Drawing on his considerable experience as a publisher of local newspapers, Dominik is creating a new operating model to ensure that all Polish citizens have access to independent local press. His bottom-up approach has created a movement among first generation local publishers, strengthened their watchdog capabilities, and uncovered new sources of financial sustainability. Dominik’s Association of Local Newspapers is increasingly seen as a reference point for neighboring countries.
The New Idea
Dominik is creating the future of independent local press aiming at all citizens in Poland to have access to a neutral, accurate, and reliable press that takes on the government and vested interest groups and exposes corruption. Through his Association of Local Newspapers (ALN), he is mobilizing the first generation of private local publishers in Poland, and is enabling them to collaborate around issues that expand their footprint throughout Poland. Dominik’s new operating model for local independent press—one that is networked, but decentralized, competitive, and sustainable—ensures that the movement toward accessible local independent press continues to grow rather than backtrack in the face of industry threats.
In Poland, three quarters of the population live outside big cities; however, 40 percent of these rural areas still do not have access to privately-run independent newspapers. Dominik is expanding geographically by targeting and helping local publishers set up independent newspapers in some of the most isolated communities in Poland, including post-collective farming areas where access to information is limited by municipality controlled press and low levels of citizenship awareness. These high-risk communities present a major political and strategic opportunity for the industry’s long-term survival.
Having already built a movement that covers 60 percent of Polish localities, representing 107 independent newspapers, Dominik is creating systems to keep these independent newspapers sustainable. Recognizing that the survival of the sector depends on its financial independence, and its ability to remain competitive vis-à-vis media conglomerates, Dominik is diversifying the revenue sources of local newspapers. By establishing a shared advertisement service for the whole association, he has opened up the central advertising market to local publishers that would otherwise be unable to access it. Furthermore, to improve the attractiveness of local newspapers to advertising agencies, Dominik introduced the first readership survey of local weeklies, conducted by the same company that surveys regional and national newspapers.
Dominik is also working to ensure the long-term sustainable future of local independent press by placing curbs on newspapers subsidized by local governments. Members of his independent press movement publish watchdog articles daily and, without taking a point of view, they reveal local cases of corruption that would otherwise be left unturned. Dominik’s press association is therefore contributing to transparency and healthy public life, while reducing the involvement of local governments in the press industry.
Finally, with an eye toward sustainability, Dominik is assisting this first generation of publishers in creating succession plans for their newspapers to ensure that ownership will remain local and dedicated to the same ideals—that the local independent press movement is ultimately about recognizing an opportunity to create effective citizenship at the local level and strengthening the social and ethical fiber of communities.
Since 1990, when the new democratic era began, local publishers who provide readers with politically neutral, accurate and reliable sources of information have been facing a range of obstacles in running their businesses with a social mission.
After 20 years of democracy in Poland, during which hundreds of independent news outlets were established, government at all community levels continues to influence public opinion through the media. Local government-owned media presents only the official perspective and does not allow for the exchange of views or free-flow of information. Furthermore, central and regional newspapers do not provide readers with access to politically neutral, in-depth information about their own communities and daily realities. Citizens in Poland, particularly those from little communities, have only just begun to realize that the widespread corruption characteristic of the communist era does not have to be the norm today, and that local independent press is in fact a guarantor of reducing and eradicating corruption. For example, when the local government donated land to the church and a priest built a house for himself instead of the promised church building, community members did not challenge the priest’s decision for fear of being publically condemned during church service. Only the local journalist found the courage to disclose the story to the community.
In addition to fighting to promote their brand of unbiased and reliable news, independent local weeklies are struggling to compete against the dominance of international and national media corporations. For example, independent local weeklies are denied access to Poland’s national readership survey, making them unattractive to the central advertising market, which serves as an important source of revenue for newspapers, especially since taking government subsidies is not an option. Without this official industry-wide recognition, local weeklies remain “sub-standard” to national and regional newspapers.
Furthermore, most of the publishers of local weeklies today are middle-aged and, though a majority of them will work past retirement age, they will soon face the challenge of succession in their businesses. However, only with training, advice, and a menu of succession options, will these publishers be able to plan for the future of their businesses and produce young successors who identify with the social mission of independent media and will serve as ambassadors of an independent local press.
Although local independent media can be a high-cost and risky industry, at the same time it is highly efficient as a business model that occupies a unique industry niche, as it is the only vehicle through which to provide citizens with the most accurate, locally-sourced information, and empower them to act and react as citizens. However, it will require a new model of operation in order for it to survive.
In 2004 Dominik assumed leadership of the ALN, an organization of which he was a founding member in 1999. ALN was created as a platform of exchange between publishers from various places in order to improve their chances of success in a difficult market. However, when ALN encountered financial challenges, Dominik decided to realign and broaden the vision to ensure all localities across Poland have access to independent local press. He presented a new program for the association, which included three strategic goals for the long-term survival of locally produced independent news: successfully reach the areas in Poland uncovered by the range of independent local weeklies; reduce the scope of government influence over local press; and finally, ensure its future financial and generational sustainability.
Dominik finds it particularly important to advise novice publishers on how to organize their newspaper to reach the maximum number of readers; for instance, it should be politically neutral, include content about issues important to local readers, and have the courage to write about unspoken issues. He also demonstrates to publishers the importance of training team members. Finally, Dominik provides advice on financial survival, including strategies to reach local advertisers. Together with a lawyer specializing in local press issues, he is also providing support to legal cases against local publishers.
Through the network of local publishers based throughout the country, Dominik is placing pressure on local governments to be transparent, follow the rules of democracy, and to step out from the domain of the local press outlets. These local news outlets publish watchdog articles on a daily basis that reveal local corruption scandals that would otherwise remain hidden. For example, one weekly wrote about a local politician who was accused of corruption and did not appear in court, claiming he was sick; however, during the same time, he attended city council meetings and collected allowances for it. Another example is the publication of lists of people who benefit from tax abatement. If the list is posted in the town hall, few people will read it; however, when it is published in the local newspaper, it is read by 50 percent of the citizens in that community who now understand the scope of local corruption transpiring in their communities.
In addition to assuring constant vigilance and pressure on local governments by publishers at the micro level, Dominik is also working at the public policy level to reduce government influence over local media. He has managed to unite members of the association, accustomed to working independently, to speak with one voice on issues related to fair competition in the press market. Dominik speaks on their behalf in the senate and advocates for legislation to limit the circulation of newspapers subsidized by local governments and their ability to sell adverts. He does not want to ban governments from speaking at all, but he believes they should do it in the form of official bulletins distributed for free, to make clear to readers which perspective they present.
Upon taking leadership, Dominik presented the feasible plan of entering the central advertising market as a way to diversify the revenue sources for local newspapers and therefore create a means to increase their independence and sustainability. Although others have played with the idea, no one has developed a strategy to successfully implement it. Dominik created a mechanism allowing an advertiser to reach readers of the entire network of local newspapers with a single simple order. In this win-win scenario, local publishers gain access to new sources of income and advertisers easily reach new customers in local communities across Poland. Just four months after taking over and revamping the association Dominik had created an ad network of 20 to 30 weeklies with 250,000 copies a week in circulation (i.e. representing all newspapers in the association’s network). In 2010, the ad network covered a circulation of over 800,000 a week.
However, from the beginning, some media agencies remained unconvinced by the appeal of this offer. Thus, in 2004 Dominik initiated the first local press readership survey, which is carried out by the company that leads the national survey and employs the same survey methodology used for central and regional dailies in Poland. The survey showed that in some cases up to 51 percent of local community members read independent weeklies and that every copy is read on average by five readers. This was the first time that statistics on readership of local independent titles were calculated and published. The readership survey brought increased income from adverts in 2006 and during the following three years, revenue has continually increased, allowing the association to cover its operating costs and add new initiatives to its program, e.g. professional trainings for publishers and journalists. Still, some media houses doubted the survey’s legitimacy. Thus, Dominik is now making efforts to formally include local press outlets in the Polish Readership Survey that embraces all daily and regional newspapers. To achieve this, he and 20 other ALN members signed up to the Press Distribution Controlling Union which runs the survey. Dominik is trying to change the rules of the readership survey, so that it will include the agenda of local publishers.
Recently Dominik began developing a solution to a new challenge: The intergenerational survival of independent local weeklies. On average, publishers of these weeklies are in their fifties and need to begin thinking of successors to continue their mission. To prepare for this sustainability challenge, Dominik is analyzing various models to create a database of succession options with pros and cons. Publishers will be able to choose from these and develop a sound succession strategy, along with providing advice and guidance for successful implementation. There is a huge opportunity for young people to not only continue the publishing work of their parents, but also to become ambassadors of the Polish model of independent local press as a tool to foster a healthy democracy at the grassroots level outside Poland.
Dominik grew up in Southeastern Poland. His mother was the director of culture promotion department in the Lublin Regional Center of Culture and his father worked in the literature department of a local Polish radio. Growing up, Dominik recalls summers he spent trekking in mountains with his grandmother and the rest of the family; when he was 17, he moved to Żnin, where he lives today and cares for his grandmother.
During his schooling, Dominik was an active organizer. In high school, he was the president of the student government. As a student of Polish literature and language—following the family tradition—he organized a library of underground books for students in his department. Later he distributed an illegal anti-communist bulletin. As a teacher in a primary school in Żnin, Dominik founded a hiking group that organized treks in the mountains. During the 1980s he managed the secret printing house in Wenecja close to Żnin, where press, posters and leaflets were printed for the underground movement. In 1989, he set up the political newspaper, called Volcano, against communist rule. The newspaper was closed in 1990, only nine months later, just after first local elections that marked final end of the communist rule. However, citizens of Żnin continued to ask Dominik about the newspaper and in 1991 he founded a new politically neutral newspaper, called Paluki, to provide readers with current, in-depth local news.
Dominik is characterized by his love for culture, poetry, literature and music. He believes that the local media have a mission to protect freedom. In 1994 Dominik was nationally recognized along with five other local publishers in a competition for the Polish press. For the first time, he had the opportunity to meet with other publishers of local press, based elsewhere in the country, and discuss issues related to everyday publishing work and the real mission of local independent news outlets. Over the next five years, Dominik continued to meet with his colleagues to exchange professional experiences and views, while brainstorming on how to improve conditions of local publishing enterprises so that they could better perform in their social roles for society.
In 1999, Dominik and his colleagues set up ALN with the aim of gathering those publishers who share the mission of local newspapers: One that sets the boundaries of distribution as boundaries of information; is politically neutral; is financially independent and published where it will be distributed; and finally, holds the principle that local press is a foundation for local democracy through its watchdog and informational roles.
In the following years, the lack of strong leadership, individualism of members and lack of specific strategy for development led to financial crisis in the organization. The board resigned and Dominik was elected the new president of the Association. He restructured it. Dominik has built the community of local publishers based on one-on-one relationships and values of trust and loyalty. He has a deep understanding of the local context and challenges in the work of a local press publisher who wants to pursue a social mission of nurturing democracy and building a sense of identity among community members.