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Weekly: Decline of print media hastened by cheap online popularity contest

A selection of Estonian newspapers and magazines.
A selection of Estonian newspapers and magazines. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

While the death of print news publications in Estonia, as elsewhere, is likely inevitable and irreversible, news producers would do well to avoid the desire for meeting click targets eclipsing the need for a quality media supplying the public with real news, Dario Cavegn writes in a piece which first appeared on weekly Maaleht's website.

Cavegn, who has resided in Estonia since 2006, says he has been a consumer of Estonian-language media through virtually all of that time, and so has observed how the decline of Estonian newspapers started – by focusing on cheap popularity gains, with horoscopes and the like becoming more prominent.

Cavegn argues in the piece that the public read their daily paper such as the two principal publications in Estonia, Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht (EPL), to keep up with what is important, not to look for entertainment, meaning following the clicks – and shifting to sensational material, opinion, and magazine-like content – didn't increase the popularity of any newspaper.

On the contrary, it moved the paper out of the essentials bracket, and into the entertainment bracket, where it is up against anything you can think of, from books to sudoku magazines to TV shows to hobbies.

The above logic is obvious – there is little point printing stories on paper which can be subject to change online, and whose shelf life is only a few hours in any case, leading to the situation where papers carried what was adjudged to be what readers wanted to see regardless.

Here, however, is the point at which the wheels started falling off for the newspapers, as people subscribe to newspapers and watch TV and online news to build and expand their understanding of what is happening in the world, not just to fill a 15-minute gap over their morning coffee – but by contrast the publishers, by tracking readership figures and the rankings of article types have as noted tended to gravitate towards sensational or emotive topics.

Attention is money, regardless of whether this concerns the private media firms such as Postimees Grupp and Ekspress Meedia, who make use of advertising revenues, or public broadcaster ERR, which obtains funding from the state budget, meaning decisions can turn on a dime – long or short story, serious or entertaining etc – can turn on a dime, while another major development magnifying this process is the advent of social media.

As editor of ERR's English news between 2016-2019, Cavegn used to reiterate, ad nauseam he says, the folly of focusing on magazine-style content and features, unless a steady stream of basic hard news is first offered.

While this did not win him many fans, Cavegn writes, it led to a respectful, reasonably well-informed reader base, on the grounds that people generally won't be able to do much with the longer features and other pieces unless they have received a good primer in what is happening in general.

Perhaps that is the lesson here, he concludes – that the news media should focus on quality and their original allocated task of informing the public, not on winning popularity contests, since, in the age of Netflix, they will always lose the latter.

The original Maaleht piece (in Estonian) is here.

Postimees Grupp is continuing to publish a daily print newspaper, whereas EPL is discontinuing in paper format from April. Business daily Äripäev already made the same decision over a year ago, and is only available online.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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