Printed word succumbing to media digitalization

  • 2011-11-10
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

HIDDEN AGENDA: To make ends meet, media run advertorials without saying so, says Dainius Radzevicius.

KLAIPEDA - Like in many Eastern European countries, Lithuanian print media has been shaken to its core by the ongoing digitalization process, trying to fend off its encroaching prevalence in the national media landscape by being more creative, sneakier and analytical. However, as is most often the case, it has not worked, as the Web keeps gnawing at newspapers’ advertising revenue, subscriptions, sales and influence.

“Very significant changes have taken place in the Lithuanian media over the last 20 years,” admits Dainius Radzevicius, the chairman of Lithuania’s Journalist Union (LJU). “The Web sets the trends, moving the readership and, therefore, money from print media, especially national dailies, to numerous Web sites,” the LJU chairman said to The Baltic Times.

Media monitoring and analysis results by JSC Mediaskopas, a leading Lithuanian company in media monitoring, proves just that, revealing that from 2003 to 2010, in the sector of bank communications, the relevant information flow on Web sites has grown from 0.7 to 46.1 percent, while similar information in national print media has shrunk from 73.9 to 20.7 percent.
In mobile connections, meanwhile, the advertising scope in Internet portals has risen from 6.7 percent in 2003 to 45.4 percent in 2010, while in the traditional media, it has decreased from 65.2 to 23.6 percent.

“The year 2009, in terms of advertising, has been a turning point, seeing a dramatic rise in advertising volume on the Internet,” says the LJU chairman. He notes that national newspapers have been particularly hard hit in recent years.
Mediaskopas reveals that circulation of the major national newspapers, like Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuanian Morning), Respublika (Republic), Lietuvos Zinios (Lithuanian News) and Vakaro Zinios (Evening News), has dropped from 10 to 43 percent, while publishing of L.T. and Extra, the tabloid-like newspapers, has been halted. However, the analysis-oriented glossy Veidas (Face) has seen a 30 percent increase in circulation.

Mediaskopas analysts speculate that, in the future, only analytical and glamour glossies will continue, as the dailies will see rapidly declining subscriptions, sales and advertising, eventually being replaced by Internet news portals. Not being able to catch up with them, Radzevicius notes, Lithuanian dailies are rather becoming “opinion forming paper sources,” rather than means of information.

“It is a quintessential change, hinting how the thinning national newspapers may look in the near future,” he points out. He added: “However, regional newspapers have withstood the Web fairly well, because most of their readership is elderly people, who still tend to stick with the traditional means of information. Local newspapers often take up the information niche, and that is their strength. However, with the Internet penetration enlarging and new traditions forming, their future is also uncertain. The 21 percent VAT for media, one of the highest in Europe, Radzevicius says, has also been a media killer.

In order to stay afloat during the crisis, Radzevicius says, the majority of newspapers not only downsized their staff and made journalist salary cuts, but have bent journalism ethics, running stories and advertorials without marking them as such.
In the TV segment, he says, TV3, part of the Viasat Group, has strengthened its position during the 2008 crisis. “Its main rival, LNK, with vociferous promises to catch up and overtake TV3, however, has failed, remaining the second Lithuanian TV channel to popularity indefinitely. In fact, the gap between them, audience-wise, has even widened. Baltijos TV, funded by the deceased multimillionaire businessman Bronislovas Lubys, has been having very big expectations for the TV season, but they have not come true. Lietuvos Rytas TV, a part of the Lietuvos Rytas Media Group, has been quite a success, bringing a new approach to news, delivering and taking the niche between the conservative Lithuanian National TV and some ultraliberal TVs,” Radzevicius said.

He notes that Lietuvos Rytas and Respublika, the two largest Lithuanian media groups publishing the two most popular dailies, tabloid-like Vakaro Zinios and liberal Lietuvos Rytas, tends to diversify their activity in attempts to strengthen the positions of the dailies. “Thus, Lietuvos Rytas owners have invested a good deal in the trendy Web site, Lietuvos Rytas Television, established a basketball club and, recently, opened up several restaurants bearing the same name. Meanwhile, Respublika Media Group has launched the popular O-lia-lia (connotation to wow-wow – TBT) trademark,” the LJU chairman says.
The latter, promoted by a bunch of busty, blonde girls, has been quite a success, seeing the release of credit cards, soft drinks and clothing bearing the name. However, Respublika has halted the O-lia-lia activity recently, sparking speculation about gloomy prospects for the media group.

The number of national dailies published in Lithuania has remained the same over the last several years. Their total number is 13. The tabloid Vakaro Zinios, which is the cheapest, with a price of only 0.13 euro cents, claims to be the most popular national daily, boasting a national readership market share of 42.6 percent.

Second place, most surveyors and media analysts agree, is taken by Lietuvos Rytas, which takes up roughly 39 percent of the national daily readership. Though Respublika claims to be third, this is strongly in doubt as many local press distributors point out that Lubys-owned Lietuvos Zinios has overtaken Respublika. Since Lietuvos Rytas and Respublika run their own newspaper logistics services, their public readership numbers, ostensibly pointing to their prevalence, should also be questioned. Though Lithuanian law requires publications to publicly declare their circulation, only a few put out real numbers, as most, in attempts to lure advertisers, make them up. Sure, with some extra zeroes at the end. To tackle this situation, a law amendment requiring newspapers to be audited by certified auditors was introduced to legislators a few years ago, but it has stalled ever since.

The regional weeklies with the largest number of subscribers include Kauno diena (Day of Kaunas), Vakaru Ekspresas (Western Express) and Siauliu naujienos (Siauliai News).
Among the glossies, no rivalry sees Zmones (People) boasting a readership of over 100,000.

Audrone Nugaraite, the former communications adviser to President Dalia Grybauskaite and a prominent Lithuanian print media expert, points out that during the last decade, the number of newspapers in Lithuania has declined by one quarter, whereas the number of journals has gone up by one third. “During the decade, the number of specialized journals has been increasing. Among the most popular ones are monthly journals dedicated to women, leisure, sports and hobby. These are the journals Panele (Girl), boasting 11 percent of national readership, and Laima,” Nugaraite says.

She says new capital concentration trends have emerged in the market of Lithuanian periodical publications.
According to the Law on Provision of Information to the Public, banks, political parties, and political organizations may not be the producers of public information and (or) their participants. Nevertheless, in the summer of 2009, the newly established Bank SNORAS – UAB SNORO Media Investicijos, a subsidiary of SNORAS bank, became the largest shareholder of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, having acquired 34 percent of the company.

However, the largest share of foreign capital invested into the print media sector, particularly the journals sector, came from the Norwegian media group Schibsted, which manages Zurnalu Leidybos Grupe (Journal Publishing Group). It publishes 12 glossy magazines, including such popular ones as Zmones, Laima, Edita and Ji.

The group is a serious competitor to the Ekspress Grupp in the Lithuanian magazine publishing market. Its subsidiary in Lithuania, JSC Ekspress Leidyba, publishes such popular Lithuanian magazines as Panele, Moteris (Lady) and Cosmopolitan. In addition, the Estonian media group runs Delfi Group, the largest online media company in the Baltic States. Delfi Group operates classified news portals in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Behind the statistics, however, a gloomy reality lingers about in most editorial offices of Lithuanian newspapers. Tauragiskiu balsas (Taurage Voice), a newspaper in Taurage, was the only publication in the district for many years during Soviet rule. It enjoyed circulation of nearly 20,000. That meant every third inhabitant of the town read the local Communist party-owned newspaper. Now, far from its best times, with less than 500 subscribers left, the newspaper gasps for air, being short of money for everything - settling publishing and distribution bills and paying out salaries.

Its demise has been largely spurred by the launch of a new newspaper, Taurages Kurjeris (Taurage Courier), ten years ago. The new newspaper seeking its share of the pie has done so extremely successfully, publishing insightful and local authority-lambasting stories, getting attention with eye-catchy front page headlines and illustrations. While the novice was gnawing away chunks of the readership and advertising from Tauragiskiu balsas, its editorial office kept marking the days on the calendar left until the bankruptcy of the muscling sly rival. With its successfully launched Web site and boosted sales, subscription and advertising, the dismal demise started threatening Tauragiskiu balsas itself. The same end came soon.
Facing bankruptcy several years ago, it received help from local undertakers-and-politicians from the Social Democrat Party, who were in search of a means to preach ideas of the local party branch, particularly ahead of a municipal election.

With the acquisition of the struggling newspaper, they thought they might turn things around with a loyal perky new editor. However, the replacement of the elderly editor, who spent nearly 30 years with the newspaper, has not brought the desired results, as Tauragiskiu balsas’ subscription and sales kept plummeting in the wake of deteriorating trust between the editorial office and the thinning readership due to the political bias, lackadaisical efforts from the editorial office, the strengthening competitor and the digitalization.

“We are doing really badly. After the staggering fall, our subscription numbers still keep crumbling, being way less than 500 at the moment. The new editor has left, so did several journalists, but no one cares to hire new people, as the rest put the paper together out of municipality reports, Internet material and very few authentic stories. Instead of publishing a 16-page newspaper as before, we have gone down to an 8-page newspaper on Tuesdays and a 12-page edition on Saturdays. If not for the EU media project we participate in and which adds 20,000 litas (6,000 euros) to our budget annually, as well as the other annual project by Lithuania’s Media, Radio and Television Support Fund, which brought nearly 7,000 litas this year and, most importantly, the contributions of our new shareholders, we would have shut the door of our editorial office a long time ago,” a Tauragiskiu balsas insider, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, revealed to The Baltic Times.

Its plight reflects well the overall situation in the regional media landscape that, by most, is considered “fairly” good.
“It is ridiculous to hear the estimations that regional media has been comparably less affected by media digitalization, as well as the other adverse trends, like high emigration, the crisis and the young generation’s propensity for virtual means of information that not necessarily comes in printed letters on the computer screen. I am pretty sure that soon, maybe in my lifespan, I will see the traditional newspapers going off the stage, even in our Silute district, where 3 newspapers share together a readership of 9,000 subscribers, 3,000 each. This number has been a big contraction for us from the past, I have to admit,” Petras Skutulas, publisher and editor of Pamarys, a newspaper in Silute acknowledged to The Baltic Times.

With 3 newspapers and several news Web sites in fierce competition for the scarce reader, he says some outlets “do insane things” in attempting to edge out the others. “Probably Silute is the only region in the country where most ads are being published free of charge. It became possible when one of the publications, trying to outsmart the others, started publishing them free of charge. There was no other choice for others than to follow this crazy example. Sure, the practice has slashed the little revenues for every publication. Tough common sense would be to get rid of it; it is unlikely it could be reversed any time soon,” Skutulas said.

He notes that old-time journalists in editorial offices of regional newspapers have been replaced by anyone who is able to jot down anything that could be considered “more or less coherent.”
“We are truly witnessing history when the published word gets screwed all over. I will not be surprised if, in years to come, letters themselves will be replaced by some youtube-like animations and vids,” the Pamarys publisher and editor predicted. The Lithuanian government that hiked VAT for media from 5 to 21 percent in 2009, he says, also should be considered the print media’s grave digger in Lithuania.