Latvia is at the high end of the World Press Freedom Index being in 24th place among 180 countries in 2016. This is a remarkable achievement for a country that only 25 years ago was in the grip of totalitarian rule. Latvia is a post-Soviet state having regained independence in 1991. Since then, there have been fundamental changes of political, economic and social nature that have turned a former Soviet colony into a democratic country with a market economy.
Taking into account the size of the market, Latvia’s media can be considered well-developed. At the same time, the immense competition created by the small and fragmented local media market, coupled with pressure from Russia, which is increased by the lack of language barriers, can sometimes have a negative impact on the quality of content.
The challenges of a small market and outer pressure have been especially marked in recent years, taking into account the technological advances and media globalisation tendencies. Domestic media have not only to compete with each other for audiences but also with global market players. A small market cannot ensure such conditions whereby the Latvian media can operate fully and develop without support mechanisms. At the same time, this is not only a Latvian or Baltic phenomenon, as most European states also have various kinds of support mechanisms for the media.
On 8 November 2016 the government adopted Latvia’s Media Policy Guidelines for 2016–2020 and the accompanying action plan. These are the first media policy planning documents in Latvia. The five core directions are aimed at strengthening media diversity, media quality and responsibility, professionalism, media literacy and the resilience of the media environment.
During the drafting of the media guidelines, the experts involved identified the need to support the domestic media, both the media themselves and the journalists so that they could maintain high editorial standards and produce interesting content of high quality. In order to strengthen the regional media, in 2016 the State Culture Capital Foundation in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture implemented a targeted programme for the media in Latgale. Nine quality journalism development projects on various media platforms are supported through a tendering process. More financial support for the production of high quality content of public importance is envisaged for 2017 and future years.
Changes in media consumption patterns have led to larger audiences for Internet media but consumption of the printed press has fallen, which is also reflected in their advertising revenues. Possible reasons are the small market, low purchasing power, competition with Internet media and the shrinking population, especially in the regions. The continued existence of the printed press as a source of diversity of opinion and bedrock of the Latvian language and culture is under threat. Nevertheless, the press is still regarded as an important source of information, especially on local and regional events. During the subscription campaign for the year 2017, 398,722 periodical subscriptions were made, 76 percent of them in the countryside, as disclosed by Latvia’s postal service Latvijas Pasts. The percentage of homes with Internet access should also be taken into account. In the capital Riga 76 percent of households have Internet access but in the Latgale region this is less – 65 percent.
The audience has become fragmented and diffuse in terms of various interests. Consumption of non-linear media content is increasing. This is fuelled by interactive television archives, the online availability of television broadcasting and other facilities. Social media have widened the traditional sphere of journalistic activities and added new formats to the media environment such as blogging and citizen journalism. In this way the traditional media are competing not only with the websites of other traditional media but also with new forms – social media and information search engines. Journalists have partly lost their once-exclusive function as transmitters of information.
In recent years the mass media have experienced a rapid loss of consumer trust. One possible reason may be the growth in media literacy, which has resulted in information being evaluated and analysed more critically. A survey conducted by SKDS in December 2016 found that over half of the respondents had trust in radio and television but less than half trusted the press and Internet portals. Still, a 40 percent level of trust is something that Latvian government institutions and political parties can only dream about.
Latvia was struck by a serious economic crisis in 2008, which not only led to dramatic national budget cuts for education, healthcare and social needs but also dealt a serious blow to the media. Year 2009 was a terribly difficult one for the media. As advertising revenues and the purchasing power of local residents both diminished, the media had to cut costs. Journalists were laid off, wages were trimmed, some publications disappeared but others merged. There were ownership changes and the quality of journalism also suffered because of the sudden and unaccustomed changes. The government subsidy for the public media was cut substantially. The volume of the advertising market and the ability of the Latvian media to do business fell sharply. The advertising market has still not reached pre-crisis levels (€94m in 2007, €49m in 2012, €76m in 2014 and €77m in 2015). The greatest decrease was felt by the printed press. For example their advertising market fell from €37m in 2007 to €10m in 2013 and stood at €11m in 2015. Nevertheless, the advertising market, albeit by only a few percentage points, is showing signs of recovery.