“Why I Stopped Writing for Dilema Veche”
I didn’t think journalistic standards could get much lower in Romania. I was wrong.
Thanks to a combination of the mindless overuse of available technology and a woeful blindness to journalistic principles, something I never anticipated is happening: An encroachment of advertising so egregious, so intrusive, into the editorial content of a newspaper that it forces readers essentially to call into question the integrity of entire publications.
How naïve I feel. I’m told it’s been around for a while. (Ok, I’m not too observant and I prefer print to online.) So I didn’t even notice it until some weeks ago when I looked at a commentary I wrote for Capital. It was there, in the online version, where I had written the word “marketing,” that a link was inserted – a link from my word to an online employment agency. Just slide the cursor on top of this word – this word that was highlighted in red and underlined twice – and just above it, a little pop-up appeared. Yes, a little product placement stuck deep into my thoughts.
I was stunned. Truly. Stunned. And as I started to look around, I quickly found similar links in Dilema Veche, Adevarul, and Ziarul Financiar (and probably other places but I’m not doing a survey.) So if you were interested in buying real estate in north Bucharest, all you had to do was read Andrei Plesu’s column or some story about Mugur Isarescu. You’d find a couple links in there. Or perhaps you want a bank loan? Just click on a word while reading a story about dead Romanians in Montenegro. Nice, huh?
Yet even that wasn’t so shocking, so unimaginably wrong. (The business side often screws up when no one is watching.) No, what truly stunned me was that this unthinkable breach of the most basic journalistic integrity was so blatant and so pervasive that I knew it only could happen if no one in senior management regarded it (even remotely) as wrong. Yes, how terribly distorted the industry is here. Distorted, that is, and so ignorantly suicidal.
And that got me thinking. Just why, I wondered, does it seem so clear that journalism here is mostly managed by people who have no idea what they’re doing? What is it about this one little practice that makes it obvious to me that too few people in control here have a clue what journalism is?
You might think I’m exaggerating. What’s the big deal? A few little links to a couple small words added after the fact when the article’s already published. Well, if that’s your opinion, I hope you never work in journalism because you don’t know what it is.
The fact is this is a big deal. And I will try to explain – mostly to the managers and perhaps some senior-most editors. The reporters, I suspect, already see the perversity. (And for the owners of the media, I’ll try to write this slowly so even you might have a chance to follow along.)
And while I’m on the subject, I will also take the opportunity to explore more deeply just how (from both an editorial and business standpoint) the industry here is killing itself. Because I do not believe that journalism here has withered and crumbled because people stopped reading. No, people stopped reading when you caused it to wither and crumble.
In fact, I can tell you that in the four years I’ve been watching (and periodically working in) journalism in Romania, I have seen absolutely no evidence that senior managers here have a strong understanding of the business. And among those in business, I have seen absolutely no evidence that anyone understands journalism. They don’t even understand it enough to leave it alone.
That’s why I write this. Because what I just noticed – allowing the advertising department to insert themselves and their misguided schemes so deeply and overtly into the editorial product – demonstrates perfectly why for years we have witnessed the slow death of the industry here. (And like many sad terminal patients, it still seems in denial.)
Yet we still see it over and over. What too few top managers appear to understand is that these little “necessary but meaningless” step-by-step incursions by the advertising department into editorial – all in the name of desperately needed revenue (remember, it’s a crisis!) – are empty, Pyrrhic victories.
Indeed, it’s amazing to me just how distorted the industry thinking has become. The infiltration of advertising into editorial is no longer seen as evil, or if it is, it is regarded by the ignorant and misguided as a necessary evil they must accept to stay in business. Oh, how sad to think that way. These might feel like small wins, but make no mistake, they will destroy publications. You are destroying yourselves. And just like King Pyrrhus, the more of these you win, the faster you’ll fail.
Now don’t misunderstand, I don’t write this to tell others what to do. That’s up to them. The people who own the media here are free to do what they want. If they want to manipulate the news and make fools of themselves, all in the name of trying to influence public opinion, that’s their right. If they don’t mind losing money and embarrassing themselves when they fail, they’re free to do that, too. I don’t care.
Or if senior managers here are only concerned with collecting a paycheck (until their companies fail), and are willing to do anything to make a little money, that too is their right, though I don’t suggest working for them. The fact is, from what I’ve seen, they don’t genuinely appear to care, knowing that once they kill this newspaper or that TV station, they can always get hired by some new owner who also has no idea what they’re doing.
Indeed, the whole industry here reminds me of workers on the Titanic who, when told of the coming iceberg, simply shrugged their shoulders and stayed at their posts reasoning they could make a little extra money working overtime. So if struggling journalists here want to remain blind to the inevitable, I also don’t care.
What I do care about, though, and why I do bother writing this, is because if these people continue to behave the way they behave, there is no doubt they will continue not to succeed. And with that, good journalism does not stand a chance. And the plain truth is this society needs at least one of them to succeed.
Now if this was some other country where newspapers were directly owned by political parties, I might not get upset. Everybody would know exactly what they are. But the fact is Romania, despite the political influences and pressures, has a real chance to practice real journalism and to do it very well. But not if everyone here loses sight of what journalism is. Not if everyone gives up. And certainly not if everyone stops recognizing the lines that are being crossed in repeated exceptions and in false cries for survival. Perhaps it’s different in the small towns, in some local or regional papers. I hope so. But what I can see from Bucharest is not a pretty sight.
Much too often, I’ve heard editors and publishers here say there is nothing they can do. It’s a crisis, they say. This is Romania, they say, as if somehow they were special. As if that was an excuse.
But that is not an excuse. And no, they’re not special. Very simply, they’re just lazy. And as we all know, there is nothing special about that.
So let’s start very simply. There are two basic issues at play:
- The first is journalism, pure and simple. The idea that you can link advertising into editorial, even after the fact, without making a mockery of your integrity is entirely false. You can do many things – even fill up your pages with wild-eyed opinion – and still have your integrity. You just can’t sell your soul and pretend readers will not notice.
- The second is business, which is a bit more complex. Basically, you managers have confused your asset with your product, or you don’t understand the difference. When you sell one, it appears, you think it’s the other, and by mistaking the two, you kill your own publications.
Finally (for today), several people have told me that my blog postings are too long, that no one has enough attention to read for more than five minutes. And this posting is long – there is too much to say.
So I will divide this topic into several parts, the next couple about journalism, then a few more about business. We’ll see if that helps.
“So what’s the problem? We didn’t tell them what to write.”