Friday, July 01, 2011

One reason I am looking for a Plan B jobwise

I try not to take things to the level of personal issues,  except when they reflect greater issues affecting Latvian society as a whole (such as street level observations of reckless bike driving, drunks, degenerates and wackos on the street). This case in point, however, illustrates how journalism is done in Latvia, both the deficiencies under which I consciously operate and the faults of the system by which news is processed.
One of the aspects of Latvian news agency work is sometimes covering events simply because they are happening and concern issues of possible interest. You simply sit through whatever it is and try to get some kind of readable angle on the event, often because stories are written simply to generate volume rather than quality (this is especially absurd in business journalism, where I believe a story has to a) move markets, which is not possible in Latvia or b) provide information that gives readers some form of business decision support). That is the way it should be, but to keep one's numbers up with those running the news machine, you sometimes write stuff based on ..well, WTF not? Just keep it accurate, if not meaningful.
I went to a meeting of broadcast-media related folks arranged by the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP for short in Latvia) to discuss the preliminary stages of drafting a new model for public service electronic media in the country. Tim Suter, a British expert, led off the presentations, talking about issues related to public service media governance and the different media models it can apply to. Suter has worked as a radio and  television journalist for the BBC, including "Newsnight", as an editor with the BBC, then with the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport, then with the British broadcast media oversight authority OFCOM,  and as the founder of two private consulting companies with such media organizations as the BBC, BBC Trust, News Corporation, ITV, Five, Time Warner, The Newspaper Society, TwoFour54, UKTV, Federal National Media Council (UAE), Discovery, Microsoft, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the Council of Europe, the European Commission.
As a preface to my description of the specific problem (how a so-so, but accurate and printable story got killed), suffice it to say that based on his background, Suter probably knows what he is talking about when in comes to European broadcast media and has some idea of what the budgets of European broadcast organizations are like. In addition, he was presumably briefed on the situation in Latvia by his host, the deputy chairperson of the NEPLP, who said how pleased she was to have met Suter while at EU-related events and had thought of bringing him to share his knowledge on public media governance issues with the audience in Riga,
Suter gave a common sense description of the issues, but nothing in the nature of run down the hall shouting "stop the presses" as one did back in the day. There was a second presentation of the possible models emerging, in general terms, from the fog of what do we do next? that was made by a lady from Ernst& Young. Again, there are just so many ways you can line up the ducks if you are given three ways to do it. Nothing that would have deserved any bells back when wire services ran on teletype machines (I remember those times),
Then there was a discussion where someone, I believe it was an executive from Latvian Television, asked what Suter thought of the funding level (i.e, budget) of the Latvian broadcast media. Suter said that he had seen Latvia's figures "in outline" and it seemed to him that such a level of funding was "unsustainable" and would present the public service media with very difficult and perhaps irreconcilable alternatives of fulfilling the public service mission or engaging in commercial activity to maintain adequate revenues.
Bang! There was the basis for a best-effort story. I headed back for the office as I didn't have all day to spend at the event and would be replaced covering the conference by another reporter from the agency. Of course, I had no chance to ask Suter in a one-on-one interview exactly why he had doubts that Latvian public service media funding was sustainable, but given the constraints of the situation, I considered his background and authority in the field sufficient basis for publishing his snap opinion and adding that the heads of Latvian TV and radio have complained in the past about inadequate funding from the state. So it was a real issue, seen not only by the British expert.
The best comparison I could make is watching a sports TV show where, for some reason, a famous sports doctor makes a comment that, after seeing some short videos of a tennis player's last match, he suspects that the player may be about to suffer an injury. The doctor's opinion, heard on TV, would make adequate agency news copy based on the doctor's experience and record. He need not say that the way X served indicates he is protecting arm muscle such and such because it hurts him. If the doc says it, it is news, and it may be best practice, but not always possible, to call the doc and get an explanation in detailed medical terms, of how what was seen in two or three video highlights tells an experienced medical eye that something is going wrong.
Well, what happened was that a news editor demanded and insisted that the story contain Suter's detailed reasoning for why Latvian public media financing was unsustainable, or it was unfit to run. Given other stories and work and practicalities, I didn't think it was worth the effort to try to find out and said, look, the guy is an authority, not an idiot, and the issue has been raised before. It is an adequate, debate stimulating story. In fact, it contains elements of the reporter generated "exclusive" where you call up side A to tell you that yes, they still believe white and do a follow up with side B saying, outrageous, we think black and a third story by a political commentator saying that the nation is yet again debating black vs white showing that political polarization is growing. I mean, why not, everyone does it and the point is, it suffices that these views are real (even if dormant when you make the call) and accurately reflected.
What it ended with was that I chopped everything Suter said and ran only what the Latvian consultant said (nothing special) and e-mailed the news editor -- as far as I am concerned, fuck it, kill the whole thing. Which apparently happened. An ignorance-based decision, IMHO.
Having said that, it is yet another reason to get out of a situation where I find myself doing half-assed journalism for an often half-assed news product. Any reasonable job offers will be considered -- preferably for English-language media outside Latvia, inside Latvia, or, all else failing, some other media in Latvia. Maybe IR needs someone to do telecoms and high tech?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite passionate essay you wrote. Indeed, and same here on my branch of the different industry, when it comes to how reality of the socium affects your professionalism I find it impossible to stay emotionless. Self being nowhere near any informed level about mass media can only comment as a viewer, listener of reader. I'd have a slight doubt in correctness of whatever paralelles were being drawn between levels of funding of major UK-based corporations and their peers in Latvia. UK, in particular, has a so called TV licence institution, aka TV-tax. Which stands presently at £145 per household, or just a tad over Ls110 per year. Of course with concessions for black&white tellies (are there any still?), the elderly, disabled etc-etc. Talking about 20-odd millions households in the coutry that a lot of moneys! I do not have any clue what kind of percentage of major free-to-air stations budget such tax fills. But it definitely covers their grass-root expenditure. Allowing to broadcast 50+ free to air channels, including those in HD. Allowing to broadcast full format children television channels - my kids virtually grow with CBeebies on every day. Hearing impaired broadcasts, programs for special needs kids, history, news, local stations and whatever you name it in full or partially being financed from the tellie-tax. And some of these channels are running without commercial breaks - yes,no annoying ad's! Quite an achievement. Not a model for LV though as even if to assume every household will pay some sort of TV-fee this will not fund much due microscopic size of the country. This is to illustrate a bit on "how" mass media can reach the socium. Bigger issue is "what" mass media can say to the socium. Or call it a some kind of "standard" in writing/broadcasting/publishing. Again, and apologies about being so biased after last 10 years spent in UK, availability of funds accompanied by existing "standards" create programs of the caliber of Panorama, Newsnight and Despatches. Ie highly professional, deep and detailed analysis of broadest possible spectrum of issues right here, daily on your Tv screen. And this is influential too. Top-name journalists quotes and judgements do have weight also on political scene, especially near elections. For my liking there's also a tiny issue in this free-to-air paradise. State run channels as BBC are officially expressing point of view of UK government. However there are also AlJazeera, CNN and Russia Today free-on-air for those who feel a need for alternative point of view.
What may be a way to go in LV is something of the kind of scandinavian state-run channels. Boring to death and broadcasting free-to-air for a few hours daily only. With main emphasis on delivery to populus the news and the governmental policies. The rest being given to private media groups delivering whatever populus wants to see against a fee. Or as it stands these days in LV - Moscow channels and multitude of toilet-level international entertainment programs.
Sorry, have to stop now - kids want to see our most favourite Mr Bloom's Nuresery. A great way to teach the youngs about gardening!

Have a great watch everyone!
Aris Kruvevers


Talking about different standards in jurnalism and their availability to the masses (read - affordability). I found a card shoved through my letterbox about 5 weeks ago. An invitation for annual The Time magazine subscription for a mere £20. Had some doubts about that as way too many different "hackers" are trying whatever way they could to get hold of your personal details and credit card numbers nowadays. Instead of giving my card number or writing a cheque I decided to post them a £20 banknote. To my surprise there was a fresh new The Time arriving to my letterbox last Friday. It did work!