By Barbara Erling
While news media across the world have seen a surge in online readership and subscriptions during the pandemic, they have also experienced an even sharper fall in advertising and print sales. The result has been a crisis for many parts of the industry.
The situation in Poland reflects these global trends, with traditional media seeing dramatic declines in sales and advertising – and, in the case of some titles, deciding to abandon print completely. Yet there are also some unique aspects – and dangers – to the Polish situation.
With commercial marketing budgets falling, the power of advertising money from state bodies – which has always been a tool of political influences for Polish governments – has increased. This raises concerns that media critical of the government, already under pressure, may face further difficulties.
Meanwhile, Poland’s Catholic news weeklies – which are among the country’s best-selling titles – have faced the double blow of seeing distribution hit not only by the closure of many commercial sales points, but also by government-imposed limits on church attendance during the epidemic.
Online traffic surging
The lockdown has seen a significant increase in web traffic. According to Gemius/PBI, a research company, the five largest websites (wp.pl, onet.pl, gazeta.pl, interia.pl, o2.pl) reported 40% more users and 70% more views in March than in the same period a year ago.
Higher traffic on media websites has had a positive impact on the number of subscriptions bought. Data show that, in Europe as a whole, subscriptions for digital news increased by over 200% between 1 January and 21 March 2020, says Paweł Nowacki, an independent expert on media and e-commerce.
There is a similar tendency in Poland. Newsweek and Forbes, owned by digital publisher RASP Polska, have been selling two-three times more subscriptions than in the period before the pandemic. Polityka, an opinion weekly, has reported a similar increase in subscriptions in recent weeks. Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper that already had the highest number of digital subscriptions in Poland, announced that from December last year to mid-April, its number of subscribers increased by over 20,000, to 240,000.
Michał Kreczmar, a director at PwC, explains that during the crisis, people tend to choose media they deem trustworthy, and are happier to pay for a brand that guarantees reliable content, quality journalism and in-depth analysis. “However, if the crisis is deep and lengthy, people would give up on paid media,” says Kreczmar. Many will instead turn to free but less reliable media.
A sudden increase in media consumption may result in a surge of subscriptions, but not in revenues from advertising. Previously reliable clients like airlines, hotel chains and travel agencies have frozen or cancelled campaigns as they shut down or limit their own services. Those who are still spending on marketing are unwilling to place their adverts next to articles covering the pandemic.
“Advertisers do not want their campaigns to appear next to COVID-19-related content, because they do not know what exactly it is about,” says Kreczmar. If an advert appears next to fake news or other unreliable content it can affect the credibility of the advertiser’s brand. Another reason is that advertisers prefer to avoid coverage of the most negative topics, since no one wants to sponsor bad news.
Many media outlets have therefore decided to make COVID-19-related content available for free to nonsubscribers. By doing so, they want to source users and eventually convince them to stay and pay for the content that is behind the paywall. “This is the best time to attract the interest and engagement of the audience and then later monetise it,” says Kreczmar.
Some publishers, such as Gazeta Wyborcza, have introduced a lower-price subscription plan to get more readers. Others, like Forbes, have added additional services to their digital subscription, such as access to Vod.pl, a video-on-demand platform, and Tidal, a music streaming service.
“Those publishers who are not prepared to offer content behind the paywall lose a chance to build a revenue channel independent of advertisers,” says Nowacki.
While some national-level outlets have been able to offset declines in revenue with digital subscriptions, the outlook is much worse for local media, which rely to an even greater extent on advertising from now-struggling businesses.
“We are seeing a big drop in classified and medical adverts, which constituted an important part of advertising revenue. It also applies to the tourism sector and food industry,” says Ryszard Pajura, head of the Local Newspapers Association, quoted in an article on the Wirtualne Media website. The local press has seen sales drop by up to 30% and advertising revenues by half.
A good excuse to quit
Many publications that relied mostly on print sales for revenue have been forced to make cutbacks on staffing and wages – and even to stop producing print copies at all.
Burda Media Polska, publisher of Elle and National Geographic, has laid off around 50 workers and is reducing salaries for its remaining staff over the next four months. Edipresse Polska, a publisher of lifestyle magazines, has terminated contracts with 31 employees and from May will cut pay and working time by 20% for a period of six-eight months.
Polska Press, the biggest publisher of regional and local newspapers, slashed pay by half but promised no redundancies. Agora, which publishes Gazeta Wyborcza, has cut salaries and working hours by 20% for the next six months. The company believes this will help generate savings of around 25 million zloty.
At the end of March, two weeklies published by PMPG Polskie Media SA, namely Do Rzeczy and Wprost, stopped coming out in print. “It was mainly due to uncertainty over distribution,” says Karol Gac, a journalist in Do Rzeczy. “Many sales points closed down, so we issued only digital versions of the magazine.”
While Do Rzeczy subsequently resumed its print edition – with circulation reduced by 10,000 copies – Wprost has officially announced that it is stopping publishing after 38 years. The company claims that the decision was a result of the coronavirus crisis. However, one former journalist at Wprost, speaking anonymously, believes that “coronavirus was just an excuse, Wprost was already dying”.
Jakub Bierzyński, a media scholar, has come to the same conclusion. In the interview for Wirtualne Media, he said that people do not want to read yesterday’s news, let alone last week’s. “The end of Wprost only confirms this trend,” he says.
Wprost was supposed to re-appear again in digital edition from 20 April, according to its owner Michał Lisiecki. Yet this has still not happened. Meanwhile, ZPR Media Group, a publisher of trade magazines, has also stopped publishing the monthlies Żagle and Podróże and dismissed all of their editors.
Catholic newspapers have their own problem
The coronavirus lockdown has presented a double challenge for Poland’s popular Catholic publications: not only are many commercial distribution points closed, but churches, through which they are also often sold and promoted, have had attendance limited by the government.
Gość Niedzielny, a Catholic title that is Poland’s best-selling news weekly, has seen sales plummet with parishioners confined to their homes. “We had to reduce circulation by two thirds at the end of March, for non-church distribution only,” says Father Adam Pawlaszczyk, its editor-in-chief. Before the crisis, the magazine averaged weekly sales of around 100,000 copies. “We don’t have March figures, but any decline will be painful,” Piotr Sudoł, the head of its promotion department, told Wirtualne Media.
Because their readership is on average older and less tech savvy than that of other media, Catholic publications will also find replacing print sales with digital revenues even harder. Gość Niedzielny offers an online version of its weekly, but also a PDF version that can be printed for readers. Nevertheless, traffic to its website has still doubled during the crisis.
Catholic publishers have not developed any line of action in the event of a sudden collapse of church distribution, wrote Father Artur Stopka, a columnist, in a post published by the Polish Association of Journalists website.
“If publishers of Catholic weekly magazines are focused only on surviving the pandemic period, and do not use this time to prepare major transformations, it may turn out that there will be a gradual disintegration of the system. And there will be no new one,” warns Stopka.
Asking for support
Many media outlets have appealed to readers for support as the pandemic causes havoc. The Polish Chamber of Press Publishers recorded a video with an appeal in which editors-in-chief of various magazines encouraged Poles to buy and read the press.
Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose network of organisations – from geothermal energy to a university – has received generous subsidies from the current government, appealed for financial support for his ultraconservative media outlets, which include Radio Maryja and the Nasz Dziennik daily.
In a call published on Radio Maryja’s website, Rydzyk said that before the outbreak, the alms to his media were “modest enough to live from hand to mouth”. And now as companies and workplaces are slowing down the business, and so earnings may be lower, his media are in danger of being shut down.
“Can we allow this to happen when only a small percent of the media is Catholic and Polish, and the rest is liberal-left?,” he asked.
The media has not only asked its readers for support, it has also appealed to the government. In a response to the press crisis, the Polish Chamber of Press Publishers wrote a letter to the government calling for urgent help. It proposed new regulations, such as establishing a fund to compensate for lost advertising revenue and to support newspapers’ distribution in remote areas of the country.
The minister of culture and national heritage, Piotr Gliński, responded by expressing his willingness to talk with the media community. He said that media companies can apply for support under the government’s measures to mitigate the economic fallout from coronavirus.
However, some experts are sceptical about the idea of the government helping the media. They claim that the ruling party would offer direct or indirect support to pro-government media while leaving out critical organisations.
A punishment for being critical
Recent events show these doubts might be justified. Amid the coronavirus crisis, the government published a paid announcement with guidelines for the public on how to behave during the pandemic in all major national daily newspapers apart from Gazeta Wyborcza, which is the best-selling non-tabloid but is known for being critical of the current government.
Roman Imielski, deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, considers it a political action. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party “sees readers of Wyborcza as the ‘worst sort of Poles’, who do not deserve government information”, he says, referring to a term used by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński.
Imielski claims that the government is suppressing financial support to punish Wyborcza for being critical of its actions. Asked by the newspaper, the prime minister’s office confirmed that the information campaign from which Wyborcza was excluded involved “paid advertising in selected press titles, radio and television”. But it would not say how much the advertising was worth.
Wyborcza, however, unofficially obtained information that the adverts in the newspapers Rzeczpospolita, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Super Express and Fakt cost around 100,000 złoty. In smaller titles, like Nasz Dziennik or Puls Biznesu, the figure was 20,000-70,000 złoty. Wyborcza’s average daily sales in 2019 (around 85,000), were over double those of Rzeczpospolita and nine times higher than Puls Biznesu.
“The current government and Wyborcza are in ideological conflict, and represent different political views. I am not surprised at all that GW did not get the announcement,” says Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, a professor of communication at the University of Wrocław.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international press freedom organisation, in its World Press Freedom Index published last week, raised concern over the ruling party’s treatment of Wyborcza, which it noted is “the leading target of government lawsuits”. In December, the International Press Institute also condemned the “legal harassment” of the newspaper, noting that around 50 criminal and civil cases have been brought against it by state or state-controlled entities.
Poland fell to its lowest ever position in RSF’s index, classified as having “a noticeable problem” with press freedom. RSF indicates that this is mostly due to current government actions, which affect the freedom of expression of independent media outlets.
“Repolonisation” dream may come true
Vadim Makarenko, a former fellow in the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an editor and product manager in the data department of Wyborcza, thinks that due to the coronavirus crisis, political influence on the media may increase.
“Funds supporting private media, especially from such governments as we have now in Poland, are an undesirable phenomenon,” says Makarenko. He argues, however, that if a state media fund were to be managed by an independent body, it could work out well. “Media aid funds managed by an external institution, such as a bank, might be an option.”
Gac, the journalist at Do Rzeczy, warns that government support could lead readers to question an outlet’s objectivity. “The media absolutely must be transparent to avoid any suspicion,” he says.
Poland’s Law and Justice party has long argued that the media landscape needs reform, claiming foreign actors do not represent Polish interests. Last year PiS again announced a plan to “repolonise” the country’s private media sector.
“If media owners come to the conclusion that a business would cease to be profitable, they will get rid of it,” says Bianka Mikołajewska, a deputy editor-in-chief of OKO.press. Many media outlets, especially among local and regional publications, have German owners, she notes. If they decided to sell up, it might be a boost for PiS’s plans to increase Polish ownership.