Rimvydas Valatka: Critical journalism has no place in Lithuanian media

Rimvydas Valatka
DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

In an interview with Vladimiras Laučius of LRT.lt, Valatka explains his dismissal from the post he held for three years as an outcome of frictions between himself and the company’s managing director Tomas Balžekas. According to Valatka, the director unilaterally came up with a plan to restructure the newsroom in a way that purposefully left no place for a chief editor.

This, according to Valatka, is a sign of larger trends in the Lithuanian media landscape where business interests are pushing out serious journalism.

You’ve been dismissed from 15min.lt as its chief editor. How and why did that happen?

The first word that comes to mind is “mystery”. On the other hand I had a plain upbringing: a learned person speaks as little as possible and worries as little as possible about himself. But had something like that happened to some other editor, then the word that would come to my mind would be “ghoulish”. I would say that somebody had to get rid of an editor forthwith. On Friday morning I heard about the restructuring and on Monday I had already been laid off.

Professionals are laid off all over the world and are replaced by new and better ones. But at 15min.lt it was done in a preposterous way, one which although it’s called restructuring, is in actual fact plain and simple contempt not only for me but for all the work done by journalists at 15min.lt and it’s out of line with Western principles and values of journalism.

The crux of the “restructuring” at 15min.lt is that there will no longer be a chief editor. It’s the first newsroom in the world without a “head”. The post of chief editor is being taken over by the managing director. The newsroom is divided into eight sections. Just after I was dismissed, the managing director was asked who was going to edit journalists’ work, he answered that journalists can edit each other’s work. Laughable, but that’s how it was and something that would be hard to imagine even in the Soviet times. What’s more, I was accused of being a bad manager.

There was absolutely no discussion. All I can remember is that three months ago the managing director himself offered me a 1000-litas salary raise. In actual fact I didn’t get the increase but that didn’t surprise me much. I was used to getting contradictory orders every month: one month I’d get a directive to build up the business section and take on one more person, and then the next month lay off several because we had to cut costs.

But you still got your annual bonus?

Yes, this year and last year I got bonuses for good work. And let me emphasize again: the managing director himself offered a raise. I’ve never asked for an increase, never in my life for that matter. I asked for an increase in the salaries of particularly low-paid journalists (salaries at 15min.lt are the lowest of the three major news portals).

So since when is an increase in salary offered to bad editors who then get laid off? On Friday that’s the sort of thing I heard. I was offered the post of a section head where one journalist writes about domestic policy and another about foreign policy. Anyone would tell you that there is a clear difference between domestic and foreign policy news. It shows that there are people who, despite having run a media company for nine years, just cannot get what it means.

Why did you turn down the position of section head?

A chief editor, or leader of any company for that matter, can only be carried out of the newsroom his feet first, or leave of his own accord or be dismissed. Management knows of no fourth way. When I spoke with my journalists after I was laid off, they said plainly: “If you had agreed to degradation like this, we’d no longer respect you”. Earning the respect of people is very difficult. Earning the respect of journalists is almost impossible. And that respect can be lost in a second. As they say, everyone jumps on the band wagon.

Generally, only someone who does not and cannot understand what journalism is can even think of giving orders to journalists, especially in such a small newsroom as 15min.lt that has only one copy editor, one foreign news journalist and no one writing about cultural affairs, and from which seventeen journalists were laid off in late 2013 (more than a third).

The only thing that a chief editor can allow himself to do in circumstances like that is to work his arse off – plug the holes, correct simple errors and plan future editorial work so that with a smaller army you could defeat the biggest competitors.

With my hand on my heart I can now say that for the last one and a half years, after I lost one third of my journalists, with those who were left we worked hard and improved the content. So I consider any talk of bad management an insult to me and to those young journalists who worked overtime.

Let’s put it this way: having section heads in such a small news portal is ridiculous. Unless they have money to burn. It’s now clear that there never were any section heads there never will be. I would’ve understood if Tomas had said: I cannot and will not continue to work with you. We think differently and now let’s talk about severance package and part our ways. We would have shaken hands, because it would have been the honourable thing to do, and not some “restructuring”.

Is that sort of treatment in your opinion an isolated case in the Lithuanian media industry or is it a trend?

It’s the second time that something like that has happened to me in just over three years. I was kicked out of my post as senior editor at lrytas.lt in almost the same way. Now I can compare both of my experiences and I must say that American-educated Tomas Balžekas is somewhat worse than Gedvydas Vainauskas [head of company that owns lrytas.lt] who created the kind of atmosphere in which I asked to be let go.

Still, after I gave my notice, two other shareholders forced Vainauskas to convince me to stay on as deputy senior editor. Knowing his arrogance, Vainauskas’s approached me and tried to persuade me by asking me not to leave that same day but to stay on a couple of more months.

Do you think that the decision on the so-called restructuring wasn’t so much work optimization as it was a political decision?

That’s not something you should be asking me. I cannot be impartial, yet for me optimization is when nobody interferes with your work. The 15min.lt newsroom worked hard and, as the reaction after my dismissal shows, most people, even those who don’t like me, acknowledged superb results. Nevertheless, instead of praise, the journalists who don’t even earn 600 euro a month and wanted experience, got bullied and told that so little is their market value. Then there were allegations that journalists were not innovative enough.

When the number-two news portal in Lithuania has only 25 or 30 journalists (fewer than the first and third) and a person writes three to four articles a day, not even Pontius Pilate would demand new ideas from him. You can demand something like that from someone who has the time to think and to write, someone whom the company sends to at least one industry conference a year.

What would you say to young people after this incident who want to study journalism? What are their prospects?

Yes, I’ll say what I’ve said before: the entire class of politicians, officials and businesspeople despise our work. In this job you have no chance of living with dignity – you won’t earn enough for yourselves, let alone your families. But you could hope not to be kicked out of your job just because some managing director’s pal doesn’t like you for some reason or is simply taking revenge.

Can your dismissal be seen as a warning that this class of people you’ve mentioned are the ones calling the shots in journalism, not editors?

If only it were just a warning. My dismissal is rather a sign that editors and journalists have long been only berated appendages to the mission of shareholders their delegate directors to run everything with spreadsheets and behind-the-scene agreements with banks, travel agencies and the like.

Take a look at what’s left of the media groups like Kauno Diena. What’s happening of the once healthy Lietuvos Rytas group? Just calculate how many minutes of journalism are produced per day – yes minutes, not hours – in all Lithuanian commercial TV channels taken together. How can honest professionals work there? It’s not a question of warnings anymore.

When I came to 15min.lt, I hoped that at least here Lithuanian law would be adhered to and according to which the newsroom would be “double-headed”: the managing director is responsible for advertising, finances and production. The senior editor is responsible for content, hiring and firing journalists and for their work. Just as I didn’t tell the managing director how he must work profitably (even though I could have), nobody must tell me how I and my journalists must write, which journalists work well and which badly.

Why in your opinion have the affairs of the media in Lithuania been allowed to take such a turn for the worst?

Everything in our lives is made up of interest curves and projections. In this case, all political interests without exception overlap – they are better off without a strong media. Business’s interests also coincide, especially of those businesspeople who do not have good media men and who argue thus: “If need be, I’ll buy my spot in a news portal, television or a newspaper”.

Politicians and directors think that they’re wiser than journalists and know better how something must be written and broadcast. The third reason is that the public don’t give a damn because journalism is being marginalized.

Who, and why, does not want Rimvydas Valatka around?

I have my suspicions, but no proof. If I had proof, what good would it do when you are already out? In Lithuania today a journalist is in actual fact ten times more vulnerable than 25 years ago. Let’s say that for those like me our time has passed.

Who’s the winner from your dismissal as senior editor?

That’s almost a rhetorical question. What’s more important to me is who’s the absolute loser. I lost. Not the battle – lost battles remain in the past – I lost the war because I thought that the media could be a little different and that a journalist should not be a serf to a Romanov or a Vainauskas.

What do you think is the future of the media in Lithuania?

We’ve long been talking about the death of the press – it’s happening throughout the world. In Lithuania, however, it could happen that the death of the press will coincide with the death of freedom of the media. Although that might be just my own resentment talking. Let’s hope that it won’t be like that and that there’s a miracle and that our commercial television channels, that currently produce just one news programme, will start making investigative journalism shows and political debates rather than mere imitations thereof.

So nobody actually needs real politics and real debate?

All I know is that critical debate about politics in Lithuania is met with growing resentment. “How dare he criticize the prime minister?” or “How dare he criticize the president because we, after all, elected her?” And we elect her precisely so that we can criticize her even when her ratings are above those of Vladimir Putin. If we want not criticism, then let’s have a king and be done with all the criticism.

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