Apr`es Moi, Le Déluge

News broke this afternoon that Studio City, the iconic RTVSLO programme, long a thorn in the side of soon-to-be-ex PM Janez Janša and his cronies, is to have its host Marcel Štefančič, jr. axed and its format radically altered. This, obviously, was not entirely unexpected.

Marcel Štefančič, host of Studio City, circa 2013.
Studio City and its host Marcel Štefančič, jr., circa 2013 (photo by yours truly)

All the evidence pointed to something like this. Not in the least because the outgoing regime and its recently-installed peons at RTVSLO spent the last couple of months dismantling every single bit of programming that dared look at the government with a critical eye. Studio City was right at the top of that list. However, that it should be done on 3 May, the World Press Freedom Day, is – not to be too direct – sadistic.

Continue reading Apr`es Moi, Le Déluge

Wag The Thompson

This sorry little excuse for a country spent much of the past week (and then some) fretting over a seemingly minor issue which – as per usual in this part of the world – was blown way out of proportion. We are, of course, referring to one Marko Perković – Thompson who was scheduled to give a concert in Maribor today but was banned only days ago over security concerns.


Marko Perković – Thompson being all patriotic and shit. (source)

When the concert was announced, everybody freaked out. The charge was led by local press, most notably Maribor-based Večer daily which has national coverage and soon half of the country was in overdrive.

Continue reading Wag The Thompson

I’ve Got Some Prime Newspaper Real Estate To Sell You

So, this was suppose to be an expletive-laden rant about how newspapers don’t take good care of their resources and willingly get buttfucked by advertisers just to make the bottom line. Not that there is anything wrong with buttfucking per se, but you get the idea. Namely Delo, Dnevnik and Večer, the three leading Slovenian daily newspapers hit the stands today with what appeared to be near-identical front pages. Which would be sort of embarrassing by itself. But in this case the front pages were actually full-page adverts framed as articles about Mercator, the largest retail chain in Slovenia. And while there was small print attached indicating the pieces were actually adverts, the end result was that the three dailies all ran the same pieces with the same titles (Dnevnik being the exception with one shorter title, possibly due to space constraints), the same body texts and the same photos. Luckily, the front pages were actually faux front pages (or wraps) with a real front page and a real newspaper inside.

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Today’s dailies (source)

Luckily, because this means that the newspapers and their management had not yet completely lost their bearings and sense of decency. Before today, there were other cases of wraps, although (this needs to be said) either as classic full-page adverts or running a different colour scheme and/or typography. Thus it would be unfair to say that new ground was broken or a new low reached, although it is fair to say that the ad is misleading in the sense that it masquerades as a series of articles by using the layout and typography of the real front page. True, the fine print saying “advert” is included somewhere at the edge of the field of vision, but clearly the ad aims to present itself as a genuine article and catch eyeballs. This, however, is completely in line with guidelines of the Slovenian Journalists’ Association, despite the fact that the said association issued a strong protest against the move by the three newspapers (both links in Slovenian).

At the moment pengovsky doesn’t have access to print editions of Slovenian newspapers and was initially led to believe that the wrap was the actual front page. My bad for not checking it out by myself sooner, but there you go. Drinks on me, I guess. But even with the way things are, it should be said that loud and clear that newspaper accept this sort of advertising at their own peril. I mean, yes, they gotta make money, people need to put bread on the table and all that jazz. And if you want to look at a wrap like this solely as a poorly designed advert, then by all means, do so. Nothing wrong with that.

But in the age where circulation is going down but for the select few (none of which are Slovenian, obv), where the like-fueled economy of content proliferation has failed to monetize and where website real estate is sometimes oversold to the point where only 20-or-so percent of the screen is devoted to content, the idea of “moar ads!” is dubious at best. Advertisers apparently know this, otherwise they would not have tried to imitate newspaper content, however crudely. The question is do the newspaper people know this or – rather – do they see this as their leverage or their liability. To put it crudely, are they being pressured into doing it or are they actively courting advertiser with what is essentially a print version of native advertising.

Obviously, there is no clear-cut solution to the conundrum that presents itself. Both approaches have pit-falls that are not easily avoidable. Catching eyeballs is increasingly difficult, doubly so with print. We often block out the ad sections almost subconsciously. Ad-blockers do it for us online. But doing native advertising means running the risk of blurring the line between marketing and journalism too much. First at the expense of the latter but ultimately, the former will have failed, too. Just look at the hot water BuzzFeed landed in with its native adverts.

The audience are not stupid and they can in all likelihood distinguish between an advert and news content. The problem is that the trend is moving increasingly towards blurring the difference between the two. Which is why newspapers, although understandably trying to make money and stay afloat, would do well not to dismiss the criticism of their advertising practices in an aloof or offhanded manner. After all, there is such a thing as peak advertising.

If you don’t believe that, I’ve got some prime newspaper real estate to sell you.

Why “Who Started First” Doesn’t Explain Charlie Hebdo

The Charlie Hebdo Massacre is resonating in Slovenia as well. For some strange reason it seems to have resonated with the people more than prior terrorist/hate-speech/other attacks on European media. Perhaps it was the fact that a few weeks ago most of the country was fiercely debating the role of media in a suicide of a headmaster of a Maribor high school. Or maybe it was brutality of the attack itself, apparently happening just as the new issue of the magazine was being finalised. Or the fact that Slovenian police picked up an individual (ethic Slovenian!) who apparently fought on the ISIL side of the Iraq-Syria clusterfuck. Or maybe the fact that it was Paris, just two-hours-flight away from Ljubljana. Or maybe the fact that pengovsky seems to follow a lot of journos on Twitter and is looking only inside his bubble. Fuck me if I know. However, a few things need to be said, especially to those who put the massacre into the context of (alleged?) European multiculturalism, with the bottom line being that Charlie Hebdo were sort of asking for it.

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A gathering of journalists in Ljubljana in support of Charlie Hebdo.

Now, that Europe is anything but truly multicultural is a given. In a continent teeming with former colonial powers of various Christian denominations who by far and large still sport some sort of racist/chauvinistic behaviour, being of non-white skin is not exactly a walk in a park, I imagine. Even worse, it is often enough to have a surname with the “wrong” suffix (Balkans in general) or wear white socks and a track suit (Slovenia in particular).

And yes, if one wants to embark on a fruitless and yet painful voyage of “who started first”, European countries and by extension the continent itself are anything but innocent. But bringing up Lybia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, the Crusades and whatnot leads to a false sense of a single act in the distant past unleashing an unfortunate chain of events which led to the clustefuck of today.

And if you really wanted to be brutally cynical (an attitude pengovsky tends to respect) you could argue that whatever pain and suffering terrorism perpetrated in the name od Islam brought to the Western world, it is still eclipsed by far by the pain and suffering brought upon the Muslim world by the West in the name of democracy.

But you would be wrong.

What happened yesterday was not an act of religious piety or a fight against oppression but a murderous rampage against freedom expression. That it was done while shouting the name of Allah does not make it any more pious or holy or acceptable whatever the fuck someone wants to call it. Sure, Charlie Hebdo pulled no punches when it lampooned Islam. But neither did it pull punches when it dealt with Christianity. Or French politics, from what I hear.

Muslims had and still have every right to be offended by many an issue of the magazine. But that’s what it was there for. To insult. Even its tagline bears the words “journal irresponsable”. The irresponsible magazine. This was their shtick. You can insult back (and try to be clever about it). You can ignore it. You can press charges (European countries have an impressive set of anti-hate-speech legislation), you can laugh at it or laugh with it, but you can not kill for it.

Because if you try to rationalise the massacre from the standpoint of West’s (admittedly) double standards towards the Muslim world or by defaulting to “they see freedom of expression differently”, you implicitly condone kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, Branch Davidians or Jews forcing their way into the Al-Aqsa mosque. Or that Norwegian sick fuck. Or the Crusades, if you want to go that far back.

I don’t want to to into the “Islam/Christianity/Buddhism is religion of peace” shit. I’ve my own views on faith in general and organised religion in particular. Because this was not about it. This was not France’s 9/11 or Paris version of Madrid bombing. This was about a group of people killing a dozen people in cold blood because they did not share the same values. Think brownshirts of Europe’s 1930s, Brigate Rosde and Gladio bombings in Italy or Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany. Or even the Oklahoma bombing by Timothy McVeigh.

The Charlie Hebdo Massacre was not religious but political. And even that only insofar it was carried out by a group of people with a particularly degenerate derivative of an otherwise valid ideology who believe they have a license to kill anyone they dislike for whatever reason they see fit.

And journalists usually work on being generally disliked.

UPDATE:

This lovely clip from No Man’s Land, an Oscar winning film by Danis Tanović shows the futility of “who started first” while people are dying.

A Killer Of A Story

Somewhere in the middle of this year’s local elections campaign in Ljubljana Martina Valenčič called a press conference and provided for a good thirty minutes of incoherent rambling which included turning the center of the city into an RV parking lot, liasioning with wealthy businessmen to bring in tourism, talked about CIA and the Russians conspiring against Slovenia and said she will return the Ljubljana Castle to its rightful ower, king Boris I. of Slovenia who just happens to be her husband. pengovsky and another journo were the only ones covering it and while the event was expected to be bizarre, no-one expected industrial-grade bizarre during those thirty minutes. In the end pengovsky decided not to produce a piece for The Firm™ but rather uploaded the entire thirty minutes of the press conference to YouTube. Where all hell broke loose.

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Picture not necessarily related. Just the first thing that came to mind (source)

The video went viral, clocking in 65k+ views and was the talk of the town for a couple of days while (not entirely unexpectedly) the commentariat took it out on Martina big time. And while she admittedly isn’t the quickest of cats at the best of times, she genuinely believed in whatever she was saying. It was at that point that pengovsky was starting to have second thoughts. I mean, clicks were going through the roof, the otherwise lacklustre campaign got its first WTF moment and life was good. But the amount of shit random YouTube users were spilling over Martina was disturbing.

Convincing myself that she did run for mayor and that no-one forced her to hold that press conference, only went so far. Because, it must be said that a lot of stupid shit is being said on other press conferences as well. It’s just that the delivery is better. It was only when she herself posted a comment with her bank account details, soliciting campaign donations that I stopped worrying over it. Apparently she was cool with whatever attention she was getting. Life was good again.

In the end, Martina came in last, winning about two hundred votes. So, until next time, I guess. But for pengovsky the lesson was as important as it was unexpected. Things, when published, do take on a life of their own. This, I knew. But what I didn’t know (or, at least, didn’t experience first hand until then) was the swiftness and brutality of the internets. Luckily, Martina was cool with it. A headmaster of a Maribor high-school wasn’t.

Namely, weeks ago a YouTube video of two people having oral sex surfaced on YouTube, with the claim being made that it featured the said headmaster and his teacher colleague. The video, allegedly shot through a door ajar by a pupil was picked up by several high-profile news media and soon no amount of denial by the headmaster would help. The call was made, the judgement passed, ad-spadce sold and links clicked. The media process was complete. Or, rather, the man was fully processed by the media. For on Saturday, he took his own life.

Truly, a killer of a story.

When the initial shock started to dissipate, the reactions, as strong as they were (and still are) can be grouped into three broad categories: those media which have exploited the story are keeping as low a profile as possible. Then there are others, which have ignored the story are now taking the moral high-ground, setting themselves as an example and en passant exploiting the story now, which is self-defeating to say the least. And lastly, there are those who are trying to make a distinction between various angles from which the story was covered (sleaze vs. privacy intrusion).

But all of the above are little more than thinly veiled face-saving attempts. Because the real problem lies someplace else: with the media industry itself.

You see, the prime reason that certain news outlets picked up the story are not clicks, ad-space and ratings. All three are achievable by any other means. They did it because they could. They did it because there was no-one to tell them it was wrong. That it was unacceptable. That it was the opposite of what media are supposed to be doing.

Sure, there is the lack of a decent editorial process. This is the original fail. If the media in question had editors with sufficient mileage to a) know the right from wrong and b) the guts to defend it in the face of owners/CEOs demanding results by any means possible, this would not have happened.

But there’s the larger problem of other media organisations not taking a collective stand against such practices which (only slightly less extreme) have become a staple of Slovenian media landscape. We’re learned to look the other way, mutter a little something about tabloidisation of the media and be done with it. Sure, times are tough, it’s hard enough to win advertising money and put bread on the table as it is.

But as with many other things we as a society hold dear, by ignoring the ever more changing frame of the media discourse, we were slowly but surely losing our grip on the most basic of things: common decency. One of the more perverted excuses was that the media was only giving the public what it wants. And that people, individuals who wanted to see or have indeed seen the video are just as much to blame. Wrong.

Sure, the kids who (allegedly shot and) uploaded the video should be punished. Even if the headmaster chose not to end his life, what they did was beyond excusable. And since authenticity of the video was never fully established, it is impossible to pass judgement on the alleged acts of the headmaster and the teacher. But, generally speaking, it is a bad idea to get laid in your place of work. However, one suspects that the kid in question will have to live with this burden for the rest of his life. But he is not alone.

Granted, there are individuals in Slovene media who bear the lions’ share of responsibility for what had happened. But the industry as a whole is not without blame. If nothing else, because it tacitly condoned practices which have ultimately led to events of this weekend.

Bob knows what will come of this. If anything, that is. Nothing can bring the headmaster back. What is done is done. But the lessons of this sad episode can only be learned if we as news people want to learn them. Rolling a few editorial and/or journalistic heads will not be enough (again, if heads will roll at all). A public apology will go a long way, but will do nothing to prevent something like this happening again, someplace else with some new people. And with the burn-through rate of Slovenian media people increasing, that moment can come sooner than we think.

Perhaps a meticulous and transparent investigation of decision-making processes that took place from the moment that kid fucked up and uploaded the video to the bitter end would be a good place to start. After that – who knows. Maybe the things we learn about ourselves and each other by that stage will be enough to prompt some true changes in the way we do our business.

Because clicks and ratings and ad-space are indeed the lifeblood of the media, but at least in Slovenia the media have been on transfusion for a while now and it seems that we’ve stopped caring at what exactly we hook ourselves up to.

I’m sorry.