Why recent business models of Turkey’s independent digital media outlets mostly tend to fail?

There are 4 main topics to be careful about in order to discuss in a rational way about the online news media models in Turkey. First of all, we have to bravely discuss the status of journalistic labor both in Turkey and in the world. Then, we have to be honest to ourselves regarding death of traditional media outlets in Turkey. Thirdly, we should focus on how new media outlets may survive in this new media era in terms of their reader engagement, content production and content dissemination strategies. Last of all, we have to be critical about our existing perspectives of income models and we have to be clear about our journalistic aims and ethical position, we should never forget that Turkey’s media outlets can not act free from global trends and discussions and we shouldn’t isolate ourselves from global crisis of journalism.

Precarious journalistic labour: Concern of quality

Let me handle these three terms one by one. I feel free to define situation of journalistic labour in Turkey as precarious free from what type of outlet the one is working for. However, the word precarious doesn’t mean a lot to people especially if they hear the word for the first time.

First of all, precariousness is a situation with two categories of layers and according to Guy Standing, these layers are layers of security and flexibility.

Layers of security are labor market security, employment security, work security, working security, the safety of reproduction of the qualities, income security and security of representation.

Layers of flexibility on the other hand are wage flexibility, flexibility in employment, job flexibility and skill flexibility. Wage flexibility is setting/lowering wages; flexibility in employment is the ability to change firms’ employment levels easily and without cost; job flexibility is facilitating inter-agency transfers within the workplace, and skill flexibility can be defined as a simple adjustment of workers’ qualifications.

The people who lack these securities or experience these flexibilities are called as precariat by some researchers.

These conditions mentioned as layers do not only belong to journalism industry. From coders to designers, many cognitive workers experience such conditions. Moreover, this situation can not be limited to the condition of cognitive workers. From cleaning workers to nannies, there are many groups within the society impacted by the conditions of precariousness.

Besides this generality precariousness is a status-independent condition. It is not dependent on people’s status within the journalistic organization. From a digital publications coordinator to an intern, precariousness is effective over a huge circle within the working environment. The situation of precariousness is not a phenomenon that occurs simultaneously. The situation of precariousness is based on working regimes which were designed as a policy and sustained by the governmental and corporate activities. Precariousness is triggered by organized deunionization, shift of media ownership, and deregulation of working regime by political authorities and legal uncertainities regarding the status of workers and working relations.

Here, in order to think on Turkey’s online media experience and independent digital newsrooms, I’d like to raise my concern about the possibility that, these new wave newsrooms -unfortunately- deepen the precarious situation within the labor market. Due to my one-to-one interviews with dozens of freelancers who work for independent digital newsrooms here are some concerns of journos I’ve talked to:

  • Journalists don’t feel secure about their payments. Most of the time they are the ones who remind their “editors” or “finance department” of related media outlet for the payment.
  • Freelance journalists don’t have insurances for the hours or the days that they work in. In terms of the work security, they are less secure than casual laborers that come to our apartments to clean our houses. At least they now have a law that regulates their working relations.
  • Most of the time there is no written contract between journalist and news outlet. Personal relations are determining factor in the establishmet of relationship of trust.
  • Exiled newsrooms create political and legal risks for journalists in the field. Freelance journalists who produce content for these news outlets feel so insecure and they feel nervous about money transfers to their accounts from foreign accounts due to existing political situation in Turkey.
  • According to lack of copyright ethics in Turkey, freelance reporters’ news pieces are reproduced for dozens of times by dozens of outlets without even mentioning reporter’s name and this causes demotivation among the employees.
  • The demand for freelance reporter’s labor is decreasing due to the lack of “copyright ethics” and Turkey’s new media outlets’ questionable understanding of news making which is totally based on efforts of Internet editors. This also creates a great lack of uniquity in terms of news and journalistic labour has lost its value. According to freelance reporters, their jobs have been taken over by “young people who knew how to use social media and reproduce content”.

I know that political situation in Turkey is so fragile and media outlets have a vital function for the future of our democracy. I admire the efforts of these new media outlets, I’ve been responsible editor for one of these too.

However, it is for sure that in terms of labor aspect, we never guarantee our reporters in the field security to make ground breaking news pieces or report free from financial or legal concerns. Reporting as a freelancer or a full-timer isn’t the issue here. People don’t feel secure working for online newsrooms because of government’s existing policies, ambigious status of their work and unreliable conditions of newsrooms and physical distance to secure newsroom environment especially when it comes to newsrooms in exile. These factors all together bring “poor quality digital news experience” and I really feel that this structure is going to continue failing again and again in these circumstances. Under these circumstances, we may not expect freelancers to put themselves in risk and make “groundbraking news stories” from Turkey and this means that we are just creating a vicious circle by paying them.

This was my labor and security perspective; however, as I mentioned in the beginning, the problem isn’t limited to that and we have two deeper topics to discuss.

Dellusion of printing, nightmare of market reach percentage

There is still a dellusion in Turkey that more and more people may buy independent newspapers since media is dominantly under government control especially after latest shift in media ownership. Here is bad news. The situation is not as bright as it is predicted. Conversely, it is getting worse and worse.

Below are some of the statistics regarding daily sales rates of Cumhuriyet, Birgün and Evrensel. It is visible that, since December 2015 there is a constant decrease in sales numbers of these newspapers. While Birgün dropped from the level of 20 thousands to 8–9 thousand, Cumhuriyet dropped from 50 thousands to 35 thousand. Evrensel, on the other hand, dropped from 10 thousands to 5 thousand. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that these newspapers survive with the help of official ads, which can be cut with one order from the top governance mechanisms. So let’s wake up from our dreams.

Statistics are gathered through picking random days for each month above from Medyatava.com’s sales rates section. Only the statistics including Cumhuriyet, Birgün and Evrensel’s sales rates have been framed. There are many other Turkey-based newspapers which are reported to sell much more in number.

Yes, digital news outlets are vital and digital versions of the newspapers mentioned above have to be taken really seriously since they aren’t as “underrated” as their traditional print versions. However, let’s face our reality in terms of digital readership and loyalty of readers as well.

According to data provided by Comscore in 2017, more than 48 million people in Turkey have access to the Internet services and same amount of people are active on social media. Active mobile social media users on the other hand are above 42 million people.

Here are some of the ratings provided by similarweb extension for “popular digital news outlets of Turkey” and “digital outlets of traditional independent newsrooms”.

According to Similar Web’s unique visitors data, below are some of the leading independent online news outlets in Turkey and their monthly estimated visitors.

First of all, it is fair to say that, digitally operating newsrooms, despite the lack of official ads are doing well in terms of their web traffic. On the other hand, while Birgün is doing relevantly better in terms of digital traffic, Evrensel.net seems to have problems with gaining the attention of online news consumers.

However, there is an important problem that we need to face. Even the “best performing” new media outlet, Oda TV as a secular nationalist one, has a daily performance which can’t even reach to 10% of Turkey’s “Internet users”. This is not only unfortunate, but this is also a significant issue in terms of lack of ability to reach potential and it demonstrates that there is something wrong with existing policies of these news outlets. Moreover, none of the news outlets I mentioned made it through top ten digital news resources of Turkey list according to comscore statistics.

Why Turkey’s digital news outlets aren’t as effective as they are expected to be?

I’d like to underline one really important isssue over the issue of reading statistics I have just mentioned while concluding 3rd topic in order to explain my “solution” to problems of our media types.

Except Oda TV only one of the digital only platforms that I mentioned above have comments section below their news pieces or opinion articles and I believe that it tells a lot. Of course, it is hard to “moderate” comments session today especially in online news business. However, readers in Turkey tend to be active in terms of discussing news and informing “others” regarding their opinions. While comments on news pieces in Facebook and Twitter might be a relevant platform for the websites which don’t have comments section in their website, I think that it is not “rational” to just leave the debate in this social platforms since it keeps the debate away from the web platform and also decreases the possible amount of time spent in web site.

Readers’ groups of New York Times and similar news outlets have always been idealized by newspapers in Turkey. CUMOK has always been referred as a wonderful example of this model and it has been encouraged. But today, it is nearly impossible to become part of these readers groups. While comments sections are disabled and news outlet is unable to control or get data from this “decentralized debate”, it also became really problematic that authors or reporters lose all their authority over content after it is published. It is not only a “copy-paste” issue, but it is also about misunderstanding of dynamic nature of news stories. People, in the age of new media, would like to be part of the story. We shouldn’t forget that this era of platform capitalism brought a “hyper-commercialization” and “hyper-individualization”.

And in this era of “hyper-commercialization” and “hyper-individualization”we always have to consider that some pages in facebook or accounts on different social networks are also active news sources in Turkey’s “information ecology”. In many of these accounts on social networks, according to a study that we are running for teyit.org recently about dissemination of fake news and responsibility of various platforms in editing articles that have been proved to be wrong by factcheckers, there are dozens of fake news which get a huge amount of interaction from their followers and impact other pages in terms of dissemination of content. Our research is about “fake news” but the fact is that, there is a “deep part” of the Internet digital news outlets don’t have an access to. There, norms and ethics of global journalism are not valid.

In my opinion, this is an outcome of exaltation of citizen journalism above professional journalism in many countries due to corrupted status of the press. Therefore, digital news outlets need to re-target these people who are stuck in their filter bubbles that shape their ideological perspectives and all other important decision making processes. We need to do new market analysis for our target audiences an even should think about hiring some marketing professionals to define our products for ourselves with an objective understanding of data and content.

Why existing business models don’t work?

Yes, Turkey’s digital news outlets aren’t effective and efficient in reaching their target audiences. But it is not the only problem about Turkey’s independent digital news outlets’ existing business models. Most of these outlets survive on INGOs’ or Government’s support and funding programs. They can not benefit from “official ads” since it is available for publications with printed versions in Turkey.

Some of these websites started some marketing movements or digital sales departments within their websites (see https://www.odakitap.com). Gazeteduvar.com is selling some notebooks or agendas in order to boost their financial resources. While Odakitap has been a really successful process so far, especially this project has been praised as an independent book seller after Doğan Media Group’s sale to Demirören Group, other initiatives haven’t been taken very seriously so far.

I’m a left leaning, but I am not totally alienated from industrial standards or circumstances of competition. I try to understand today’s journalism market conditions without labeling journalists or journalism companies as “wild capitalists” or “effective propaganda tools or actors”. I think we should try to find ways to develop equality and transparency oriented newsroom economy. Therefore, I’m not a “romantic” academic who proposes that excluding platforms such as Google or Facebook and creating our “own ecology of information” would be the only way. This is, of course, possible; however like most of experiences in terms of creating new information ecologies, it is also doomed to fail. I think that technologies such as Facebook Instant Articles, Facebook Page Insights, Google Analytics, Crowdtangle etc. aren’t well recognized by digital news outlets in Turkey and most of these outlets don’t have serious advertising professionals as their human resources. Randomly established Google Adsense programs or targeting strategies have standardized the industrial revenue and use of services like Ligatus isn’t also good for quality and “trust” in those websites.

Website owners on the other hand, rely on some crowdfunding platforms such as patreon.com or indiegogo.com. Medyascope.tv, for instance, even accepts supports as bitcoin payments. People are aware about “how to ask for money” and “how to collect money”, but they don’t know what they are going to do with this money or they don’t know about real profile of their readers. Here Google’s or Facebook’s “standardizing” data flows may be scape goat as well, but to be honest; I feel that there is a high level of distrust in future of journalism and lack of professionalism as well.

Banned urls and restricted social network accounts, is also another problem in Turkey. Many websites such as Sendika.org, Ahvalnews.com etc. have experienced domain restrictions for several times and each change in domains in order to reach target audience brings about a search optimization crisis with it. Also most of the outlets aren’t “conscious enough” about how to fight against restrictions and bans. The “addiction” to classical content management system running website format needs to be avoided as soon as possible. Most of the media outlets I mentioned above don’t have reactive or proactive strategies against access restrictions. Most of them even don’t have apps or other formulas such as newsletters to reach their audience in creative ways other than “random engagement” via social media or google searches.