Google Digital News Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Poland’s media environment is characterised by highly competitive and often partisan broadcasters, large web portals, and a divided press. Meanwhile the ruling Law and Justice party has strengthened its control of public broadcasting and is now targeting private media.
When the media regulator slapped a $415,000 fine on private broadcaster TVN in December 2017 for coverage of anti-government rallies, or ‘propagating illegal behaviour’ in the official language, many thought this heralded the end of media freedom in Poland.
But then the nationalist-populist government paused — partly as a result of US government intervention on behalf of TVN’s new owners, Scripps Networks, and later Discovery. For the sake of relations with the US, and an ongoing multi-billion dollar weapon deal, the Polish government quietly cancelled the fine and froze work on a proposed media bill that threatened TVN’s investors with limits on the share of foreign capital.
The government was frequently at loggerheads with journalists and publications critical of their record. When a reporter for the left-leaning Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper heard a new conspiracy theory about a 2010 president’s plane crash, he exploded at a press briefing. Instead of asking questions, he shouted at a ruling party’s leader: ‘You are a liar and a criminal! And you‘ll stand up one day in the courts of free Poland!’ Pro-government commentators argued that the journalist had crossed the line, mistaking a press conference for an opposition rally. The journalist himself explained that he couldn’t bear any more lies. But the incident reveals the extent of partisanship in the Polish media along with the often-bitter and emotional tone of public debate. None of this is helping overall trust in the news among Polish consumers, which fell 5 percentage points to 48%.
All the three biggest TV networks have lost viewers, partly due to changing consumption habits. According to the industry standard Nielsen ratings, the state broadcaster’s main channel, TVP1, lost 15% in a year while the average viewership of its flagship news show Wiadomosci, widely criticised for spreading government propaganda, decreased 20%.1 In response, the state broadcaster developed an alternative measurement system that placed TVP1 and Wiadomosci at the top. Meanwhile, lower ratings translated into lower ad revenues for TVP. The government injected an extra $233m into the broadcaster, allowing a shopping spree on sports rights and new shows, including a soap opera on 14th-century Polish kings.
Alternative and partisan news outlets have grown in significance, as noted by our survey for the first time. Mariusz ‘Max’ Kolonko is a Polish journalist living in the US who has built an opinion-based online video channel that has similar levels of reach to more mainstream outlets such as such as Niezalezna.pl or Natemat.pl. The Karnowski brothers-owned wPolityce.pl became a launchpad for a conglomerate of pro-government outlets such a news weekly Sieci Prawdy and an online and cable TV channel wPolsce, attracting millions of dollars of advertising from state-controlled companies.
Digital and political disruption of advertising led private media owners to search for new sources of revenue. Agora, which publishes Gazeta Wyborcza, admitted that its fastest growing business was tickets and snacks at its cinemas, and heralded a shift to restaurants. Gazeta Wyborcza reported 133,000 paid digital-only subscriptions at the end of 2017; more than the 119,000 copies it sold in print. Wirtualna Polska (WP), an internet portal that is second in our list of online news sources, revealed that it made half of its revenue on e-commerce, selling clothes, holidays, home decorations, and loans.
Legacy media have been losing their monopoly on quality journalism, as internet-only portals such as top-ranked Onet beefed up newsrooms in order to differentiate and claim premium ad prices. Onet published major scoops, one of which destroyed reputation of a leader of the biggest opposition movement, and another revealed a spat between Poland and the US over a bill penalising claims of the Poles’ assistance in the German Nazi-led killings of Jews during the Second World War.
Journalism start-ups popped up online and offline: Pismo and Przekroj are new ambitious literary magazines, Outriders and VSquare are focused on foreign and investigative news, respectively. Other notable launches included digital NewsMavens, a feminist take on European politics and society, and Vogue magazine, a new Polish fashionista bible in print.
Vogue’s first cover, featuring two skinny models and a Stalinist sky-scraper in Warsaw, went viral, sparking a debate about everything from aesthetics to diets. In parallel to the #MeToo movement, some female journalists accused prominent names of the liberal media of bullying and sexual harassment; a political editor of a national newspaper lost his job.
A significant drop in trust in news overall (by 5 percentage points) is accompanied by a similar drop in trust in news sources people use. The State TV broadcaster (TVP) rates lower than Fakt, a tabloid with a topless girl on a daily back cover. The biggest winners may be RMF FM and Polsat, broadcasters of the most popular radio and TV channels, whose owners try to stay away from political conflict.
- Average among viewers aged 4 and older. Data of National Broadcasting Council based on Nielsen Audience Measurement. Source: ‘Information on the basic problems of radio and TV broadcasting in 2017’. ↩