Romanian media in crisis

Romanian media is in a sad state, with newspapers losing stamina by the day and television channels shamelessly blasting the political messages favored by their owners. Independent journalism still exists, but can it reach beyond the more educated and resourceful?

Claudia Ciobanu
22 May 2013

Romanian media is not in a good state. Flickr/Laurentiu Nica. All rights reserved.

A dying press

Last year, journalists at one of Romania’s largest daily newspapers, Jurnalul National, were offered a Faustian bargain: take a 25 percent salary cut or be demoted to a lesser “collaborator" status, and also give up their authorship rights to the paper for the coming 50 years. To add insult to injury, employees of this paper risk losing their jobs if they complain about working conditions or contracts. They ended up organising an anonymous online protest to let the world know about the terrible terms of the deal.

The situation at Jurnalul is far from unique. At competitor Adevarul, journalists were told last year to either take a 15 percent cut in pay or move to "temporary collaborator" contracts; in addition, they were forced to commit to non-disclosure agreements regarding the details of how their media company operated, otherwise risking to be fined 8,000 euros. Employees of other dailies have also seen their already small salary payments delayed by months.

Newsrooms in Romania have been shrinking for years. In a country of 22 million people, the four most important quality dailies were, at the end of 2012, printing between 20,000 and 33,000 copies. Even the main tabloid, Libertatea, prints only 130,000 copies, a decrease compared to previous years.

Print, of course, is losing ground almost everywhere in the global north, locked in competition with online and television news. The economic crisis has also dealt a serious blow to Romanian newspapers: advertising money going to print media was in 2010 almost three times less than in 2008 and less than half of 2006 investments. And there is one more factor to consider.

Back in 2007, when I was working for what was then perhaps Romania’s most respected daily, Cotidianul, the owners organised a big meeting to discuss a new direction for the paper, which had started losing money. We were introduced to the new management team, the new marketing team, the new PR and sales strategy, the new format of the paper etc. - and then one of the most experienced journalists at the paper asked, “What about us - the journalists - shall we discuss what we should do differently?” To this, there was silence in the room. A long silence. And herein surely lies one of the main reasons for the dramatic collapse of the press in Romania: the lack of an editorial vision during these difficult times.

If and how newspapers can survive the current transformation of the media landscape is still an open question, even in countries with a much more solid media tradition than Romania. Yet contemporary Romanian media owners and managers appear to have little interest and expertise to even start thinking about serious strategies to survive.

Newspaper media ownership following the collapse of the totalitarian regime of Ceausescu in 1989 is sometimes depicted as having three waves: the excited early 1990s when everyone in the streets was carrying a newspaper and the biggest dailies reached a circulation of 2 million; in this period, newspapers were owned by star journalists, which made both editorial and managerial decisions; then followed a brief period of foreign ownership, which never really took a strong hold in the Romanian market; finally, the current stage is that of local oligarchs owning media outlets, including newspapers, and using them as tools to serve their political and economic interests.

Over the past couple of years, several important media owners have come to dominate both the print and the TV market. Intact Media Group, which includes Jurnalul National and well-watched TV channels Antena 1 and Antena 3 (the latter being an all-news channel), is owned by the family of politician Dan Voiculescu, a former collaborator of Ceausescu’s Securitate and founder of the small but influential Conservative Party.

Oil man and banker Dinu Patriciu, who made a big part of his wealth off the privatization of Romania’s main oil company and is an important member of the Liberal Party (currently in government), founded, and owned until last year, Adevarul Holding, which includes Adevarul and numerous other publications.

One of Romania’s richest businessmen, Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, who was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud, owned until recently Realitatea TV, one of the most influential all-news TV channels.

These are just some of the more prominent examples - but the ownership of most media outlets in the country includes many colourful figures from the political and business class.  

Newspapers owned by such figures have hardly performed well. The main interest of owners has been to keep them going as part of their arsenal for various political battles. Managerial teams were changed often to suit the ambitions of the owners. Vision was missing, as were any insightful investments; the newspapers are now often indebted to the businesses of their patrons. Better known journalists left when they felt these pressures began to affect their independence. Rank and file reporters followed suit when their salaries were slashed. The few remaining ones are suffering from the types of pressures described above. Observers of the media scene also note a chronic deficit of well-trained journalists. All of these elements, along with external pressures, have lead to the near collapse of the Romanian press.

Crooked television networks

Most Romanians, however, take their news from television and this is where the interests of the owners play out even more powerfully. Romania’s television market fluctuates wildly but on average this country has had over five all-news TV channels over the past years, quite a lot for the overall number of viewers. Television journalists are better paid but perhaps exposed to even bigger pressures.

Over the past few years, Romania’s political life has been highly polarised, with two main camps struggling for power. The centre-right Democratic Liberal Party - allied to current President Traian Basescu - the main promoter of austerity measures who lost governmental power last year. On the other side are the socialists and liberals, who formed an anti-Basescu alliance, despite their (nominal) ideological differences. They are currently in government.

The television networks vigorously followed the camps to which their owners belonged: Realitatea TV and Antena 3 ferociously attacked the President’s camp, while B1TV and state television (up to a point) defended him.

A few examples from the National Audiovisual Council, which monitors media practices, help illustrate this. During the anti-austerity protests taking place in Romania in January 2012, Antena 3 invited into its studios 20 representatives from the government and 229 from the opposition parties with which owner Voiculescu was aligned at the time. During local elections last year, Antena 3 invited representatives of the Socialist-Liberal alliance 162 times to its debates, with the governing party being invited only 64 times; Realitatea TV invited representatives of the opposition 144 times and from the government just 61 times. The channels supporting Basescu generally favored representatives of the President’s camp, although the disparity in numbers is less severe.

The country’s current prime minister, Socialist Victor Ponta, whose popularity soared as Basescu was promoting austerity measures, publicly thanked private TV channels for helping him get to power.

Suffice to say, real debate on issues concerning the public is lacking, with most time being taken up by political bickering. According to the Audiovisual Council, during the electoral campaign between May and June 2012, 49 percent of the time political debates aired was spent on inter-party disputes and 28 percent of the time on covering the local elections. Less than 5 percent was spent discussing issues of public interest such as education, health or the economy.

Many people in Romania are disgusted with the TV channels and can predict what arguments they will hear when they turn on one channel or another. But they will also argue that they hardly have a choice. All news programs are the same. While the national TV channel, supported by the state, is slightly more balanced, it too is quite prone to influences from whatever political force is in power, with management usually changing after each election. At the moment, the loss making national television is being restructured, with many staff being let go and many of its services outsourced.

In these conditions, quality journalism and investigations of public interest often crop up in the most unexpected places. Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports daily, has been building up a name as a respected news source by conducting investigations into the (mis)use of public funds - starting by looking at investments in sports centres. A few online outlets and blogs keep up good standards and a few magazines with niche readership are still going by either introducing paywalls (such as cultural weekly Dilema veche) or building a strong connection with the readership and creating an original voice (Decat o Revista).

Yet most of these channels are available only for the educated middle classes, who become aware of these options and can afford to pay for online access or the more costly magazine. The rest of Romanians face a disappointing choice. People are aware that they are getting cheated but they hardly see any alternatives. The media, whose job it should be to indicate some, is failing so strongly at its mission. 

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