The print media in Latvia have always been held in high regard. The first newspaper, Rigische Montags (later Donnerstags) Ordinari Post-Zeitung (later Rigische Novellen) appeared in 1680, only to be closed down by the Great Northern War soon thereafter. The paper re-emerged only in the latter half of the 18th century. During the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers played an important role in shaping public opinion, ensuring national and social emancipation, promoting social and political changes, and in establishing the new Republic of Latvia. A particularly impressive phenomenon in the 20th century history of the Latvian media was the newspaper Jaunākās Ziņas (1911-1940), which was hugely popular and influential. In the late 1930s, it had a circulation of 250,000, or approximately one copy per eight residents of the country.
After the occupation of Latvia in 1940, many people working in journalism were killed or repressed. While Latvia was in the Soviet Union, it was fully subject to the Soviet press system. The most important newspapers were those of the Communist Party and the Komsomol (Communist youth movement), published both in Latvian and in Russian. During the era of perestroika and the independence drive (Atmoda), which led to the restoration of independent statehood, newspapers and magazines had an enormous audience and enjoyed a great deal of trust. In the early 1990s, the press system was restructured, and there were changes in the audience. The media quickly had to learn how to exist under a democratic system and in a market economy.
In Latvia the state supports the publication and availability of the press in various ways. The Postal Law envisages delivery of subscribed press publications as a universal service until the end of 2019. It also envisages compensation in those cases where delivery costs result in net losses. For example, in 2013, the delivery of the subscribed press in countryside regions created losses for €4.29m but in the first half of 2014, the losses amounted to €1.8m. Latvia’s postal service Latvijas Pasts was compensated by the government for these losses from the state budget. This ensures the delivery of the subscribed print media also to Latvia’s remote and sparsely populated locations.
It should be noted that, since 2011, Latvijas Pasts has gone over to a five-day working week for press publications and no longer delivers on Saturdays. As a result publishers ceased publishing newspapers on Saturdays, which led to changes in the regularity of newspaper publishing for many editorial offices as well as in the routine of journalism.
Another form of support for the print media is the lower VAT rate. Until 2008 the rate was 5 percent but from 1 January 2009 it was raised to 10 percent and since 2011 it is 12 percent. However, this support is not sufficient to ensure the sustainability of the print media. In some member States of the EU the rate is lower still and even 0 percent in some cases.
From 2007 till 2013 the annual circulation of newspapers fell by 60 percent and for newspapers in the Latvian language it fell by almost one half (47 percent). During this period the circulation of periodicals in the Latvian language fell by one fifth. The fall in consumption of daily newspapers is explained mainly by the free 24/7 availability of news on the Internet, including on smart phones. Other factors are a falling population and changes in media consumption patterns. The consumption of newspapers is also falling among the senior population. This may also be influenced by the cost of an annual subscription, around €100. Although there have been suggestions for newspapers to be reoriented basically towards analytical journalism or to be published every other day, up to now no radical and effective steps have been taken to retain readers.
Three national dailies are published in the Latvian language – Diena (published by Dienas Mediji), Latvijas Avīze (Lauku Avīze) and Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze (Mediju Nams). In terms of ownership and editorial management they experienced changes in 2015 and 2016 but these have not affected the editorial line in a major way, at least for now. Further changes might possibly be observed with the approach of local government elections in June 2017 and parliamentary elections in October 2018.
Currently Vesti Segodnya (Media Nams Vesti) is the only daily newspaper published in the Russian language. In 2013 its staff announced that it may no longer be published because they hadn’t been paid for several months. It continues to survive although circulation is relatively low (14,000 in 2014). The newspaper says it sets out to inform about what is important in Latvia and the world, to help solve everyday living problems, like saving money etc. However, media experts point out that the newspaper is partly responsible for social divisiveness because its content, especially in previous years, tended to be biased, pitting the Russian speaking population against Latvians.
In 2014 the print version of the Russian language business newspaper Bizness&Baltija ceased publication (it continues to operate as a news portal). Media expert and researcher Anda Rožukalne points out that journalists who have been working in the media in the Russian language until recently, are experiencing first shrinks in the labour market before their very eyes. After the concentration of the Russian language press in 2012 (when the three largest newspapers Vesti Segodnya, Chas, Telegraf came into the hands of a single owner), Vesti Segodnya is the only one that remains with its supplements. In terms of audience, it is surpassed by MK – Latviya, published by Baltic Media Alliance. Russian language journalism can still be found in some magazines, for example, the women’s magazine Lyublyu!, radio stations and website of the MixMedia Group, public service media, some news portals and in the regional media.
In 2015, 252 newspaper titles were published (204 in Latvian, 41 in Russian). Important to note is that 123 of them were informative publications of local government. Data by market research company Kantar TNS shows that in 2016 there have been changes in the top five newspapers according to average audience per one edition. The first three places remained the same – the weekly MK Latviya (Russian), the TV guides Televizor/MK Latviya (Russian) and Latviiskaya TV-Programma (Russian) but there was a change in the fourth place which was taken by the daily Latvijas Avīze. The Russian language weekly Latviiskiye Vesti came fifth.
In the winter of 2016 an average of 90 percent of the Latvian population aged 15 – 74 had read or skimmed through at least one of the last six issues of a press publication. Daily newspapers are not among the most widely read types of media. In 2016 Latvia’s inhabitants mostly read or skimmed through weekly publications (52 percent of the population), monthlies (46 percent) and the regional press (33 percent). The figure for daily newspapers is only 12 percent. Compared with the early months of 2010, one survey found that 31 percent of respondents had read or skimmed a daily newspaper in the preceding week. Regional newspapers were read or skimmed more often, by 46 percent of respondents in the survey.
For approximately half a century, the regional press has been quite popular in Latvia. The daily press has lost subscribers since the turn of the century but, in most cases, the regional newspapers have not. Around 2008– 2010, the situation with regional newspapers changed with the reforms of administrative boundaries that replaced 482 parishes and 26 districts with 109 administrative districts (novads). Nevertheless, newspapers retained the communities of readers of regional newspapers. For example, the one-time Balvi region newspaper Vaduguns now positions itself as a newspaper of Northern Latgale. The situation is also influenced by an aging population and emigration, which is leading to a fall in the population, particularly in rural territories.
The private regional newspaper Novadnieks ceased publication in 2016 because of economic hardship. Two regional newspapers Zemgales Ziņas and Kursas Laiks reduced their periodicity and became weeklies. The owners plan to strengthen the digital platforms of these media where readers will be able keep abreast of current affairs but the newspapers will become more and more analytical.
In 2016 there was a heated debate on whether local government informative publications (financed from public resources) should be allowed to carry commercial advertising, thus reducing possible advertising revenues of private regional media. In order to ensure diversity of opinion it is important that in Latvia’s provinces and towns journalistic content should not only be available via the local government informative publications but also via newspapers independent of the municipality. At the same time, however, it should be emphasised that the content and quality of the private local press needs to be improved. Because representatives of journalism and local government understand the notion of commercial advertising, public relations with local governments , the necessary work, and the amount and methods of informing the public, discussions among the sector should continue with the aim of improving the legal regime, by defining the relevant terms and areas of competence more precisely.
In 2005 a new and initially successful element of the media world appeared in Latvia – free newspapers. The leading one was established in 2005, and it was called 5min. The newspaper was published by Dienas Mediji in both Latvian and Russian and was distributed on the street and on public transport. Although in 2005 experts predicted that the readership and volume of advertising for the free newspapers 5min and Rītdiena would increase, because of their dependence entirely on advertising and of the economic crisis, both papers folded a few years later.
Magazines have a larger readership than newspapers. During the period of economic growth between 2001 and 2007, the number of titles and overall circulation expanded very rapidly. Magazines became part of the consumer culture that flourished and was enjoyed in post-Soviet society. Since the economic crisis began, the number of magazine titles has dropped by 14 percent, while circulation figures have fallen by 23 percent. In 2015 there were 322 magazines (254 in Latvian, 20 in English and 33 in Russian). Compared with the years before the crisis, the number of magazine titles has fallen (2008 – 431 titles, 2009 – 370), but in recent years their number has remained relatively stable.
A Kantar TNS study shows that Latvia’s inhabitants mostly consume weekly publications. On average, 52 percent of Latvia’s inhabitants aged between 15 and 74 have read or skimmed a weekly publication at least once a week. Monthlies are in second place (45 percent). However, magazine readership has also fallen. For example, a survey conducted in the spring of 2010 found that 68 percent of respondents had read or skimmed a weekly magazine, while 45 percent had done so with a monthly magazine.
In Latvia there are many similar publications intended for a wide audience (including men’s and women’s magazines too). Magazines about the lives of celebrities are popular and there are many titles on practical advice. Magazines dealing with psychology, astrology, literature, theatre, money, business and other themes have also found their niche. Even individual narrowly specialised publications have managed to become very successful and in high demand. A study by the research centre SKDS, in 2016, found that magazines dedicated to hobbies, advice and health are growing in popularity among readers. One quarter of the population admit that in the last five years, they have most often bought this type of magazine. Science and history magazines have also become more popular. 80 percent of respondents thought that magazines are a convenient way to find out what is new regarding cultural events, household goods and electronics as well as beauty and perfumery. Moreover, readers willingly examine attractive advertising on the pages of magazines. This study confirmed that magazines are read mostly by women between the ages of 35 to 64 who live in rural areas. Magazines are read both by people with secondary and higher education.
Readers have distinctly favourable attitudes toward magazines which, particularly in terms of consumer magazines, are seen as friends, allies, supporters and advisors in all life situations, particularly problematic ones. Kantar TNS data show that in 2016, the top five of most-read magazines has not changed for the fourth year in a row. The five most read magazines by average audience for one issue are the weekly women’s magazine Ieva, the weekly gossip and celebrity magazines Privātā Dzīve and Kas Jauns, the fortnightly Ievas Stāsti and the monthly food magazine Ievas Virtuve. Four of them are published by Santa. The leading magazine publishers in Latvia are Santa, Rigas Viļņi, Lilita, Dienas Žurnāli and Cits Medijs. The latter also publishes the magazine Ir, which came out in 2010 after several journalists left the newspaper Diena to create a new media platform following a change of ownership in 2009. The first issue had to be reprinted in order to satisfy the large demand. The owners of Ir are the staff and several business people. Key content is politics, economics, culture, investigation and analysis, success stories and outstanding personalities.
Since the economic crisis began, the press is currently not a profitable business. Under tough economic conditions, advertising revenues have plummeted. Publishers have had to absorb losses and stop investments. The dependency of the press on other income and owners has been on the rise. Several magazines ceased publication in 2016 – the healthy lifestyle magazine Shape, men’s magazine FHM and National Geographic. The long-running children’s magazines Ezis (since 1991) and Zīlīte (since 1958) also saw their last issues. The teenage magazine Sīrups with its 15 year history was closed in 2016. These processes confirm the transition of media consumption by younger audiences to other formats as well as the general decline in the children’s and teenage demographic.
A couple of years ago Latvia’s Playboy ceased publication. Its licence had expired and the Latvian publishers Dienas Žurnāli decided not to continue with it as the printing costs were much greater than the revenues. Other press publications have also been terminated. However, media experts do not see this as a crisis in the Latvian magazine market as it is still highly saturated. Newcomers to the magazine market in Latvia are bookazines or illustrated magazine books, which have become popular since their entry in 2014. They are published irregularly and dedicated to individual themes (handbooks). They are characterised by good design and compilations of information about a particular subject. On occasion they have had to be reprinted. There have been various themes from style and fashion, bathroom or kitchen design to recipes by famous chefs. There are also regularly published bookazines such as the biannual Benji Newman, whose slogan is “a life that you can read”. It has been published by Agnese Kleina since 2014.