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SME: A Print Slovakian Newspaper That Demands Attention. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Tomáš Bella, Deputy Editor in Chief

October 1, 2014

samirinbratislava Editor’s Note: Last week I was speaking, interviewing and moderating at different types of conferences and seminars across three European countries. I started with the Czech Republic where I spoke at a Toray’s meeting, then Slovakia where I visited the Student Media Center of the Pan European University in Bratislava, a daily newspaper, a major magazine media house and last but not least, traveled to Cannes, France to speak and moderate the Forum day at the 59th Distripress Congress. In the next few blogs, I will be reporting from all three countries with interviews, views and observations from the global media world.

Today, is my interview with Tomáš Bella, deputy editor in chief of SME daily newspaper in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. SME is succeeding while others failed and is showing that the future of newspapers, both in print and digital, may be in long-form journalism.

tomasof sme

But, first the sound-bites…

On SME and some of its recent changes: We are almost changing into a magazine. More and more often we are moving toward big topics, such as the one we did on the Ukraine.

On the future of the daily newspaper becoming a weekly on a daily basis: Maybe we will stop publishing daily, but will do six weeklies. What we are sure of is that long-form journalism is where we are clearly heading; sometimes we even have the first eight pages of the paper as one article.

On experimenting with SME’s paywall: We will probably spend all next year restructuring the entire paper around the business of paid content.

On whether he feels journalism is better or worse today because of the Internet: Right now, it seems as though we’re in chaos, but I think we will come out of this as better journalists.

On why most newspapers are still chasing numbers and clicks in the 21st century: I spent four years traveling the world trying to pursue publishers for the switching-to-paid content, but there are a lot of publishers who are set in their ways.

On what keeps him up at night: Well, I came back to journalism because it’s really extremely exciting. And the most interesting thing is we have exhausted all our bad options now; we have tried everything.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Tomáš Bella, Deputy Editor in Chief, SME Newspaper in Slovakia…

Samir Husni: Tell me about SME and some of the changes that are going on…

Tomáš Bella: We are almost changing into a magazine. More and more often we are moving toward big topics, such as the one we did on the Ukraine. Inside, there are eight pages just about the Ukraine, written by someone who is very, very knowledgeable.

Two years ago, our longest article would be one page long. Now we are doing 16-page articles.

Samir Husni: So you think that the future of the daily newspaper is a weekly on a daily basis?

tomas2 Tomáš Bella: That is the strategy of Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest Polish daily. They are probably the best daily in Eastern Europe, with a long tradition of fighting against communism. And their strategy is clearly building very strong supplements for each day; they have six strong supplements every day.

So maybe we will stop publishing daily, but will do six weeklies. What the Gazeta Wyborcza is definitely doing is building very strong magazines, not on print paper, but on glossy. And they have a lot of magazines for each day and they’re building a strong brand.

What we are sure of is that long-form journalism is where we are clearly heading; sometimes we even have the first eight pages of the paper as one article. And this would have been unimaginable a year ago. This is something we are doing as often as we can because we are depending more and more on the income from our readers,

I was reading this article, it was my colleague’s idea, but I thought who would want to read eight pages about the Ukraine. It’s a hard topic and it’s not something you would expect. And it actually broke our record in sales online recently. For whatever reason, the people were buying to learn about Internet politics in the Ukraine.

Samir Husni: You said they bought it online; which brings up your concept about slowly experimenting with the paywall…

Tomáš Bella: Yes, I was working with this newspaper for ten years and then I left and established Piano Media, the company that bought Press Plus. I worked there for four years and then I came back here. Currently, the income from paid content online has maybe doubled in the last eight months. So we are really heavily investing in paid online content and it’s the only income that’s going up, everything else is going down.

We will probably spend all next year restructuring the entire paper around the business of paid content. Also, we don’t believe that advertising is going to come back and we don’t think online advertising is going to save us, so we will have a year, maybe eighteen months to rethink all the departments, to rethink what we should and should not be doing when the new paradigm is in place and see what people are actually willing to pay for online.

With print, it’s a bit more complicated. The paper with the Ukrainian story costs 80 cents. Normally, the paper costs 55 cents, but when we have a topic like this we raise the price of the paper. So Monday it’s 55 cents, but on Friday it’s 80 cents…etc.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll sell more of the special papers, such as the one with the Ukraine story; it’s hard to sell more on those days, but we will also not sell less and we will make more money.

Samir Husni: Do you think journalism as a whole, forget about the platform, is in better shape today than yesterday or worse and has the Internet helped or hurt journalism?

Tomáš Bella: Right now, it seems as though we’re in chaos, but I think we will come out of this as better journalists. I see it in the paper, a lot of uncertainty, but it’s definitely going to get better. Three years ago when we would do something like send a journalist to the U.S. for two weeks to write a story, the business department would say you’re crazy, you’re just wasting your money.

And now when we can measure just how many people buy the article; we are seeing that exactly the same kind of articles that we want to write, ones that aren’t about sex, but about hard issues, are the ones that people are willing to pay for. So if you switch from those terrible 90s where the measurement of your reward was clicks; when you switch from the measurement of your world being clicks to people willing to pay for content, suddenly the interest of journalists and readers seems to be more aligned. They appreciate that content, because here is the guy who wrote the article, he is a Slovak, but he’s one of the few Slovaks who is an expert on the Ukraine.

So when readers see that this is forty years of creative thinking about the topic and that experience has been put into those pages, then they are willing to pay for it when they realize the quality of the work. So I think it’s much better for journalists to be doing a job like that where you know that readers appreciate the work and are willing to pay for it, along with the advertisers. But it will still be a little painful until we get through the transition phase.

Samir Husni: And as you move into this transition phase; why do you think newspapers are still doing the same thing, still chasing clicks and numbers?

tomas3 Tomáš Bella: I spent four years traveling the world trying to pursue publishers for the switching-to-paid content, but there are a lot of publishers who are set in their ways. They are good people and they are producing good papers, but in no way are they prepared for the role they need to play. And for years at the conferences, everyone was telling them how to attract new readers through Facebook and Google and it became very important. But suddenly, it stopped working. Google and Facebook were making money, but not their papers.

So here in Slovakia when we started Piano Media and paid content, most of the publishers joined, but only two or three really understood that in three years they won’t be able to rely on advertising money because they will never win the fight with the Facebooks or the Googles for the price of advertisement; it’s just going to continue going down.

But this paper had a CEO and management that were wise enough to say that even if it is only small money in the beginning, we will keep investing into paid content because we think that it’s really important.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Tomáš Bella: (Laughs) Well, I came back to journalism because it’s really extremely exciting. And the most interesting thing is we have exhausted all our bad options now; we have tried everything. We have tried cutting staff by 10 percent every year and many other things and we know where it leads.

So now it’s time to rethink everything; it’s time to say OK, do we really need a sports department or foreign news. It has gotten so bad that you can only dig yourself out with creative thinking and basically starting completely over from the beginning. And to me this is extremely interesting, so I came back here because I’m really curious how the paper is going to look in two years. I know with certainty it will not look like it looks today. And that’s really exciting.

And I believe this type of model is good for journalism. When people begin to pay for content and we can think about our reader instead of advertisers.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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