Adapting old skills to new media


The Czech media landscape is changing beyond recognition, as anyone who used to listen to Radio Prague on shortwave knows only too well. So how is the Czech Republic keeping pace with the digital revolution? And what are the new dangers that go with the social media, citizen journalism and all the other innovations that are transforming the work of the traditional journalist? For the last three months David Vaughan has been teaching broadcasting history to students at Prague’s Anglo-American University. As part of the course he asked his students to map some of the latest shifts in the Czech digital media landscape. The following programme is the result of their investigation.

David Vaughan
We are students at the Anglo-American University in Prague and are taking a course in the history of radio, TV and the internet. The aim of this radio programme is to look at how the internet, social media and citizen journalism are impacting people’s media habits in the Czech Republic and what influence this is having on traditional media organizations: newspapers and broadcasters.

We began by going out into the streets of Prague. We found people of three generations, who told us how they use the internet:

MAN 1: “I’m George and I’m 59 years old. I think the internet is very good for me, because when I have no newspaper I can read this information from the internet, because many newspaper titles are on the internet.”

TEENAGER: “My name is Thomas and I’m 14 years old. I use it to chat with my friends and I go over an internet site, where I also read the news.”

MAN 2: “I’m 33 years old. [What’s your main use of the internet?] Well, besides porn, I’m also downloading games and movies. I’m looking for the news as well.”

WOMAN: “My name is Aneta and I’m 27 year old. I use it for emails and Facebook mainly, and searching for stuff.”

Markéta Kristová has been working as a webmaster since 1996:

“Before the Velvet Revolution in 1989, PCs were very rare in Czechoslovakia. Only 2% of households possessed a PC. They were not available in Czechoslovakia and PCs were smuggled from Austria and Western countries. And they were very expensive for Czech people. Just after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs started to use more and more computers.”

Czechoslovakia was first connected to the internet in February 1992 and the first dial-up connections were made available to the public two years later. But Markéta Kristová says that this did not lead to an immediate boom in internet use:

“Fees for connecting to the internet were higher than in Western Europe due to the monopoly of the IT company Český Telecom. This monopoly lasted until 2002. So the prices still remain higher for ADSL than in Western Europe and due to this, I think only 50% Czechs are connected to the internet these days.” [This figure is rising and according to the Czech Statistical Office now exceeds 60%].

Camilla Hawthorne is the manager of digital media initiatives at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She has been impressed by the level of IT innovation happening in the Czech Republic:

Keren Kessel,  Markéta Kristová,  Lauren Kirsch
“Recently at the One World film festival there was a side session that was giving awards to social innovation in technology. It was called ‘The One World Social Innovation Competition’ and there are people doing such things as building applications to monitor smog levels or map their communities in interesting ways, so I wasn’t really expecting that in such a small country. There’s a growing movement of people who are trying to build interesting projects for the Czech Republic that address the needs of people who are here.”

According to Markéta Kristová the internet is the freest medium in the Czech Republic:

“If you want to let people know about anything, you can create your own website and you can start to gain your audience. [How has this changed the traditional media?] In recent years there has been very stiff competition among the Czech online media – the Czech media started to go online after 1998, when the first big news portal iDNES was launched and since then there has been very stiff competition. All media invest a lot of money in new technologies. What is now very popular for them is offering newspapers for your iPad. We shall see if the investment will return to them, because now they are offering the first three months for free.”

The changes can also be seen in TV and radio. The daily programme Hyde Park goes out on Czech public service television. Its purpose is to embrace the new multi-media and interactive environment. The host invites an expert on a certain topic into the studio and the audience can ask him questions live, via Facebook, telephone or Twitter.

But with the meteoric rise of what has come to be known as citizen journalism, are the traditional big players in the media in danger of becoming irrelevant? One of the world’s major international broadcasters is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Set up in the Cold War and funded by the US Congress, the station has been based here in Prague since 1995. It broadcasts to many parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as the Middle East, and increasingly to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We’ve headed off across Prague to RFE/RL’s highly secure modern steel-and-glass headquarters on the eastern edge of the city. Camilla Hawthorne is going to tell us about a few of the huge changes that are taking place at the station as a result of the new media:

Daniel Schmertz,  Camilla Hawthorne,  Allison Weisman
“The platforms that we use have shifted dramatically, moving from shortwave radio primarily to medium wave to FM radio, to television, to the internet, to the social media, so we’re spread across many more platforms. But the practice of broadcasting has changed too: it’s no longer a one-way process, where the broadcaster tells the news and you listen. It’s become more interactive and more participatory. With social media and citizen journalism, the people who were just consumers of news now often play a part in the actual process of making the news and telling stories. It’s more and more important for journalists to play the role of curators. So, while some people are pessimistic and say that broadcasting is dying or journalism is dying because of social media, I actually think that the flood of information that’s available now makes the role of the journalist even more important, because you need people who can step aside, who have the background and the knowledge and the ability to verify information, to say, ‘OK, out of everything that we’re receiving in tweets and YouTube videos and text messages, how can we put a story together out of this? What’s false? What’s true? How do we build a narrative out of that?’ So I think a lot of it now is shifting towards helping people make sense of all the information that’s out there, and maybe even help to cultivate media literacy in our audiences as well.”

But the social media does not exist in a vacuum. Growing reliance on the internet and mobile phone technologies means that traditional broadcasters are losing some of their independence. They are increasingly reliant on the service providers, on companies like Facebook or Twitter. According to Camilla Hawthorne, this can be a problem:

RFE/RL building in Prague
“We already see where this can be problematic. When you’re dependent on someone else’s platforms and something breaks, it’s really important to be able to have a close connection with people who work for that company. Otherwise your information might be lost. We are often very vulnerable on social media. People who don’t support what we do might set up a fake profile of one of our journalists with spam content or extremist content. When that happens, it’s very difficult, because you don’t own the software, you can’t go in and change it or recover a password. Another challenge is that I think a lot of these companies have very Western or American ideas of what privacy and security mean, and they don’t necessarily think first about what it means to be a Facebook user in Uzbekistan or what it means to be managing a Facebook page that targets the Iranian audience.

“The question of perception is actually one that we encounter a lot in Russia as well. Russia has Vkontakte, which is a Russian social network, but there’s also Facebook. And there’s a pretty significant difference between the people who use Vkontakte and the people who use Facebook. People who use Vkontakte see it as their network – as a Russian network – and they’re suspicious of Facebook, because it’s foreign and American. Now, the people who use Facebook, who are Russian, tend to be more educated and more internationally oriented. They travel a lot, they have foreign friends and therefore they’re more comfortable with it as a platform. So the question for us as well is to what extent we focus on these larger, maybe Western, social networks and to what extent to we focus on the local social networks?”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Two things are clear, both here in the Czech Republic and beyond. One is that there is no turning back to the old days of the one-way media. But what is perhaps still more striking is how fragmented the media environment is becoming. No one can predict which platforms will become more or less dominant in the next five years. For media organizations, including Radio Prague, the future is uncertain, but the opportunities are growing by the day.

This broadcast was made by AAU students Allison Weisman, Lauren Kirsch, Ellen Weiler, Zachary Wanerman, Daniel Schmertz, Sarah Abraham, Markéta Horázná and Keren Kessel, in cooperation with David Vaughan.