I talked with the Prima Junior Award winner journalist of 444 about his role in creating the site, the changing media market and new platforms for telling a story.
The interview was originally in Hungarian and was translated into English.
How did the idea of becoming a journalist come to you? Did it coincide with your studies?
I studied Economics at Corvinus University then later I specialized in International relations. I wanted to do something during my studies, mostly to work as I had a lot of free time, and journalism attracted me. Besides being interested in it, I could easily arrange it with my schedule at the university. First, I started working at a daily paper called Napi Gazdaság where I was an external member of the editorial staff and I got payment per articles.
Do you think that studying media and communication is crucial in getting a job as a journalist?
I don’t think it’s crucial at all. Being a good journalist does not depend on whether you studied it or not and the majority of people around me who work as a journalist did not study media or communication.
How did you proceed with your career after you started writing for Napi Gazdaság?
I’ve always been interested in pop music and I sent a concert review to Quart, just out of pure enthusiasm, because I wanted to get involved in what they were doing. They liked it and encouraged me to continue sending in reviews, and later when Quart became a part of Origo, I was offered a job there. Basically, Quart led my way to online journalism and by the time I was doing my fifth grade at university I had a full job at Origo. After Origo, I worked at the short-lived Time Out Budapest to where I was invited by its editor in chief, Marci Bede. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long as there were problems with the publisher but it was a laid-back job aside from the few really busy days before the monthly deadline.
To what extent and how did the opportunities of getting into the profession change in your opinion?
As I see, if one applies for a position and works hard, and is enthusiastic, reliable and talented then it’s possible to successfully break into the profession. Of course, at first for free, unfortunately, that’s how it works but if you prove that you’re competent, you can get in the place you want to. The other option is to draw attention to yourself on social media, such as Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube. If you manage to do that by yourself, it can be an entrance to the world of media.
How did you start working at 444?
I was among the first people who were invited by Péter Uj from Index to start this whole new site. At the time I really enjoyed working at Index, we were doing Riszpekt Ház to which I fully dedicated myself. However, when this idea came up I knew for sure that I wanted to be part of it and create something completely new out of nothing with these people. Starting the site took a lot of work and effort which was very tiring but I always remember those times as incredibly exciting and liberating. I used to imagine it as Index being a huge ship where the journalists are screws that keep the ship together but if one falls out, it still keeps on going. While at 444, we were in a boat where every individual effort is vital to going forward.
We had to do our best to make it happen and to make a steady position for the site in the market. It wasn’t without risks, as there were plenty of examples in the media that proved to be unsuccessful in the long run. From being journalists, we got involved in the process of making a news site which brought great responsibility and freedom at the same time. We had to deal with technical issues, including forming the image and style of the site, and learning to use social media and other platforms to reach the audience.
What were the most important aspects in forming the style?
First and foremost, we wanted something different in visuals, it was important to be bold and eye-catching with the leads, highlights and the fonts. We started using bullet points first, which is now a standard in online journalism here because a lot of sites have taken it over. Providing quality content in an unconventional way was one of the aims. It was also an aspect to organize content in a way that resembles Facebook’s newsfeed or Tumblr’s dashboard, because now it’s more relatable for a lot of people than choosing articles depending on different columns. Nevertheless, it was not intended as a marketing catch to target young audiences; it was just more natural in the age of social media. Back then it wasn’t common for news sites to have a host, now that’s also quite wide spread owing to some of our innovations.
What are the most important questions of ethical journalism?
It’s a difficult question because since I have been doing this a lot of things have changed, especially the relationship between publicity and the Hungarian public authorities. Things work much differently than, for example five or six years ago, which was also far from ideal, but ever since a very restricted and false sense of reality has taken over the public opinion. A journalist, whose duty is to inform, can only overcome the existing imbalance of opportunities by giving his or her subjective opinion and sense of justice along with the facts to stay trustworthy. I don’t think it’s the fault of the press or the general public, but rather of the public authorities.
In what ways has the media market changed?
The market has a very disproportionate structure which is due to its small size and the inequality of opportunities. Since the online press is dependent on advertisements, it becomes problematic when the power relations are not balanced and state owned or related companies determine the majority of the market. This affects the attitudes of several news sites and papers in certain questions that might go against the interests of these companies. As a lot of advertisers know the preferences of the state, they would not risk advertising at certain sites and papers in fear of possible disadvantages. A good example of a risky topic is OTP, as it has a great influence on the market and Sándor Csányi tends to get easily offended.
Moreover, not only politics distorts reality but ever more often advertisers find new ways in manipulating the audience by blurring the line between advertisement and news article. According to the ethical principles of journalism, there should be a line between an advert, which targets a reader, and an editorial content which is authenticated by the person of the journalist. If these two overlaps without indicating that the article or news piece was sponsored, then it’s the deception of the reader which is unacceptable. These indirect advertising techniques work on Instagram as well, where celebrities post things based on their sponsors, not on their own choices and personal preferences. We also made some sponsored videos but it was very clearly indicated that it’s sponsored content because this is how it’s fair.
What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist?
I advise everybody who wants to work in the media to learn to use a wide range of tools. I think telling a story is the essence of media, and text is not necessarily its primary instrument. Platforms of social media such as Facebook or Instagram are also valid channels through which a story could be told, you just have to learn to use them well. Using photo editing apps or chart making programs are very useful skills that came to the front in recent years. It doesn’t matter if you made a video or a good photo, if it reaches your audience it fulfilled the goal of media.