasy and fake news to facts.
"They simply came up with the news. They were not a newspaper, but rather something resembling one," Hennoste said.
While many perhaps no longer remember it, Õhtuleht, that first appeared towards the end of World War II, functioned as a serious Tallinn city newspaper for most of the time it has been published and didn't knowingly plot a course toward becoming a tabloid until the turn of the 20th century.
Kroonika brought the glamour
"A person wants something sweet next to all the savory stuff. This dessert comes in the form of celebrity gossip. If it is done professionally, it definitely adds to the media landscape," said Ingrid Veidenberg, editor-in-chief of Kroonika magazine 1997-2007 and starting again in 2019.
"The entire world is cursing such magazines and always has, but if you write them something softer, they won't read it. The person who buys and reads the publication determines where it's headed," said Krista Lensin who was Kroonika's editor-in-chief 2010-2019.
Veidenberg and Lensin have spent more than 20 years between them running the flagship of Estonian socialite press Kroonika. If Õhtuleht represented a somewhat more proletarian view, Kroonika tried to inject glamour into Estonians' days.
Tabloids have calmed down
Like the rest of society around it, tabloid press has become both quieter and more professional in the last decade.
Next to those seeking their 15 minutes of fame, an increasing part of tabloid stories concentrate on more established socialite celebrities like Anu Saagim or Brigitte Susanne Hunt who are used by the attention industry and who use it right back.
Terms like "yellow press" or "tabloids" are often used as insults, while this type of journalism is undoubtedly very popular and – more importantly – influential. Stories, in addition to their entertainment value, can have a considerable effect on society.
"The tabloids in Estonian journalism have never been fully or completely yellow, they have always gravitated toward the so-called white press, while the latter has gravitated toward the sensational in turn. Both have always been close to the dividing line so to speak," Tiit Hennoste remarked.
Editor: Kerttu Kaldoja, Marcus Turovski