By Mariell Raisma
Estonia, often called E-Estonia, is known for e-services and e-participation such as e-tax (paying taxes in 3 minutes) and i-voting (voting online and in 3 minutes despite the location). When it comes to journalism, are media makers also working remotely and submit articles from wherever they are? Are there e-solutions which would make journalist’s every day easier?
To get a better understanding, Orange Magazine talked to Igor Rõtov, who is the head of Äripäev. Äripäev is an Estonian financial newspaper that gives insight into Estonia’s media; it is addressed to entrepreneurs and is mirroring the general mindset of Estonia.
OM: What is the role of the state in providing e-solutions? When we contacted Government CIO at Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Siim Sikkut, he said that he did not see the role of the state to do and offer tools – that was up to media houses and the sector’s own will and need. No special measures or IT solutions appear necessary. What is your opinion about it?
IR: I see it in the same way – the role of the state is to create conditions. If we have an e-state, if we can access databases, if we can digitally sign documents – this could be the role of the state. On this basis, newsrooms or media houses could themselves invest in software that takes these possibilities into account. It should be a purely private sector’s role to make it work efficiently and quickly.
How much could e-solutions help us to have different digital and technological opportunities for journalists?
For journalists, there is a wide range of digital databases, both national and private, easy to access. We have Content Management System software, for which we have taken the world’s best-finished solutions, and then we have loaded the appropriate system made in a modern way that does not require office or work in Estonia. If there is a good quality Internet, then you can work inside our system.
In the past, we used Skype for electronic communication; now, we are on the way to better systems like Slack.
Have these technological solutions also changed the work environment? There are many editors and staff who do not necessarily have a physical presence. Is it usual to work remotely?
It is usual in this sense. If I have a specific task, for example, I am an editor of texts, and I am dealing with authors, then I choose this way for myself. One extreme example – we had a journalist a few years ago, a girl whose partner was in New York, so she went there for a very long time. We agreed with her on a working schedule while she lived in New York; and from time to time, she did some stories like a correspondent, but her primary task was to edit texts of foreign authors. She interacted with foreign authors, put these things together, edited these texts, and foreign authors could not have known that she did this from New York. In the end, it worked great. I think it is quite common that if a journalist asks for such a work cycle, but can create value, then media houses do not reject it. On the contrary, we will encourage such an experimental approach.
That sounds cool!
I remember ten years ago, we presented ourselves in some competition as a team with virtual workstations. Nowadays, it is so common that I do not see anything unusual in it. However, when I look at the newsrooms in Finland and Sweden, they are much more conservative. Our company is younger, and the organization has developed faster. In Estonia, we probably are openminded to such innovative and free behavior regarding working time.
Will artificial intelligence/robots become part of journalism making in Estonia?
Yes, it is a part of it a little bit already. For example, we are doing economic news, and we are researching software which brings corporate financial results directly to our software, presented the same way. We are working on such robot solution that basically, based on the information it receives, the machine can form news from it. When certain corporate results come, the robot sees how much the figures are better than during previous decades, what is remarkable there, and will create a short news story. However, I do not believe that such news will soon be dominating our pages, but I believe that this is a very great tool for a journalist.
By the way, in Berlin, a small media outlet presented one thing when they had a robot looking for information. They selected some of the 80 most reliable and trusted media outlets in the world in different languages, and they have added a translation and prioritisation system on them. It is created by such an engine that if something happens in the world today – for instance, if there is an outbreak in Syria, – the robot collects all the valuable material from the sources for the editor, and the editor will now turn it into an entertaining story for the reader. In the past, one had to spend hours to go through all these sources one by one and find the translator, but now, within minutes, the tool provides you with the background. You will have no other way than to apply your professional writing skills and provide the reader with a comprehensive summary of the event that has just happened.
Why does it take a long time for such solutions to reach Estonian newsrooms?
In essence, they already exist here. However, it is a matter of a couple of years when it becomes a serious tool, and when we can talk about the first real results with 20% of stories made through some online helpers. The fact when the robot completely replaces the journalist, I think, will never come.
What e-solutions do you see in the future for journalists?
Technological solutions here are a simple side of the story, and they come naturally. However, I really believe that the journalist’s mindset has to change. If a journalist is traditionally a humanist who can write beautiful texts and go through sources, then a future journalist must have strong skills in engineering thinking or even a technical education. I ideally see that a good journalist has graduated, for example, with theoretical mathematics, and then, one joins media. This journalist should be someone who thinks technologically first. In addition to doing a good story, journalist needs to find good illustrations, be prepared to give it a video output, and be able to make a podcast or radio show. If one can make a good story, this person needs to know how to share it in social media so that people can say that this is a good story. I think if you want to be a successful journalist in the future, you have to understand this whole context.
What could be e-solutions for Estonian journalist that could be competitive and popular around the world?
The importance of technology should not be exaggerated. Technology is all the time becoming more comfortable, cheaper, and more accessible. In fact, today, there is no problem for the media house to take any conventional technology and work with it. The problem lies with people. It is difficult for a well-established journalist used to making a newspaper on a well-developed rhythm to change one’s mindset to think in the way we talked about. Still, there could be one Estonian competitive advantage – not so much through technology, but with ideological export of the e-state approach through people who can use tech well and see a big picture. For example, recently, two Swedish media directors got inspired and took notes on how we work here while ten years ago, it was us looking at what they had done. This change has undoubtedly arisen. The issue is not a technological platform because today, we no longer have to export a new Skype or Transferwise; instead, we could export our thinking, our attitude towards business, or a changing technological world that could be in the hands of Estonian journalists.
What were Swedes so excited about?
We started traditional media such as radio in Äripäev, but now, we are launching a podcast system that is integrated into the existing editorial one. The radio itself is nothing new, the podcasts are a bit new, but the fact that it is done through the general editorial is already unique. In Europe, there is no other example of ours. This is what the Swedes studied, the business model and how journalists work in this rhythm, and what our costs and benefits are.
What do you mean by general editorial?
Our radio makes about as many broadcasts as Kuku Radio, which is the oldest private radio station in Estonia. While Kuku Radio has 15 journalists, we have no journalists on the radio itself. However, we have increased the editorship of Äripäev by three journalists. Now, using our skills and ideas, stories and material, we are strengthening our newspaper, our web, and our radio, doing it efficiently and at the lowest possible cost, but very attractively to our target audience.
Journalists not only write but also speak.
And not only do you write and talk, but also make videos, take pictures, and do marketing. Moreover, they understand why they do it. Here I think this key.
Is this an example of how we promote our entrepreneurial mindset outside?
Exactly. We should not advertise our technological platforms, but our collaborative systems and business models, the more complex elements of how to properly manage people, how to motivate them, and how to teach them to understand modern world. It could be a real value to try to make, and Estonia has everything it needs for this.
Could we be those training the rest of the world in this field?
Yes, of course, we are not far away from the top – looking at the media and many other areas, we are almost at the top of the world. We are small and mobile and ideal for a testing polygon. I think the same situation is in the media. All we need to do is just do it.