Poland’s largest broadsheet newspaper is struggling as a result of a Polish government “boycott” which cut off both public and private funding, warns the online editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, who calls on the European Union for help.
Roman Imielski is the news editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest broadsheet in Poland. As part of the #Media4EU series, he talked to Christophe Leclercq about European subsidies for the sector, press freedom and the relationship between traditional media and tech giants.
The election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK is often associated with rising populism. Is it something that you observe also in Poland?
The last parliamentary and presidential elections in Poland were marked by the very clear sign of populism, because the ruling party made many populist promises to Polish citizens.
What is even more interesting for us, is that for the first time in Poland the main source of ‘information’ were social media platforms and fake news sites. It was unbelievable because these fake news were spreading very quickly and very broadly on the internet.
This is a big problem for a media like us: how to fight against fake news?
Is this problem providing a new role for the mainstream media or is it on the contrary disconnecting them from their audience?
The main social media platform in Poland is Facebook: they have more than 13 million users, while we have only over 5 million real visitors. More and more people in Poland don’t read newspapers or watch TV. Their only source of information about the world and Polish politics is social media.
Did you decide to share your articles in full on Facebook?
Of course we have an account on Facebook and Twitter and our articles are on these platforms too.
However, you must remember that our articles are in-depth stories while people want only very short and quick information these days and don’t try to find out anything more detailed.
In my opinion this is also a very big problem for the educational system, and not only in Poland.
How about adapting your format to the people’s needs?
We try to adapt, especially towards very young people because they don’t know traditional media, they grew up with social media.
So we try to send them the message: “we know that you don’t buy newspapers and magazines, and that you don’t watch TV. But maybe you are interested in this and this and this.”
For example we have not only political stories, but also articles about lifestyle, culture etc. So we target them with this content in the hope that their next step will be to read about politics.
Press freedom is portrayed as being under siege in Poland, at least in Western media. How does this affect Gazeta Wyborcza?
We have two problems: the first one is about money, because the government stopped publishing advertisements in the newspaper. The second is an access problem because the new government and the ruling party don’t talk to our journalists anymore.
But you’re still a well-established media company, so wouldn’t they have an interest in trying to influence your readers as well?
Well this is precisely the problem of a democratic country. We are the biggest broadsheet in Poland and we should have the chance to question our President, Prime Minister and other members of the government.
Is it true that some companies are also boycotting your advertising space in order to please the government?
Yes, these are the companies which are in the hands of the government. Some of them are among the largest companies in Poland, for example the oil giant Orlen and others.
Are foreign multinationals also complying with government guidance on this?
No. Of course advertising is a tough issue for newspapers all over the world today, but our problem doesn’t come from foreign and private companies.
Can Europe do something about press freedom in Poland? Or will it be seen as foreign interference and therefore be counterproductive?
Good question. There is a conflict between the European Commission and the new government about the state of democracy in Poland, the Constitutional Tribunal and other issues.
Unfortunately the European Union doesn’t have many tools to force the Polish government to treat newspapers fairly. What we can expect however, is that the European Union doesn’t forget about us, doesn’t forget about Poland.
The second recommendation I would make is that it is time to think about the media as a very important part of public life and of democracy in the European Union. I don’t understand why the EU has supported other sectors in crisis like coal mines or factories but they are not helping the media.
This is a question that we have asked to a number of other Editors-in-Chief as part of our #media4EU series. The media sector has often been asked to spread information about Europe and EU policies, but it has not been tackled as an economic sector. Is it what you are calling for, a European strategy for the media sector?
Yes. If we talk about the future of democracy it is very important to have a media sector which informs about the world and doesn’t spread fake news. I think that the European Union should help us survive, develop and inform society about the real issues.
There are three main ways in which the EU could intervene. First is regulatory, tackling press freedom issues or competition issues, including preventing tech giants from abusing their dominant position. The second is to subsidise the media directly, which has already been attempted with projects like Presseurop, Euranet plus and others, but they are being phased out. The third is to fund innovation projects to accompany the renewal of the media sector. Which one would you focus on?
I think that we should focus on the second and third options because they are very closely linked. Firstly, we should develop new tools because the media market is undergoing a revolution. Secondly, subsidies could be a very interesting option. In my opinion, direct subsidies won’t work, but the European Union could create a structure of grants for the media.
Do you mean that the EU should fund the media via an intermediate that would ensure their independence?
Can you mention organisations that could distribute this money?
We have a very close collaboration with Google and this is a very interesting example because we are talking about cooperation between the media and a world company. Of course we also have big problems with Google because it is a tech giant, and we have the issue of news being spread through Google search etc.
However, our company has also been granted money by Google DNI which enabled us to develop a very interesting project about internal policy and the Polish parliament.
So you would like the EU to establish something similar to Google DNI?
Would it not create the perception of being the ‘voice of Brussels’?
As I said, I think having a special fund, some kind of European fund for the media, is a very good idea. It is similar to what LENA [the Leading European Newspaper Alliance] wants to do. For example, our newspaper is the largest broadsheet in Poland and we are having revenue problems because of the public boycott we talked about before, so we should have the possibility to apply to this fund for help.
Would this money be justified by advertising EU projects or would it be a subsidy?
In my opinion it should be something between a subsidy and a grant.
Besides the financial problem, the second issue is that we are competitors on this very small continent and that puts us at risk. The idea of the LENA collaboration with the Süddeutsche, Le Monde and The Guardian is that we can exchange articles, materials, graphics etc. without any fee. This is very important.
During my Tour d’Europe phase of the #Media4EU project I saw how much translation can be a hurdle to exchanging content. How should the translation issue be addressed?
The European fund that may be created in the future could help in this regard. For example, Polish language newspapers like us would have more money to translate articles and materials from partners.
In the past there was Presseurop which was tasked with translating copyrighted national articles into several languages. You have benefitted from selling your articles to them, but the project was stopped in 2013. What you would like to see in essence is a similar scheme to promote content exchange across borders?
Yes, I think it is crucial.
Thinking both of your newspaper and of your website, do you have an estimate of what percentage of your articles cover European topics?
We focus very deeply on European policy issues, in fact we have a correspondent in Brussels. The percentage might be between 2 and 3% overall because we have 22 local editions. In the online version it will be less because we have more articles than in print.
Would you say that the proportion of European coverage is increasing or decreasing?
Increasing. First of all, we currently have a conflict between the Polish government and the European Commission about matters concerning the rule of law. Secondly, this is an interesting time for Europe with developments like Brexit, the presidential election in France and others.
Will it continue to increase in the coming years?
Yes of course.
Mr. Tusk has been president of the European Council for two years now. Does it help the press freedom situation in Poland or, on the contrary, does it increase the antagonism?
It was neutral for Poland.
Do you think Tusk’s mandate should be renewed?
In my opinion he should because he is a good politician and I don’t see any problems with this presidency.
The EU will celebrate its 60th anniversary in Rome next March and Mr. Tusk, the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and others want to re-launch the EU by setting out a new roadmap. Going back to what you said about the lack of sectoral policy for the media, do you think this should feature as part of the re-launch effort?
Yes I think so. 2017 will be very crucial for Europe. We will have the presidential elections in France and the parliamentary elections in Germany, for example. So we are waiting for any interesting media project from the European Union.
I also think that the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty is a good occasion to re-launch the European Union as a whole. We should identify the real direction of what in my opinion is the most successful project of all time on our continent.
Aside from an EU media strategy, is there a specific area that you would want to see featured in the EU’s re-launch effort?
In my opinion, only more Europe and a closer collaboration between EU countries could help the European Union survive.