How do you challenge the mainstream media? Czech startups are finding out.

Why We Wrote This

When a country’s media landscape is dominated by a handful of tycoons, the task of informing the public often falls to independent journalistic outlets. That’s what’s happening in the Czech Republic.

Karolína Jírová/Reporter magazine
Reporter, a new Czech monthly magazine, mixes photo reportage with political coverage and short fiction. The magazine exemplifies a new breed of independent publication in a country where mainstream media are largely in the hands of a few oligarchs.

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Andrej Babiš is not just the prime minister of the Czech Republic. He is the country's second-richest man and owner of a media empire. He is thus able to shape much of the coverage his government gets, even as it is beset by scandal. But the monopoly he and a few other oligarchs hold over the Czech media is driving the generation of a new, independent press landscape.

Scraping together launch money from friends and benefactors, working often for a pittance and sometimes from their living rooms, these startup entrepreneurs have created a handful of innovative websites and magazines. Even the most successful are barely breaking even, but their founders say they hold out tentative promise. They are points of light against the generally gloomy background of mounting assaults on press freedom in central and Eastern Europe.

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” says Robert Břešťan, chief editor of HlídacíPes, a startup investigative news website whose name means “Watchdog.” “The cloud is Andrej Babiš, but because of him several very good, free media projects have been launched.”

An odd thing happened here at the end of April.

On a drizzly Monday afternoon, thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through the Czech capital’s medieval streets and filled one of its largest squares, protesting against alleged manipulation of the justice system.

The next day’s front page headline in the country’s biggest broadsheet daily? “Big fines for weed-ridden gardens.” News of the demonstration was buried on an inside page, in a brief item. 

Odd, certainly, but not unexpected. The broadsheet in question, Mladá fronta DNES, belongs to Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. So do more than 20 other publications, a radio station, and two TV channels.

Mr. Babiš, the second-richest man in the Czech Republic, is not the only billionaire who sees value in owning a media empire. He and three other tycoons own the lion’s share of Czech print publications, popular news websites, and commercial broadcasting operations. One of them, Marek Dospiva, once explained his purchase of a string of regional papers by comparing ownership to a “nuclear briefcase. The fact that we own a media organization makes us safe in the sense that it will be worse for anyone to irrationally attack us,” he said.

As business titans gobbled up the media, public trust in news fell – down to 33% in the Czech Republic, according to this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report. And many professional journalists found themselves on the street – either fired or refusing to work for their new owners.

But some of them have planted the seeds of a new, independent press landscape. Scraping together launch money from friends and benefactors, working often for a pittance and sometimes from their living rooms, these start-up entrepreneurs have created a handful of innovative websites and magazines.

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” says Robert Břešťan, chief editor of HlídacíPes, a start-up investigative news website whose name means “Watchdog.” “The cloud is Andrej Babiš, but because of him several very good, free media projects have been launched.”

They are still fragile: Even the most successful are barely breaking even, but their founders say they hold out tentative promise. They are points of light against the generally gloomy background of mounting assaults on press freedom in Central and Eastern Europe.

Czech magazine with a dash of New Yorker

Robert Čásenský, a fan of The New Yorker, says he founded Reporter as “a magazine for reading.”

He resigned as chief editor of MF DNES soon after Mr. Babiš bought the paper in 2013. “A newspaper owner who also owns 230 companies and a political party is not appropriate for investigative journalism,” Mr. Čásenský says with a smile.

Lucie Smoldasova/Reporter magazine
Robert Čásenský (l.), chief editor of Reporter magazine, consults with editor Michal Musil in the magazine offices.

Today, Reporter is a handsome monthly mixing reportage and investigative articles with cultural coverage and generous photo-spreads. In a nod to Mr. Čásenský’s inspiration, each edition carries a short story. The dozen or so staffers work in a colorful, relaxed newsroom that gives its reporters time to think.

Reporter launched in 2014 with $800,000 in loans from three of Mr. Čásenský’s wealthier friends. Last year it broke even, and this year Mr. Čásenský hopes to start paying his debts. But even with growing sales (the magazine has a print run of 30,000), “finding the last million” Czech crowns in a 22 million crown ($970,000) annual budget “is always a struggle,” he admits.

The magazine relies on advertising for 65% of its revenues, Mr. Čásenský says. He doesn’t get advertisements from any government-linked institution and he didn’t expect any: None of the independent media sees advertising money from the government.

The new crop of independent media “is a good sign. It means we journalists did not give up,” says Mr. Čásenský. “But at least some of us will have to survive at least 10 years to show those who are still working for oligarchs that they don’t have to be part of that.”

Investigating from home

Ten years is further ahead than Mr. Břešťan of HlídacíPes dares to think. “We are really free and really independent, but I cannot assure anyone, least of all myself, that HlídacíPes will still exist in a year’s time,” he says frankly.

Not that the website is throwing its money about. It is put together by five investigative reporters who have no newsroom; they gather for weekly editorial meetings in a café and work from their homes. They are idealists, says Mr. Břešťan. “Good journalism is in the public interest, and we hoped to find enough people and supporters who would think the same.”

They have made a name for themselves with occasional scoops, including the revelation that diamonds and other precious stones in the National Museum’s collection were, in fact, cut glass. And their readership is respectable; stories picked up by the country’s biggest web portal Seznam.cz can reach 50,000 readers, says Mr. Břešťan – not bad in a country of 10 million people.

But when it comes to money, it’s a different story. HlídacíPes launched with funds from businessmen who created a foundation for the purpose, but when the website began running stories about shady Russian companies, benefactors with business in Russia pulled out.

HlídacíPes gets by for the time being on donations from Pavel Baudiš, the Czech founder of anti-virus software firm Avast, and from the national Endowment for Independent Journalism. The site has run some crowdfunding campaigns and asks its readers at the bottom of each article to contribute. But this is not a long-term, sustainable business model, Mr. Břešťan knows. “Our biggest problem,” he says bluntly, “is just to survive.”

Independent journal

The newest kid on the Czech media block is Deník N, an offshoot of the successful venture of the same name in neighboring Slovakia.

The daily paper hit the streets and the website went live last October. The warren of small offices in downtown Prague where 44 staffers sit close-packed behind their computer screens still has a brand-new, bright-white feel.

Adam Hecl/Deník N
Journalists work in the newsroom at Deník N, the newest independent media venture in the Czech Republic.

But the ethos behind the project is “good old-fashioned journalism,” says Magdalena Slezáková, an international news writer. And that seems to have an appeal: A crowdfunding campaign before last year’s launch raised more than $300,000, Ms. Slezáková says, a Czech record.

Deník N (the N stands for nezávislý, which means “independent”) clearly has no sympathy for Mr. Babiš or his government, but Ms. Slezáková insists that it has “no political agenda, just a value system” favoring a Western liberal outlook.

The daily paper, which has just 3,000 subscribers at the moment, publishes a limited number of longer, in-depth articles. “Readers seem to appreciate the added value,” says Ms. Slezáková. Web subscriptions hit 11,000 this month, ahead of the targeted 7,000, she adds. The business plan calls for 20,000 subscriptions eventually.

Deník N, with the luxury of enough start-up funds from a group of local businessmen to hire 45 staffers, can report from the provinces, Ms. Slezáková points out. “If we can’t make it with these very generous conditions,” she says, “probably nobody can make it.”

Activist journalism

Also attracting attention are two unashamedly partisan websites whose opposition to Mr. Babiš shouts from every headline. And with the prime minister embroiled in scandal, they are having a field day. The police have recommended that Mr. Babiš be indicted for fraud and European Union auditors have ruled that he has a conflict of interest that could mean returning millions of euros in EU subsidies.

Dalibor Balšínek boasts that his Echo24 weekly and website were “the first opposition press in the country” when he launched them in March 2014. Mr. Babiš had just been named finance minister. Within a month, Mr. Balšínek says, his offices were raided by tax inspectors.

But what sets Echo24 apart from other newcomers to the media scene is its clearly conservative ideology. Mr. Balšínek espouses a family-values approach and is skeptical about the causes of climate change; he sees that as “a competitive advantage,” he says. “The rest of the media don’t reflect what people see and feel.”

He claims 12,000 subscribers to his website and magazine, which he targets not only at right-wing professionals, but at “anybody who thinks it’s important for society that this voice be heard in the market, even if it is not very modern or fashionable.”

At the other end of the political spectrum is Forum24, an often shrill platform for criticism of Mr. Babiš and all his works.

Its founder, Pavel Šafr, another former chief editor of MF DNES, has no qualms about being called an activist journalist, as some of his critics have branded him. “A journalist is an activist in a good way when he defends society against the misuse of power,” he argues. “And the opposite of activist is passivist. We cannot be passive in this situation.”

Mr. Šafr says his website attracts a million unique visitors a month and that he is breaking even with revenues from magazine subscriptions, a pay wall on the website, advertisements channeled to the site by Seznam.cz, and crowdfunding drives.

Many Czech journalists regret that Forum24 appears to be obsessed with Mr. Babiš to the exclusion of almost every other topic. Mr. Šafr rejects the criticism. “Babiš has so much power that he is everywhere,” he says. “We are just reacting to that.”

Whether Forum24 will outlive Mr. Babiš is unclear. Whether any of the new crop of independent media can carve out a sustainable niche is equally uncertain. “We have a number of new projects that are promising,” says Michal Klíma, head of the Czech chapter of the International Press Institute. “But it is hard to see how to make them profitable.”

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