Is the Czech press developing at the expense of quality?


Like Czech society, Czech media have also undergone a crucial change since the fall of communism in 1989. But even though censorship disappeared with the coming of democracy, the Czech press is now facing other challenges mostly influenced by market economy conditions. What are the major papers in the Czech Republic and what is their quality?

There are four major dailies that consider themselves "serious newspapers": Mlada fronta Dnes, Lidove noviny, Pravo and Hospodarske noviny.

Hospodarske noviny - a financial daily - belongs to the same group as The Wall Street Journal Europe and the German Handelsblatt. It does not have as wide a circulation as the other mentioned papers, but due to its high quality political and economical analysis it is considered a very relevant source, says media analyst Jan Culik.

"I think Hospodarske noviny is probably the best paper. Even though if you go to a news stand and see all the newspapers you've just mentioned and see Hospodarske noviny alongside them, your ordinary punter may think that it is boring. But no - it has a very good international coverage and it has done recently quite important investigative stuff."

Lidove noviny is an old Czech paper derailed by the communist regime when it went underground: it was published only as a dissident newspaper. Mlada fronta Dnes together with Pravo - earlier called Rude Pravo (Red Justice) - on the other hand were among the most prominent papers of the communist regime.

Mlada fronta Dnes and Lidove Noviny, similarly as other Czech papers, are not strictly politically profiled. They both belong to the same media group owned by a German company. Even though they present themselves as serious papers, Jan Culik does not quite agree with this label.

"I would be really very hesitant in calling the other papers serious, especially Mlada fronta Dnes. It is really a semi-tabloid thing, something like the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. Mlada fronta Dnes keeps saying: 'Oh we are a high quality newspaper everybody reads us'. This is of course true but it is a semi-tabloid and there are many features of this: supporting conventional views, going in for topics that are bordering on the tabloids...Then of course, there is this service thing that they have all these supplements which is very good but that also is a part of that idea: 'We want to be as popular and as accessible as possible."

But not even its sister paper Lidove noviny, nor the more left wing Pravo - can be compared with standard broadsheet papers.

"Lidove noviny has a problem in the sense that they are trying to compete with Mlada fronta but at the same time they are trying to be intellectual. Lidove noviny is loss making. It is emptier than Mlada fronta Dnes - it is a smaller paper. It does publish some intellectual stuff but generally the conventional attitudes do prevail there. Pravo: some commentators are interesting. Pravo is usually accused of being basically under the influence of Czech big business, so it uncritically follows those lines."

But what criteria should a good paper have? According to Jan Jirak from the Faculty of Journalism at Charles University - a good quality press should by definition focus on a relevant agenda.

"Quality press is a historical term. It includes any kind of press which is focused on important public agenda: political issues, socially relevant issues, not a lot of entertainment etc. On the opposite side there are tabloids or sensational papers. They are more entertaining and sometimes purely for entertainment's sake; they feature a lot of celebrities, sensational stories, human interest stories and so on. But of course, you can find well done tabloids as well as well done quality papers."

Czech newspapers have gone a long way since the Velvet Revolution in1989. They have abandoned their original loyalty to the government and are now much more critical in their stances. But in spite of this development Jan Culik remains skeptical about the current quality of Czech press.

"Of course there are pressures, there are commercial pressures. Even though the papers are now much more open, and for example Lidove noviny would now publish much more than they would have done in about 1993, there is still this relentless drive towards tabloid style. Unfortunately, the Czech journalist feels that the only way to sell papers is to become more and more tabloid. Of course there is also another way; to deal in a hard-hitting way with stuff that concerns people but of course this is expensive, it needs intelligence, it needs assertiveness, and I don't know whether many editors-in-chief are willing to go along this rather precarious line."

Although the serious press is now looking for lighter and apparently more entertaining stories, there is also a real tabloid press in the Czech Republic. Blesk, which means Lightening, is the best sold paper in the country - tabloids in general are getting more and more popular in the Czech Republic.

Douglas Arellanes from Prague Media Development - defends tabloids. He says that whereas most serious press journalists remain timid, tabloid journalists are much more investigative - trying to uncover the latest 'scoop'.

"If a story is important, it is up to the journalist to make it interesting. Czech journalists often forget that. There are a lot of big stories that have been missed by reporters because they have not been able to do what tabloids do, which is to boil the story down to its essence. Since the tabloids' stories have to be short they are forcing the journalists into a form that emphasizes story telling. That is different from a newspaper that has 80 columns to fill and they can be very vague, not really presenting the story in a really compelling way."

Even though the Czech tabloid is getting more and more popular it is still not as successful as in some other countries.

"I think British tabloid newspapers on the whole are much worse than the Czech ones. But on the other hand there is this serious counterpart so that there are two parallel visions of reality. I think the high quality vision of reality is missing in the Czech Republic and I don't know why."

Says Jan Culik. But according to Jan Jirak this is a beginning worldwide trend.

"I think Czech press is quickly developing towards highly commercialized infotaining products. The trend towards highly commercialized media is a trend of Western Europe as well but the tradition of quality papers there is a factor which is slowing down the process, whereas the process here was sped up by the lack of tradition."

Even though there are seriously highbrow periodicals in the Czech Republic, they are usually specialized newspapers or low circulation weeklies such as Respekt or Literarni noviny. Given the fact that a lot of world press steers towards middlebrow journalism as it is, there is not much chance that a country with as small media market as the Czech Republic would be an exception.