By Auksė Balčytienė*
The Lithuanian report in the Mapping Digital Media series gives an account of what has happened in the media in Lithuania over the past two decades. It also looks at the biggest challenges that have recently shocked the media even in Europe’s smallest markets—particularly economic and technological issues.
According to this report, economic difficulties affected all media sectors in Lithuania, with only the online media managing to keep up their advertising revenues.
The mainstream media responded to the crisis by trying to maximize their audiences, commercializing as many television products as possible. Consequently, the power of producers and managers has overtaken the power of journalists to decide what’s important especially in the television market. TV rankings and audience reach have become the most important measures of program success and also the yardsticks of journalistic professionalism—and even of content quality.
Economic drawbacks also had serious social effects: the working conditions in the media deteriorated, salaries were reduced, and many journalists were made redundant. But disappointments and dissatisfactions are not only associated with economic difficulties. The biggest changes are taking place in people’s heads. The most dramatic development in the mainstream media is their striking loss of public trust. For trust in the mass media has dropped to its lowest level in a decade, with only about one third of the population expressing trust in media.
This has significant effects on the commercialization and popularization of content, and also on the behavior of different audience groups. Many of those groups, especially younger audiences, have swapped mainstream media channels for different specialized and niche products, such as magazines or online portals that target consumers with individualized interests. Alternatively, they remain loyal to certain mainstream media outlets (“hits”) while supplementing their news diet with a broader spectrum of news channels, both online and offline.
Thus the Lithuanian media landscape today, as probably in many other countries, is dominated not only by the media “hits”. Today’s communications field is not only richer and more diverse, offering mainstream and niche media; it also has many more actors than was possible to imagine only a year ago. This latter tendency has the biggest impact on further media transformations and possibly on the emergence of a completely new type of communications and media culture in Lithuania.
I see these trends as signaling the emergence of something new and positive, which we are only now coming to understand. For, despite the economic difficulties, today’s communications field is booming with newcomers—it is saturated with new channels, news sources, and access opportunities hardly imagined only a few years ago.
Audiences no longer depend on just one or two news outlets or sources of inspiration. There are no longer just a few editorial perspectives, but millions of them. Innovations in interactive technology supported with economic models of small-scale online funding and development of internet media and blogosphere are actually creating completely new audience groups, social movements and virtual formations. These groups are not massive: they gather around niche issues and function as de-territorialized, yet ideologically shaped groups of followers and supporters.
Occurring not only in the internet and social media, these developments form a semi-alternative field which exists side by side with the mainstream media and contains the conventional media content, such as cultural weeklies or monthly political and economic news and analysis magazines, or certain television and radio channels and programs.
On one hand, these developments confirm the rise of contemporary consumer-oriented society, where individualized access to news and information is prioritized and prized. On the other hand, they serve as a warning about the rise of a more fragmented, heterogeneous society, existing in parallel fields and even distant parallel universes.
Although sketching a more general picture about what changes and what stays the same in the media in Lithuania, the Mapping Digital Media report only partly discloses the full complexity of social relations emerging among the major actors in contemporary communications. Although major media players are mentioned, the statistics and facts cited in the report give very little information to assess the media’s actual performance: namely, who the major political news agenda setters are, and how the relations between media owners and other elites—such as political and business actors—are shaped. Who are today’s media readers, consumers and participants? Which conventional media do they consume, and which ones do they trust? Who are their authorities, whose ideas do they follow, and whom do they stay close to in social media and internet networks?
While looking at Lithuania and other societies of Central and Eastern Europe and their social and cultural foundations, very mixed impressions and feelings arise from the so-called unevenness and shapelessness of those societies—effects that arise from their weak ideological foundations, weak political and party systems, weak journalistic professionalism and, especially, weak civil societies.
Although their media landscapes are rich and diverse, those societies are described as clientelist, with their mainstream media playing dual roles. Sometimes, these media outlets become political actors themselves, the “creators” of politics. At other times they are used as instruments to achieve other (political or business) aims. In such a complex context, in social settings dominated by clientelist interests, the culture of political communications is based much more on the practice of public relations than on the well-articulated ideals and missions of professional journalism.
In general, this report inspires many questions—some of which, admittedly, could be asked in any context and cultural setting. Who sets the news agenda in contemporary societies, characterized by flux and ‘liquid’ relations? Is it still the mainstream mass media with their conventional and online publications? Or has it become the new alternatives such as niche channels such as specialized news magazines in politics, economy and culture that also have their virtual representations, generating their own movements and formations of followers and supporters?
What we are discussing and observing here—changes in media functions for democracy and emerging new types of ideologically-shaped and opinionated journalisms and various parallelisms in media landscapes in most of our contemporary societies—could even be used as a broader metaphor for some of the most important trends in contemporary societies.
Increasing social polarization and audience fragmentation, growing social diversity, declining impartiality and objectivity in journalism, and the steady loss of credibility and trust in mass media are becoming fixed features of our contemporary world. On the other hand, these developments also underline that objectivity and impartiality in professional journalism are still vital in these ‘liquid’ and uncertain times. These qualities now have to be re-thought and re-established in the digital era. How this will be achieved with ideologically-shaped and clientelist media, how contemporary journalism will professionalize itself under today’s conditions, who will be the driving forces in this process, or whether new types of professional journalism and media will emerge, are questions for which answers have not yet been glimpsed.
*Auksė Balčytienė is Professor of Journalism at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Since 2010 she has been a vice-chair of ECREA’s (European Communication Research Association) CEE Network. She is also a member of the Euromedia Group (www.euromediagroup.org). She has been a member of the Committee of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lithuanian Science Council (2008—2010), and of the Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) Council (2008—2011).