Overcoming Shyness

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Haralds Matulis

Translator, critic and general secretary of The Council of the Creative Unions of Latvia, Haralds Matulis, together with philosopher and publicist Kārlis Vērpe, have researched the financing of cultural periodicals in Latvia, revealing a situation in which circumstances of insufficient funding have become accepted as ‘normal’– where cultural publicists often receive inadequately low remuneration for their work and often resulting in them working for free. This threatens their chances of providing a qualitative discussion which is important, not only to different spheres of culture for evaluating their contributions, but also to the society as a whole.

The authors of this study attempt to offer practical solutions: an agreement with the cultural media about ‘best practice’ to pay higher fees in comparison to most other media up until now has already been achieved; a recommendation to create a special State Culture Capital Foundation target programme for investigative and research-based journalism in the cultural sector; and lastly various discussion-inducing conclusions that shed a new light on communication between the authors and editorial boards, their self-assessment and self-perception, as well as other relationships that are by no means self-explanatory simply because the conventional practice so far has been not to discuss them in public.

Laura Brokāne

 Kārlis Vērpe

Kārlis Vērpe. Photo by Andrejs Strokins

Laura Brokāne: There being a need for such a study, how did the idea of this first emerge, and what was its aim?

Kārlis Vērpe: The aim of this study was to understand the current situation in Latvia in terms of cultural journalism, by turning our attention to the financial aspects. We considered other related issues too, for example, the self-perception of publicists, how they see and explain their own practice, as well as their collaboration with representatives from editorial boards and the views of the media on the current situation. The other aspect of this research involved formulating conclusions and recommendations – not in the form of the obligatory ‘must’, but more like a general guidance that would allow continuing work on solving certain problems. One such example is the ‘best practice’ recommendation with the suggested fee that would adequately reflect the situation in Latvia. Considering that at the moment the accepted fee for a review or short article is 50 EUR, we have recommended raising it to 70 or 100 EUR after tax. As a recommended fee for wider investigative articles we have suggested 200 to 400 EUR. The agreement to follow this practice has already been signed by 15 out of 20 cultural media representatives involved in this research.

Haralds Matulis:  I have worked at the Council of the Creative Unions of Latvia for the past six years. The CCUL’s main aim is to protect the interests of creative professionals and independent artists who are not connected to any institutions and often work without a regular salary. The CCUL has got access to information about staff salaries in state funded institutions, but it has no such information about independent creative professionals and artists. The initial assumption was that the situation across different spheres of culture varied, and was very bad in some areas. In autumn 2015, we organised eight discussion-led focus groups across different spheres of culture and concluded that in each sphere people thought there was a real lack of money, however the actual figures revealed a very different state of affair. The situation in cultural periodicals is dire. There are instances when people get paid 20-30 EUR for their work or even nothing at all. The widespread margin of 40 to 50 EUR is so thin that it is hard to say if it can even be considered as work at all. Hence, in this study, we decided to focus on cultural periodicals in particular, and explore their mechanisms deeper.

LB: Were you driven by personal unrest?

HM: Of course personal experience influences, and perhaps even affords us a better understanding of how a cultural publicist might feel. The condition of this field seems to have been affected the most, as in other areas we didn’t encounter the opinion that unpaid work was common practice, barring a few exceptions.

KV: It also relates to the aspect of self-perception; in periodicals there is a wide spread view of writing being a sort of spare time hobby or activity…

LB: Often editors also consider their work to be just a hobby.

KV: Harald’s conclusion is that it’s because editors have been, and are still actively writing themselves. This inherited opinion now seems common practice. For example, musicians can usually estimate quite precisely the acceptable fee for performing, while a writer or cultural journalist often already knows the fee will be small while writing the piece. It’s not just the responsibility of editors but also the authors who they tend to reproduce this status quo as well. We’re talking about inherited thinking here, something that has not been reviewed in the transition to market economy. The language of thinking must change – the logic of market forces demands a different set of preconceptions, which is why we need to open up this discussion.

Returning to the question of personal involvement, I was delighted to join Harald’s initiative, noting that at last someone is attempting to slowly change things on a practical level, especially since I’ve had this feeling that, as a result of various and often understandable reasons, people in Latvia are not ready to accept even the smallest change in order to improve the situation. That was one of my motivating reasons; in parallel to getting to know the situation, to also guide it in a more fruitful direction.

HM: We’ve only talked about the tension between authors and editors so far, but there is also a third party to consider – the field of culture itself, which creates art and very much needs the work of publicists. It is quite commonplace to hear that there has been a good exhibition but only one review follows, or a description in the form of Wikipedia in the worst-case scenario. This study helps to demonstrate why publicists will not engage in research since their remuneration is inadequately low. If, for example, several hundred thousand Euros were invested in an exhibition, surely paying for a high-quality in-depth review of the exhibition would serve the interest of the whole cultural industry.  I imagine a large part of our society doesn’t even know how small the remuneration is for those working in cultural periodicals.  Thus, the aim has been to tell the greater public about this issue, drawing their attention to the situation and to make them reflect on whether they really need the work of these authors or not.

LB: In this study you also mention a communication problem in the relationship between editors and authors.

HM: An author working on an essay or a review often feels like an artist, to whom self-expression is more important than bargaining. They often feel too shy to broach the seemingly trivial question of remuneration with editors who, quite often, aren’t even aware of the dark cloud hovering above their authors’ heads. Editors think that if authors don’t ask, they probably don’t need it. Perhaps the media can never really find out how inadequate this situation is. The curse of independent professions is that one must be able to manage themselves very well. Because their fees are so small, it allows other people to patronisingly say “it’s only a hobby”, which de-motivates any desire to change the situation.

KV: There is one basic mechanism, which could already improve the relationship between the media and publicists, and that is to offer higher rates to long-term collaborating authors or those who recognisably produce better work.

LB: Perhaps the reason why authors also feel too shy to mention about small fees is because, in some respect, that makes the value of their work seem low as well.

HM: Those authors who ask for larger fees are more likely to get them. Thus, the responsibility lies not only with the government that provides funding and editing boards that allocate it, but also with those authors who remain silent when their remuneration is inadequate. Even if they don’t receive the asking fee at first, the situation can only begin to change by asking, to be honest. I hope the ‘best practice’ guidelines will allow authors to overcome their shyness and stop them from feeling as if they are having a personal argument with the editor, because now they can refer back to this agreement.

LB: Talking of recommendations, you suggested that the State Culture Capital Foundation should create a new target programme for investigative journalism in culture. Could you talk a bit more about this?

HM: Compared to reviews which can be written fairly quickly, investigative and research-based articles require at least a month despite the remuneration still being the same: 50-100 EUR. It’s utopian to expect any author to be able to offer a more in-depth analysis for this fee. This is how the idea to introduce the SCCF funded target programme for this deeper level of journalism came about with a specific focus on authors. The SCCF and The Ministry of Culture have responded positively to this recommendation in principle. We’ll see if it’s possible to have it ready for next year. We need to understand how to create this mechanism in order to achieve the desired result.

LB: What are your thoughts about the content of cultural periodicals? Do they cover all fields equally, are necessary discussions encouraged and are all interdisciplinary reflections formed?

HM: Talking about variety, the normal situation would be to have different types of media in each field of culture, printed publications as well as online, each with their own editorial politics and audiences. It would then be possible to evaluate which of these three or four publications worked best against those still lacking in something. But at the moment each field has only one or maybe two publications alongside the opinion that that’s enough, even though behind the scene there is a murmur that the content isn’t always up to scratch of what it could be. For example, in visual art there are three publications – Studija, Arterritory and Echo Gone Wrong, but critics still complain that they lack variety in terms of the content or coverage of the field. In a larger country with a larger market we could ask to have more publications, which would then compete for their content as well as audience. But in Latvia, each field tries to safeguard one megaphone, at least, to transmit what is happening in that field – and if it can dig deeper, even better.

LB: I think in cultural journalism printed publications should still be preserved because they provide a different experience to that of the Internet – especially in terms of art and literature.

HM: What’s maybe essential to note is that the content of printed media gets stored in the National Library’s archive, but when an online publication shuts down, it is unclear whether its archive is stored anywhere or not.

KV: Printed media, on a purely symbolical level, is somehow associated with the promise of higher quality. Although not all printed media outlets offer higher remuneration as a result. In fact, it often turns out online publishers already follow the ‘best practice’ guidance. Because printed material is published less frequently, in comparison to the Internet content, its added symbolic value is most likely also imagined. Internet media sites need to maintain their traffic and readership numbers, which can explain why their speed continues to increase making it harder to provide quality content at a faster rate. As a result of a lack of funding and intensity, it is not easy for Internet-based online publishers to always maintain a unified ideological framework.

LB: Are there any fields where the shortage of qualitative media is very pronounced?

HM: I’d like to answer as a consumer, that I would like to read more of something similar to the late 1980s issues of ‘Literatūra un Māksla’ or ‘Avots’ (monthly Latvian publications) – a digest about various fields of culture and public issues. A publication like that would strengthen the whole cultural industry. Currently, in terms of readers there’s rather a lot of segmentation – those who read about visual art probably don’t even know there’s also a literature portal. Or similarly, it is likely for those working in architecture to have heard of a music journal but have never actually read it. A cultural, educated person has neither the time, nor energy, to delve inside specialised publications from other fields, which is why there should be an overarching publication, not only appealing to the elite and intelligentsia but to the wider society, that addresses current issues in an innovative way. The question is whether there is a demand, and whether the state can afford to finance that… Obviously, quality costs money. Basically, something that is thrown together in a short amount of time with a short turnaround should not have to constitute the media as it currently is.”

KV: It also answers the question about interdisciplinarity. We appear to be living in times when there’s a strong urge towards interdisciplinary collaboration and breaking down the divides between different spheres, but there is no publication to reflect that. And, of course, there’s also competition – readers have the opportunity to fill their days with qualitative materials by reading in English media from other countries.

HM: For the wider society, an interesting cultural magazine which has continued to subsist over the years is Rīgas Laiks. I doubt everyone reads it but at least people have it on their coffee table as a sign of status. As there are no other options, people tend to go for higher-level philosophical articles, but I question whether their entire readership fully comprehends their articles. An overarching cultural publication in Latvia would fit in well.

LB: Have you compared the situation occurring in Latvian cultural media within an international context?

KV: According to answers given by authors who have also collaborated with cultural media, it is possible to conclude that the situation is quite varied, however the devaluation of journalism is a characteristic that is to not just home to Latvia alone.

HM: Cultural journalists and publicists cannot be viewed as remote from the overall situation in the Latvian media where an increase in both the demand for content to be written, and to be understood more easily, is why the complexity, as well as quality of the content, continues to diminish. But do we really want to be reading only short news items and revised press releases in our cultural publications? Perhaps it is also difficult to assess the quality of texts because almost everyone can read. People think: ‘I probably can’t paint a painting or compose a symphony, but surely I can write something’. That’s why it is not easy to attest that a qualitative article is something more than just a text without grammatical errors.

KV: This is a speculation only, but perhaps the freely accessible content on the Internet only reinforces this assumption. The idea behind the Internet is utopian; however we don’t live in a utopia where everyone’s got enough food. As such, the media could introduce subscription fees for online publications to get people used to the idea of paying, for example, just a few Euros a year, which is not too extortionate for the reader but means a lot for the publication. Of course, you can read free foreign online magazines, but in all local cultures scrutiny plays an important part. Only the local media can provide the best chance for people to understand exactly what is happening in the place where you live.

LB: Cultural journalism is highly significant in terms of influencing the politics of culture.

KV: In Latvia, politics is still removed from everyday life. Haralds and I are trying to portray ‘cultural politics’ as something healthy that should be practised in order to achieve changes. Traditionally, culture here is seen as something separate from ‘dirty politics’. But, for example, resisting the miasma of propaganda is an essential task in which journalism should play a larger part. Often in Latvia, issues are only discussed and argued over after something has already taken place, been approved or built. Journalism can make sure these discussions happen at the right time.

HM: I hope that in time, the public media commissions will not only include TV and radio, but also online and printed media. The situation has changed and currently it is also possible to obtain independent, qualitative and critical content from this media. We cannot afford to lose cultural journalism and therefore there must be another way to support it, which isn’t always determined by a situational decree issued by one of the SCCF committees. Instead of letting everything take its own course and then having to devise ‘homecoming programmes’ like the ones for compatriots who have moved abroad, we should now be thinking about how to help the cultural media while it still exists. It’s not an easy task, but I think we will get there within the next 5-10 years.

LB: Could insufficient funding for cultural journalism threaten the editorial independence of media and, perhaps lead towards a tendency to present promotional articles as reviews instead?

KV: In any case, insufficient funding affects the independence of media or its ability to more or less freely model and implement a specific and lasting vision. It also affects, let’s say, the independence of cultural critics and analysts, which in turn has an effect on the content of media. Promotional articles are more likely to be just one of the symptoms of limited independence and certainly, at the moment, not the most dangerous one. At least, as far as cultural journalism is concerned, it has managed to steer clear of the temptation and pressure of advertising, abstaining from various means that could be obtained in this way. Thus, more relevant is the issue of independent thinking and opportunities to publish these ideas and the ability to do this with the desired quality.

LB: In your opinion, is there competition between different cultural media outlets?

KV: I think there is. It is possible to choose who and where to write for. I don’t agree with the view that there is nowhere to publish, meaning authors don’t develop textually. From my perspective, there is always an opportunity of choice. In fact, there are a lot of people in Latvia who can write well but have not yet been discovered and included in the circuit. It is the responsibility of the editorial boards to discover and publish undiscovered writers which would certainly help them grow their readership. Every author values appraisal and wants to know that their work is needed and recognised.

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November 5, 2016
Published in Interview from Latvia
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