Samost and Hennoste on 'backbone' of Estonian journalism

Tiit Hennoste.
Tiit Hennoste. Source: Ülo Josing/ERR

Journalism lecturer and literary scholar Tiit Hennoste and ERR's head of news Anvar Samost discuss Estonian media organizations' values, ideals and agenda, power dynamics between the press and politicians, literature's declining role in society, and the impact of US political polarization on freedom in Estonia.

(Anvar Samost) Let me ask right away: How would you describe the state of the Estonian press after 30 years of freedom and independence?

(Tiit Hennoste) It's a kind of two-way street, and I believe it is in the same state as Estonian society. There's one end to it, there's the other end, and then there's empty land in between. Maybe at one end there is investigative journalism; for example, the scandal involving the current prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is a case in point. Until the mid-1990s, however, there was nothing like this in the Estonian press—not even in the pre-war republic and certainly not during the Soviet era. At the other end, there's the kind of, excuse me, nonsense that we get to read, watch and listen to all the time on various portals. So it's very much a two-way thing.

When I think about the past, I realize that journalism has improved much compared to the 1990s, especially in terms of working with sources and journalistic ethics. That level has been relatively high, but I think ethics is going now quietly, quietly, quietly down again. But not as in the early 1990s; then it was really pretty crazy at times.

Anvar Samost. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Moreover, what seems to be getting worse is that journalists are somehow too close to their sources. For instance, journalists allow politicians too easily to get their way, or they allow them too easily to direct planned in advance communication, and for me, it's particularly mad when journalism becomes just a place for rewriting social media texts.

One of the things I have been terribly impressed with lately is that the editorials in the Estonian press, which I didn't think were particularly strong or influential until recently, have become highly influential, just as they are in the rest of the world, where you usually pick up an editorial from a large, important paper to see what these editorial writers out there are thinking.

It is true that editorials have gained prominence, and there is more of a suggestion and a demand and less of a description of the situation in them. But do these editorials have any significant impact on Estonian politics and society today? Looking at journalism as a whole, I think its influence has diminished somewhat since the 1990s.

It has diminished indeed, in the mid-1990s the press took down politicians with relative ease; for example, one, two or three articles were written, and the politician was removed from office. Back them, there was no protective communication barrier around politicians. Journalists are now outnumbered by PR professionals on the opposing side, so they cannot break through as easily, and politicians have learned to keep quiet. But the press hasn't quite learned to keep quiet!

On what occasion should the press remain silent?

When it comes to ignoring certain characters who are pushing to the fore, the press picks up and starts writing at ease because it's exciting, interesting or it gets a lot of clicks. I'm thinking, for example, of the many entertainers; I don't think the press should pay that much attention to them.

There is so much pressure on editors, particularly when writing about politics but also on business or entertainment, that if you, so to speak, give someone a chance to get into the picture, someone else comes along and says, "Look, I've got a similar story." It still takes some guts on the part of the editors to say, "Look, your story is not interesting." But too often the easy way out is taken because, what the heck, the space must be filled.

Yes, it is precisely as you say: there is a lack of strength, or backbone.

But it seems to me that there's a bit of a flip side to it as well. If I look at the paper editions now, for example, there are 30–40 stories in one issue, but there are 300–400 stories a day online.

If you have to produce 10 times as many stories, it's obvious that we don't have 10 times as many people on the editorial team, which means that the quality can't be the same.

It is not a requirement to produce 10 times as many stories per day. When I started working for Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) in 2016, I began to introduce the idea that press releases are more like suggestions for possible topics, that they should remain unwritten and unpublished, and that the journalist should instead focus on the editor's agenda and initiatives. And a little later, Õhtuleht adopted the same declaration, and nothing devastating has happened to the national public broadcaster, and certainly not to Õhtuleht—unlike to some other very large publications, where practically all the press releases that the communications people manage to send out during the day are published essentially unchanged.

That's right. I spent a great deal of time in the second half of the 1990s suggesting to journalists that a press release is merely a starting point from which to start, investigate and look further. There might be something intriguing hidden in a press release, such as an interesting tidbit or nuance, but press releases are not intended for publication. However, as you can see, it has not been helpful, at least for some of them.

The "News handbook" ("Uudise käsiraamat") is one of your most important works, at least for journalists, and I wanted to bring it up when we're talking about defining boundaries and having a strong backbone. I most recently used it in the spring when I lectured microdegree students at Tallinn University. I went over the essentials: news criteria, interviews, relationships with sources and I realized that, despite the name "handbook," the book is essentially a list of values, a doctrine of values.

Yes, it is both a manual and a skills-based curriculum, but at its core, it is really a teaching of values. It is a teaching of the values that quality journalism needs to have, and how to get to these values, how to maintain and uphold them. Indeed, it is exactly this.

Perhaps the most important part of achieving journalistic independence, or the backbone, is to think about these core values, both handbook values such as relationships with sources or news selection, and more general values such as our independence and autonomy. However, it is also about who you represent, as journalists do not represent themselves, but rather their audience, which includes listeners, readers, and viewers.

I would qualify one thing: whether a journalist now represents their readers or not is a bit of a slippery slope, simply put, because it could mean that they become the mouthpiece of the readers, or that they start offering merely what the readers want. I think there's a big difference between giving readers what they "need" and being the personality and decision-maker.

This is click-counting journalism if I just give readers what they want.

The other side of the equation, is that the press also represents itself, as well as its own media organization and its values and perceptions. This is actually extremely important because no media organization is a place devoid of values, perceptions, ideologies and ideals. Of course, there may be some who are only interested in making money.

Should the press compete to set society's agenda? Should journalists, editors, and publishers aspire to influence society as much as, or perhaps even stronger than, politicians, government officials, and the business sector do?

I don't know whether journalists can have a stronger role; how could you measure it precisely? But I believe they should play a role, because if the press doesn't have this agenda, then it's just entertainment or yellow rhetoric, and I cannot imagine a democratic society in which the press is the fourth or fifth power. Of course, that is impossible.

If the press does not have this agenda, or if only one section of the press has it, I believe this democratic society will soon collapse.

Nevertheless, this is the issue we are facing right now, or at least there are these challenges in some areas.


And it brings back what we have already talked about: that journalists or editorial staff allow themselves to be directed by communication experts or become social media post "narrators," despite not intending to do so.

No, of course, it's not on the agenda of journalists; it's just a situation where the journalist is a kind of tube that sends things out.

Long, long ago, journalism was a so-called liberal profession where, let's say, not all stars, but still so-called great personalities worked. But today's mass production has transformed journalist into a tiny cog in a machine. And the reality is that the same backlash or conversion must happen again for the journalist to stand up and the opposing party to acknowledge that this is an influential and important figure who must be considered and, if necessary, with whom debates must be held.

Given my capacity to set the social agenda, I've been engaging in this mind game for decades: I think about who the current editors-in-chief of Estonia's most prominent news outlets are and what the political parties, coalitions, and opposition leaders are in Estonia. The two groups are then compared in terms of their intellectual capacity and influence.

If a decade ago it appeared that the scales were hopelessly and irreversibly tilted in favor of politicians, it now appears that the scales are balanced, if not tipped in favor of journalists. Not because the journalistic side has somehow become much stronger, but because an unprecedented number of individuals have entered politics who would not have been imagined to be there 10 years ago.

I haven't measured it that way, but it's an interesting thought experiment in itself. I wouldn't just put editors-in-chief, because in fact every media outlet has its own senior team of journalists who sometimes don't want to be editors-in-chief, but who are very much in charge and sometimes even more influential than the editors-in-chief.

But I agree, this is not a strength of the press corps, but rather a political weakness. During my tenure as a lecturer at the University of Helsinki between 2004 and 2008, many former athletes, misses and others started to enter politics. And both the press and the people looked at them with a totally sheepish eye and started to vote for them.

There's not much that can be done about it, but when I listen to the people in political parties today, I realize that there are still these two camps, there are the clowns and there are others that absolutely do not tolerate them, even though they're in the same party.

Tiit Hennoste. Source: Ülo Josing

What should journalism do to maintain its strength, relevance and influence?

I believe one thing would still be what I said at the outset: reduce the amount of text and thereby allow for the production of better-quality journalism. I cannot imagine that the press would have the money to buy a huge number of journalists to fill this role on such a large scale. That is one thing.

Another thing is ambition.

There is always a lack of funds, but I don't think that a lack of money can ever be used as an argument. You just have to choose: you have to be more efficient, you have to do less, and you have to choose what to do.

But I also don't see the same level of ambition among journalists today as I did among leading journalists in the 1990s. I just don't see it as often as I used to, if at all.

Perhaps you should tell our readers what happened in the 1990s. What was the ambition of the 90s, what did it look like?

What is this [published] statement for? This statement is to take down the government!

Primitive, I agree; of course, yes, it was a totally primitive thing. The central thing was to annoy or to get the message across as forcefully as possible. At the time the word "kottima" (Estonian slang for "to plague" or "to mind" - ed.) was used for that a lot. I don't know if it's still in use today in the media, but it represented an extremely important thing at that time.

Important at the time was the fact that there were top journalists who had access to so much information that if a politician merely glanced at their card indexes, computers or similar, he or she would already get anxious. I doubt there are enough young journalists with such deep, world knowledge. This general baseline knowledge is lacking, I think.

The handbook also discusses specialized news, what an individual working as a court reporter or in economics, etc., should know: namely, the entire system, so she understands how the thing operates, who the important players are, etc.

Anvar Samost. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

When I read the texts today, I do not get the impression that journalists know what they write about. And if they don't know it, they begin fiddling, speculating or generalizing.

So it's a knowledge problem; and learning how to communicate, how to articulate one's own knowledge—that's a big topic, and a sad one for me as well.

In essence, every editorial office should continuously and in real time define power: question where it is, if it is still where it was yesterday, the day before, and where it will be tomorrow, and act accordingly.

Yes, exactly.

The first question is where is power now? But the press should also have predictive power, the ability to predict where power will be tomorrow and deal with these problems, places or individuals beforehand. So, it is also coming to terms with the fact that I am just researching these people, discovering who they are, researching new institutions, discovering what these are, so that I am competent when I realize that "Aha, it's about to explode."

Building up one's own competence does not mean that you should start writing immediately. I would say it is better to wait a bit. Everybody wants to start writing to soon.

Speaking of power in Estonia, I'll digress as I'm talking to someone who knows probably everything about Estonian literature. Back in the late 1980s, maybe even in the early 1990s, Estonian literature and writers played a very important role in society; you could say they had a lot of power. I was talking with my colleagues in the editorial office, in preparation for this interview, about whether they could tell me—perhaps I am wrong, but whether they could tell me—of any writers or literary works from the 2000s, from the last couple of decades, that would have had an equally strong impact on society, as, for example, "Piiririik" (English translation: "Border State") did, or before that, to take a provocative example, Raimond Kaugver did. And why not go even earlier, from the poets of the late 1960s to the prose writers of the 1970s? I don't see it! Or am I ignorant of contemporary Estonian literature?

No, that picture is quite right.

In fact, writers were most influential during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. If you think about, for example, how writers were treated in the pre-war republic or the influence or significance of writers in society, the Soviet period was similar, but in a slightly different way: the writer could not be as strong a critic as she or he needed to be, they had to make concessions here and there. In the 1990s, influence and power remained,although the situation was admittedly more revolutionary, if you can put it that way, and from then on it started to wane.

Here, we can now talk about two things, or we should talk about two things separately. One is that there is the influence, power, or strength of literary works; in fact, there have been such works; after all, after "Piiririik", there is still Kiviräha's "Rehepapp" ("Old Barny") and...

Kaur Kender, maybe?

It's a bit of a different kind of thing.

It certainly had an impact on society...

Of course, it had its own power or influence. The very powerful and interesting experiments of the ethnofuturists in the 1990s, or Ene Mihkelson more recently.

I think that now, for example, Kiviräha and Õnnepalu have a certain amount of such power.

Both Õnnepalu and Kivirähk are continuing what they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s; no new narrative has been born there.

They have changed quite a lot in terms of what they were writing about at the time. But in terms of the kind of influence they have on society, yes, they haven't changed, and new people of that caliber haven't come along.

I don't think there's a compelling answer to that; I don't have a compelling answer to why it is this way, why it has been this way, or why it has gone this way.

In the rest of the world, the picture is the same: the importance and influence of literature have been steadily declining. At the same time, though, there are some very powerful books, but very few. But the writer as a public intellectual whose voice is listened to—this influence has clearly gone down everywhere with book sales.

What I was going to say is that I don't feel that journalism has taken over in the sense that it has taken over this role; rather, I feel like something has been left out. The story of Estonia that the press now tells—the story of Estonia throughout Estonian history—has been told in the past by writers, often more successfully and better.

Now I might be wrong, but I feel that for some reason nobody wants to write the story of Estonia, which is happening right now and bubbling all around us in all its diversity and unexpectedness—and there is a lot of it.

Yes, it is often just talking about yourself, discussing all these things essayistically, but it still tends to be a rather narrow view.

At the same time, journalism has taken over the role of storytelling and, in my opinion, left behind the equally important role of generalization or forecasting.

It is obvious that the stories told by the writers, the entire world and system of reference that are created in a great novel, for example, are, in any case, infinitely more emotionally powerful than journalism can ever be.

Tiit Hennoste. Source: Jaanus Lensment/Eesti Meedia/Scanpix

In the U.S., next to entertainment and audiovisual culture, there are also a lot of political and journalistic models. And all this extreme polarization, all these weird trends that actually have little to do with Estonian culture and Estonian society, inevitably penetrate here; they affect [Estonian] journalism, they affect how we translate our local code for our readers.

Yes, it is. It's just that you can see that one part of it takes its views, ideas, and ways of thinking from somewhere in the American West Coast universities, and the other part of it takes them from somewhere in Donald Trump's world.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that it's going to be pretty hard to get rid of. Because in order to get out of it, the politicians have to have a very strong agenda of their own, which would not be linked to this international agenda, or at least introduce very clear lines of their own. But I do not see such things in Estonian politics.

Sadly, neither do I. As far as the press is concerned, one thing that for a long time seemed to be beyond us is now clearly here: the division of journalism into two in terms of worldview. When 10 years ago all the major media houses were saying that the Estonian audience, the number of Estonian readers, listeners, and viewers, was too small to produce right-wing or left-wing or, I don't know, whatever ideologically oriented publications, I would say that now we have one media house, Postimees, which is more conservative and more nationalist, and another media house, Ekspress Group and Delfi, which is more progressive, more left-wing, and more cosmopolitan. And this is being done quite deliberately; it is not accidental.

Let's jump back in time. In fact, such a division existed in the pre-war republic. At that time, the main newspapers were clearly linked directly to the parties. Today, these are simply worldview orientations that are not necessarily linked to a particular party, even though these links are sometimes wanted.

So this split is fairly recent indeed. I can't tell whether it is related to the influence of the owners; however, to a certain extent it certainly is.

I think that two factors play a role here. One is that we do not have a large audience, so we cannot attract a narrow group only. Sociological studies show that we attract various demographic groups, ages, etc. Nevertheless, I believe it is also the influence of online or web-based media. People used to subscribe to one newspaper; now they look at several different publications on the web. This has made it possible to capture more readers.

Anvar Samost. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

It is also related to the fact that Postimees is conservative because of its opinion articles, political stances, and other content of a similar nature. But I don't see anything conservative in their culture section.

In other words, the position of a newspaper or portal on this left-right or liberal-conservative scale varies, which helps them to attract the readership of other websites or publications.

I have wondered about this too, and I don't know how dangerous this polarization, this division on ideological-worldview grounds, could be for how much freedom we have in Estonia.

Freedom of expression is a central issue for the press, because as soon as someone succeeds in taking it away from the press, the freedom of society is really over.

If the confrontation gets too sharp or too strong, then yes, it clearly starts to limit freedom. Or it creates a situation in which, for example, I can only write for a certain publication, but people are not divided so neatly into liberals and conservatives; such a one-dimensional division cannot be made for any given person at all. Usually, people are conservative on some things in this world and liberal on others.

So if there's a missing middle ground or something like that, or if those lines are drawn too sharply somewhere...

I also see the role of ERR, Estonian Television, and Estonian Radio, which can stand between the two camps and provide options to those who do not wish to associate themselves with a specific media outlet.


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Editor: Mari Peegel, Mait Ots, Kristina Kersa

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