Recently I was traveling through a provincial town where I met with a journalist at a local newspaper. An old-timer, who had set up his own paper, one of the town’s really experienced veterans, he conveyed to me his deepest concern: The country’s financial crisis had essentially demolished his work. He has been left with a handful of employees and the nagging fear that he might be obliged to fire them too. At one point he told me that, before the crisis, there had been 16 newspapers circulating in the town, out of a total of 21 in the whole prefecture. Now that number has dropped to just five.
I thought to myself: 16 newspapers in a Greek provincial town – is that not an excessive number? Is it not an absurdly high number? The truth is that even the five that survived seem like too many to me. “So what’s the reason all the others collapsed?” I asked him. I wondered whether the internet was to blame. “No, nothing to do with the internet,” he told me. “The reason can be summed up in two words: state funding.” After this was cut, during the crisis, it appears that the whole system collapsed like a house of cards.
As the journalist explained to me, his newspaper enjoyed an average of 35,000 euros in annual revenue just from state advertising and publishing company balance sheets – that is not counting newspaper sales, subscriptions and private advertising. What was clear, however, was that the lion’s share of revenue came from the state.
“That’s not bad at all,” I remarked. “Yes,” he retorted with an ironic smile. “But last year,” he added, “do you know what our revenue was? 240 euros.” “For the whole year?” I asked. “For the whole year,” he said. “From 35,000 euros to 240 euros?” “Exactly. I asked him whether the same figures apply to other local and regional newspapers in other parts of the country – both now and then. “Pretty much,” he said.
You might say it seems like a joke. But what is the most ridiculous aspect? The fact that local newspapers were receiving roughly 35,000 euros a year from the state coffers or that they are now getting just 240? I myself was most struck by the pre-crisis situation. If a local newspaper had been receiving annual revenue of 20,000 or 30,000 or 35,000 euros from the state every year, why would a provincial town not have 16 newspapers? Clearly, it was good business.
There is the risk here of tarring everyone with the same brush. Many towns in Greece have a local press that they are proud of, and rightly so in some cases. Some have very old local newspapers and feel that they have a vehicle to ensure they are heard, even briefly, even by a few.
Some of these publications are absolutely necessary: The Athenian press, isolated as it is in its own bubble, as is so often the case in capital cities, and with a certain arrogance and affected cosmopolitanism, is often oblivious to Greek provincial life and its problems.
But when the state gives out money so easily, at some point the old, established newspapers will be joined by another five, 10, even 15 that also receive funding, irrespective of their distribution, subscriptions and quality. And that is basically how the Greek state got to be where it is now.