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Rogue Newspaper Arrives in Skopje

January 26, 2004

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- An upstart newspaper, ‘Vreme’ (’Time’) will open in Skopje within days, Balkanalysis.com has learned.

The paper comes as a result of a defection of first 15 and now  20 members of the country’s largest daily, ‘Dnevnik,’ which had been taken over by the German WAZ (Westdeutsche Allemeiner Zeitung) in the summer. While the Vreme team has been working feverishly since then to get ready for production, nothing was publicized until late last week, when mysterious billboards and commercials started appearing. Secrecy was crucial, considering the highly sensitive and contentious nature of the Macedonian media.

What circumstances led to this event? Apparently, Alexander Damovski, one of ‘Dnevnik’s’ founders and managing editor, had arguments with co-founder and editor-in-chief Branko Gerovski. Negotiations with WAZ began long ago, were interrupted during the war, and resumed in early 2002. A “boardroom fight,” as the official euphemistic explanation goes, caused Damovski to leave the company and sell his shares.

With his allegedly rich takings, Damovski teamed up with a Turkish partner and leading TV station A-1 to found a new paper. Simultaneously, he approached ‘Dnevnik’ staffers, enticing them with promises of more money. All in all, half of the journalists left and one deputy editor as well.’Dnevnik’s’ third founding editor, Mile Jovanovski, left the paper in 2000 and is now apparently making “a killing” with a fashion and pop culture magazine called ‘Tea Moderna’ using “…the same price dumping tactics that worked so well for ‘Dnevnik’ in it’s early years,” said one ‘Dnevnik’ refugee.

According to insiders, ‘Vreme’ leader Damovski is planning to market the paper as a brash upstart arrayed against the big boys. Although they have promised better salaries to incoming staff, Vreme bosses are also tapping into Macedonia’s high unemployment rate to get prospective workers to pledge to work for free, at least for the first few months as the paper sees if they are up to the task.

With Nova Makedonija’s publishing empire, including ‘Vecer’ and the Albanian-language ‘Flaka,’ set to go under, the ‘Vreme’ team were approached by hundreds of soon-to-be unemployed journalists and technicians. While these willing “slaves” are set to be worked hard, incoming editors and deputy editors will be receiving decent salaries. And, lower-level staff, who had been extremely underpaid at ‘Dnevnik,’ may receive wage increases approaching 50 percent.

The liquidated competition may not knuckle under so easily, however. ‘Vecer’ got a huge sponsor and potentially new lease on life when it was bought by the all-powerful Skopje Brewery, crafters of the national brew, Skopsko. They are expected to start a huge campaign to get it back on its feet. The ‘Nova Makedonija’ daily was also sold, to long-time CEO Pande Kolemisevski, who also will try to turn his paper around.

But does the paper stand a chance against established (and now, foreign-subsidized) media, given Macedonia’s limited market size?

According to one defector, “…the fact that ‘Vreme’ is teaming up with A-1, which is owned by a Macedonian Muslim with Turkish ties indicates that the paper has a good chance of success.

One upshot of the new battle is that advertising rates are set to decrease, making it possible for a greater range of small to medium size businesses to participate in the wonderful world of print advertising- something that should benefit everyone involved. WAZ had planned to hike up the prices when it seemed it would have an unchallenged monopoly, but it was clear sailing for them for only a few months, with WAZ’s near monopoly of existing Macedonian dailies being challenged by the Vreme team.

Also, editorial policy may become more free/ At ‘Dnevnik,’ journalists were obliged not to say anything negative about major advertisers – even if they were corrupt or similarly ill-intentioned. Now there is a chance that ‘Vreme’ will be a vent for journalists not bound by too much advertising clout, and for affected and disaffected citizens alike.

However, the real test of advertising profit may come with the internet. Currently, none of the major newspapers in Macedonia are available in English-language website versions- a serious drawback, all things considered. If ‘Vreme’ wants to really stand out from the crowd, and emphasize their international and cosmopolitan outlook, putting out the news in English would be an easy and effective way to do so. Besides, it would open up an entirely new and international advertising market, rather than merely squabble over the scraps of an existing market with other, more established local competitors.

That said, appearing in English is not always an effective tactic for Macedonian newspapers. Due to limited budgets, they are often forced to rely (especially with international news) on regurgitated data from other news outlets- sometimes ending up at a third or even fourth remove from the original source. In almost every case, the data is simply recited with no attempt ever being made to ascertain the veracity of the source(s) or provide any interesting commentary or additional details. With any luck, this will change as the newspaper market is now beginning to open up to greater foreign influence.

On the other hand, foreign influence may also appear in its more lascivious, opulent and altogether imperial incarnation. The rumor mill is bursting with “business as usual” stories, particularly about WAZ’s Media Print Makedonija and the way point man and former ambassador to Germany and the UN Srdjan Kerim is running the three newspapers. According to one bemused observer of Skopje vagaries “…he went on a hiring spree, not of journalists, but mostly cute girls in tight skirts who work as translators, secretaries, assistants.

At a recent party the administrative workers alone at MPM easily outnumbered the journalists of ‘Vest,’ ‘Dnevnik’ and ‘Utrinski Vesnik’ combined. One of the new big shots in ‘Dnevnik,’ who is now in MPM and swore to me that he will not take a secretary, now has three of them! Kerim is an old school diplomat, used to good living at someone else’s expense. Even with his 5-6,000 euro/month salary he also keeps sending bills for his dinners and everyday needs, even toothpaste, to be charged to the company account. He also went to Germany to order Mercedes cars for the hyrda-like managers in MPM.”

While admitting that these charges might be a little bit exaggerated by the competition for effect, they have a good degree of verisimilitude to them and no one can profess to being surprised. We suspect that anyone given a media empire to run would do exactly the same things- God knows we would!

Nevertheless, one wonders if the anticipation of future success has gone to WAZ’s head prematurely. Is this delightful excess an example of overweening, imperial German hubris, or merely assured confidence? In a time of fierce competition and new contenders will such luxuries, meant to be incentives and ‘perks’ for keeping a happy and to say the least stimulating work environment, pay off?

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