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Broken News

Words by
Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photography by
Golli

About a year ago, Helgi Seljan, pictured above, had had enough of his job. After more than 15 years with the state-run broadcaster RÚV, he was one of the nation’s best-known reporters, but he had worn himself out and was about to take some sick leave. He toyed with the idea of going to sea. Though a fisherman’s work is physically taxing – with long hours and rough conditions – he still considered it more restful than working as a journalist.

But Helgi never got his vacation. Instead, he landed himself in another fishy situation: uncovering allegations of Icelandic seafood company Samherji bribing government officials in Namibia in order to obtain lucrative fishing rights. A former Samherji high-up who had himself participated in briberies told Helgi he was willing to be a whistleblower, and that he had files and emails to back up his story.

The Samherji scandal was big news. The kind of story every young journalist dreams of working on. According to Helgi, it’s the kind of news journalists could be reporting if they spent less time “shovelling their work into the perpetuum mobile that is the internet,” and more time sorting the wheat from the chaff. So why aren’t they?

Quantity versus quality

It’s a familiar story. With advertisement and subscription revenue decreasing and Icelanders turning increasingly to the internet for news, much energy is spent on writing online content, courting clicks that generate income through ads. The small size of Iceland’s media landscape makes the problems all the more pronounced. With fewer readers, there’s less diversity in the media landscape, and fewer media can rely on subscription-based business models than abroad. Free newspaper readership is higher than elsewhere, and more online news content is available for free than in other countries.

Helgi’s gripe with the endless stream of news about the storm across all media platforms is simple. “They keep saying it’s so expensive to keep a media company going, but then they’re giving away all their content for free?” At the end of the day, even though the media have to be sustainable, their worth is hard to quantify. Helgi tells me: “The best way to gauge the value of news to a society is how much money people are willing to spend on keeping things out of the news.” Everyone is concerned about image and the way they’re portrayed in the media. “How many PR people do you think are working in Iceland? And how much do you think all these advertisement agencies are worth? And that’s not counting lawyers and the legal work that goes into making sure some stories aren’t reported or that they’re reported a certain way. If you look at that, the other side of journalism, that’s how you can tell how much money the news is worth. That’s how the market values the media.”

Helgi tells me, “Of course the Samherji project took a long time, and of course, it was expensive to make, but about 70% of the nation watched the program and hopefully it will have an effect. I think the lesson people should learn from this is that there is a demand for our work.” For Helgi, there’s something that doesn’t add up in the myth that people don’t have an attention span for the media.  “We see it in publishing: there’s an unprecedented number of books published every year and people are reading more than ever. I’m not saying there won’t be any changes to how we access material, but the demand for deeper and better content, that won’t go away.”

Nýir ráðherrar kynntir á Alþingi og mótmæli á Austurvell

Helgi tells me, “Of course the Samherji project took a long time, and of course, it was expensive to make, but about 70% of the nation watched the program and hopefully it will have an effect. I think the lesson people should learn from this is that there is a demand for our work.” For Helgi, there’s something that doesn’t add up in the myth that people don’t have an attention span for the media.  “We see it in publishing: there’s an unprecedented number of books published every year and people are reading more than ever. I’m not saying there won’t be any changes to how we access material, but the demand for deeper and better content, that won’t go away.”

Fighting brain drain

For all their work and their importance to society, journalists don’t see a whole lot reflected in their paycheck. According to Þórður Snær Júlíusson, founder and editor of Kjarninn media, there’s a great deal of brain drain happening in the profession. “We see a lot of journalists and media people going into other lines of work because they don’t prosper in this field on account of the low wages, the workload, and the stress of being a critical journalist in such a small community.”

For Þórður, the key to strengthening the media is creating an environment where journalism is a career, keeping experience and knowledge within the profession. “If the media are supposed to be this important part of democracy that we proclaim them to be, we need to have a diverse flora of media with plenty of jobs for career journalists. It’s the same as any other job, knowledge and experience make you better. You add to your contact network, you learn from mistakes you make, and learn about the fields you write about as you cover them. When that is lost, so much is lost.”

With experience comes the knowledge to differentiate between opinions and facts, in order to put things into perspective. With that comes the confidence a reporter needs to stand up to the people they’re writing about. “Neutrality isn’t sticking a microphone in front of two people who disagree and repeating their words. Saying: ‘Here we have two people who disagree, one person says the earth is flat and the other says it’s square. I guess the truth must lie somewhere in between.’ That’s not the way it works.”

Þórður Snær - ritsjóri Kjarnans - fjölmiðlar
Þórður Snær Júlíusson, founder and editor of Kjarninn media.

For what it’s worth

Hiring PR people, spokespeople, and lawyers to influence national debate is expensive. Why go through all that when you can simply buy the media that’s causing you difficulties? Unfortunately, in times when large media companies are struggling, that’s all too easy to do. Þórður tells me, “We’re going through unprecedented changes to consumer behaviour, business models are disappearing, and subscriptions and advertisements, and the media are suffering for it. The main manifestation of this is that special interest groups have been able to take over large media in single bites.” In a recent comment given on the media bill, the Icelandic Competition Authority stated that its intent had to be to increase diversity in the media landscape. As the comment stated, “the ownership of large private media has increasingly been moving towards ownership gathering in the hands of people in strong financial positions who have special interests in Icelandic business life.”

Where do we go from here?

Þórður has no interest in seeing the older, established media crumble. “Hopefully, efforts that are being made now, such as the media bill, will help to turn that situation around. But that alone is not enough. The larger media companies in Iceland need to stop waiting for the past to return, and adapt their operations to the reality they’re living in.”

Being a critical journalist in a small society is not an easy job. For Helgi, however, the choice is clear. “It’s more comfortable not to say anything. It would be a lot more comfortable for me to host a quiz show on TV once a week. It would probably be better paid as well. But I would never claim that it would be more fun, or even that I feel sorry for my lot in life. I’m selfish enough that if I didn’t enjoy my job, I would be doing something else.”

 

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.