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New generation media stepping up its game

Notes from Poland was born out of a personal blog to fill a gap in English-language coverage

The 1990s and early 2000s saw a boom in English language media covering the former Eastern Bloc – many featuring catchy (or cheesy) alliterations in their names like The Budapest Beacon, The Prague Post, the Slovak Spectator

Catering to a population of expats and tourists, and living large on print ads for various tourist focused businesses, those media provided valuable local reporting and a platform for some future journalistic stars.

Two decades later, though, the picture is much gloomier. Many publications have either closed down or hollowed out – barely kept afloat by a handful of overworked staff. 

As international media, too, cut back their presence, English-language coverage of the region plummeted – just as some of the region’s political ghosts struck back with a vengeance. 

The situation is particularly pressing in Poland, which dropped 31 positions within 4 years in World Freedom of Press Index and its media landscape keeps getting more and more partisan. 

Conflicts between the conservative government in Warsaw and Western partners are growing, but much of the international coverage is superficial, painting the country with a broad and stereotype-soaked brush.

Through a stroke of serendipity – a new player has appeared in the market, representing a new generation of local English-language media.

Launched in 2014 as a personal blog, Notes from Poland is a grant-supported and digital-only outlet that focuses on covering controversial political and social events in Poland for international audiences.

In five years, the team managed to increase its audience from 500 to a total of 60 thousand followers on social media and transformed into a full-fledged media outlet. 

Daniel Tilles is the editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and an assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. The academic says his team is “kind of a bridge between Polish media and international media”. 

The Fix spoke to him about the importance of independent information from Poland and how Notes from Poland is helping the cause.

Notes from Poland logo

This interview has been edited and condensed.

TF: Why did you launch Notes from Poland?

DT: Our mission is to help people outside Poland understand what is happening here. Poland is an increasingly important country, but also a very misunderstood and under-covered one.

Notes from Poland started as a personal blog of my colleague Stanley Bill, which he launched to share his personal reflections on Polish culture, history, society, and politics.

Later we started to realize there was a real demand for what we were doing. Lots of people from different backgrounds wanted to understand what was happening in Poland — foreigners who live here, Poles living abroad and outside stakeholders from international institutions or NGOs. As a result, we recently launched a website.

Some readers say Notes from Poland helps them explain to foreign friends and colleagues what is really happening in Poland.

TF: Why is Poland so misunderstood and under-covered?

DT: In the 1990s after the collapse of communism there was a great wave of interest in Central and Eastern Europe. Big money flooded the region, including the media scene. This led to an expansion of English-language media covering these countries.

But the impression I get from people who worked in media back then is that by the late 1990s — early 2000s a sense of complacency came about. There was a feeling the region was doing fine and attention drifted to other parts of the world.

Less interest resulted in a decline in English-language media covering the region. 

But political events in Hungary, Poland and other countries in past years led to a surprising realization that there are forces, ideas, beliefs here that don’t fit in with the previous understanding of the region.

International media try to cover the region, but a lack of investment in understanding and on-the-ground reporting means they don’t always do it effectively.

TF: How would you describe the Polish media landscape and your role within it?

DT: We are in an unusual position. On the one hand, most of our news reporting comes via Polish sources. On the other side, a lot of our readers are international. Also, we are often asked to do interviews or to write commentaries for international media. We are kind of a bridge between Polish media and international media.

The Polish media landscape is very polarized. A lot of media outlets are very partisan or ideological – to a greater extent than in many Western countries. 

It affects how they cover the news. It’s an extension of the political conflicts you find in Warsaw.

Notes from Poland tries to step up above that, to present news in a balanced way that reflects all sides of an argument. We try to have a clear separation between news reporting and opinion.

TF: What is the editorial focus of Notes from Poland?

It’s a mix. We try to present a balanced perspective about Poland. Much of our reputation was initially based on our coverage of Polish politics, explaining what is happening. 

There has been huge interest from outside Poland over the last few years in the current government’s policy decisions, like judicial reform. We still want to cover that and provide analysis – it interests our readers.

But we also want to show Poland as a real living and breathing country. We want to shift the focus from Warsaw politics to social stories happening elsewhere. 

One of our most popular pieces so far was an article about a local initiative led by an Olympic athlete to renovate a Jewish cemetery in Grybów, Southern Poland, whose Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust. 

This beautiful story showed us a different side of Poland often not present in the media.

TF: Your audience is very heterogeneous — comprising both Poles and foreigners — which part is the most active?

DT: Often the most vocal people on Facebook and in the comment sections are foreigners living in Poland. They feel very strong attachment and care deeply about Poland. 

On average, they are more liberal than most people in Poland and certainly more liberal than the current Polish government. They are also often the most critical. 

This criticism, in turn, can provoke negative responses from Poles in Poland or Polonia abroad, who may take issue with what they say.

TF: Turning to business models. Have you tried to leverage the activity of your audience to generate profits?

DT: We are published by a nonprofit foundation and because of the philosophy behind what we do, we avoid using commercial instruments that would limit our reach. 

We want to reach as big an audience as possible to help people understand Poland. Therefore, putting a paywall or demanding a subscription is counterproductive for us.

We hope we can sustain ourselves as much as possible through donations and grants.

However, one of the options for us is membership model in the form of giving the members benefits — discussion with editors, early access to certain materials — in return for financial support.

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