Mark Twain once said that “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” In the context of my media experiences over time, I find courage is almost always a badge of honour once the storm has passed — yet it means little when you are in the middle of the storm. 

Such were my immediate thoughts after visiting some of the leading media executives in Poland on a recent visit. 

Caught in conflicting waves of history, Poland today is seeing the receding of the Solidarity-fueled, democratic tide — revealing an under-belly that was always there yet hidden by the euphoria of Communism’s collapse: a nativist, nationalistic, anti-international, anti-institution, anti-immigrant, mistrustful popular sentiment embodied by a government that reflects those values. 

Gazeta Wyborcza has partnered with The Wall Street Journal, offering digital access in a traditionally single-copy sales culture.
Gazeta Wyborcza has partnered with The Wall Street Journal, offering digital access in a traditionally single-copy sales culture.

My recent visit to Poland was a stark reminder that assaults on press freedom are among the hiccups of history — not sustainable long-term yet potentially fatal in the short-term. We overlook big swaths of the population left behind by “progress” at our own peril.

And media executives in Poland admit they were caught flat-footed by the 2015 vote of the electorate, the ferociousness of an anti-democratic government, and — worse, still — the rise in popularity of the government in the past two years. 

As is the case worldwide with nationalist governments, an independent press inevitably comes under assault. Electorates turn to populism when institutions profoundly disappoint them, and a free press is one of those institutions.

During my visit to Warsaw, publishers talked up business initiatives and the same fight for relevance that peers worldwide are focused on. Yet the elephant in the room was what the government will do next. 

Most talk of the elephant was done behind closed doors. Yet at Agora’s Gazeta Wyborcza, which has openly challenged the government, the talk was transparent and part of a broader strategy. 

A liberal intellectual product of the post-Communist era, Gazeta Wyborcza appealed to the aspiring classes of Poland as it established deep ties with the European Union and international bodies. The founders came from the underground union movement, but were disillusioned by socialism and embraced liberal reforms after the dictatorship’s collapse.

Gazeta Wyborcza’s embrace of a free economy and progressive changes in an open society was a wonder in a largely conservative country — always part of its appeal. 

In fact, the key Polish debate today is between old liberals and young leftists — both pro-democratic and pro-open society — who cannot agree what went wrong to fuel the rise of populism. 

Hitting a peak of 500,000 print circulation, Gazeta Wyborcza’s numbers declined like most Western newspapers — yet plummeted faster upon the election of the nationalist government in 2015 that has chipped away at democratic institutions one by one. 

Beyond a general dislike for all privately held news media in Poland, the nationalist government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party, has turned particular ire toward Gazeta Wybocza, which has loudly opposed efforts to weaken democratic institutions. In turn, the government has found ways to outlaw or discourage newspaper sales in gas stations and post offices, two main places to buy Gazeta Wyborcza. 

Threatening to nationalise newspapers has cast a pall over all Polish media except those loyal to the populist government. Short of that step, the government has pulled all advertising, gently threatened advertisers associated with certain newspapers, questioned foreign ownership of media, and even scared off print readers.

If they can’t get the courts (which they also want to fundamentally change) to thwart the press, the government appears determined to dry up income sources. This reminds me of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who once said he supports a free press — then taxed newsprint at such meteoric rates as to make such “support” pointless. 

It is in this context that Gazeta Wyborcza, which aims to stand as an “anchor of values” in a rising sea of government propaganda and fake news, has sold more than 110,000 digital subscriptions since it launched the effort in 2014 with only 3,000 names in a database. Polish newspapers have little to no history with subscriptions. Instead, it is traditionally a single-copy culture. 

My unofficial tally suggests at least 230,000 daily buying readers (including 120,000 average daily print single-copy sales). If print circulations of the past were inflated by discounts, promotions, and giveaways — like most markets worldwide — what Gazeta Wyborcza is achieving in the face of government harassment in 2017 is extraordinary. 

Pushing past press freedom issues, Gazeta Wyborcza is going through a similar challenge as peer publishers as they wade deeper into the digital subscription game. They are priced at €5 for a basic digital subscription and €6 for a package with the Wall Street Journal. That compares with a Polish monthly subscription to Spotify of €5 and Netflix at €9. 

Establishing a paid content strategy is challenging enough. Imagine doing so without a subscription history, few names in the database, and intense government pressure. 

Facing Gazeta Wyborcza editors and not knowing which lines to cross, I innocently asked about parallels between the Kaczynski government’s assaults on democratic institutions and similar assaults by Donald Trump on American institutions. The difference, I was told, is 241 to 28 — the respective ages of constitutionally protected institutions in the United States vs. Poland. The roots of American democracy, including press freedom, are simply deeper and more difficult to untangle. 

Yet I challenged the editors, too. Other than yelling louder at injustices, what is your plan to win back the hearts and minds of people who ushered in such an anti-establishment government? The same could be asked in the United States, Venezuela, Hungary, Slovakia, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Their first answer was we are not politicians. Yet their second answer was better: One of Agora’s big plays is Sonar, an analytics-driven, objective research portal located at biqdata.pl, primarily aimed at people who don’t reach Gazeta Wyborcza. 

INMA does not have a press freedom mission, yet government interference is part of the complicated ecosystem every media company and every news brand has to navigate — short-term to do business and survive, long-term to champion its values.

Less than three weeks before visiting Poland, I visited Grupo Clarín in Argentina, which in recent years was persecuted by the Kirchner government in raids and divestiture schemes — with the president’s use of a Twitter account as a primary weapon to criticise news media’s reporting legitimacy (sound familiar, Americans?).

Grupo Clarín survived with its values intact, and the company should do more with that legacy to promote its brand. 

Maneuvering through the soupy mix of a hostile government is tricky business. Most companies seem to be diversifying their portfolio into safer financial bets like cinema. I recall a Hong Kong publisher who once told me they plan to launch in press-unfriendly China with magazines since the government frowns on mission-driven newspapers; such talk was in the air in Poland, too. 

In times like today, we see the difference between “news media” and “media.” To stay independent editorially, news media has to be financially independent. Thus the struggle in places like Poland is doubly more difficult than much of the world by being disrupted both by digital technologies and by governments that see a window of opportunity to pressure the free press.

It is hard to see in 2017, yet: This, too, shall pass. And the companies that stand firm on values will be rewarded in the long-term by the sons and daughters of the people who elected this populist government. And the next generation will dedicate themselves to establishing deeper roots with a firm eye on how much change society can withstand.