Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, Director-General of LRT, talks to Radka Betcheva, EBU Head of Member Relations for Central & Eastern Europe.
In 2018, LRT embarked on a complex and comprehensive reform aiming at offering high-quality, competitive content, adapting to new digital trends and extending our online presence. When I joined LRT as a CEO, its web portal had been totally abandoned and ranked number 16 in the market, which was a shameful position for a public service broadcaster.
Today, LRT is among the top four most popular web portals in Lithuania with more than 1.22 million real users per month at the end of last year. We achieved this goal with a strategy built on quality, integration of content from all LRT platforms on the web and providing access to LRT’s extensive digital archives, not with clickbait. In addition, a new online news service LRT ENGLISH has been launched and the web service in Russian has been improved. From 2020, LRT has also operated an online platform dedicated to Lithuania’s diaspora.
LRT’s news services were restructured, and we continue to invest in their development, with greater integration of news services and training reporters to work for all platforms. In 2021 we also opened a correspondents’ bureau in Brussels to offer Lithuanian audiences a better understanding of what is going on in Europe and the world.
We have also established an investigative journalism unit and a solutions journalism project, using the EBU’s know-how. LRT has been running projects to combat disinformation and promote media literacy, as well as other initiatives that contribute to a more mature and democratic society. Recently we introduced a new project “LRT is listening”, which aims to engage better with our audience and build proximity.
Through all these efforts, LRT has transformed into one of Lithuania’s market leaders in terms of content and audience engagement. In 2020, our main TV channel LRT TELEVIZIJA ranked second in terms of audience share for the first time since ratings began. According to public opinion polls in 2020 LRT received the highest evaluation of the country’s seven media groups in all the characteristics assessed: promotion of culture, education of audiences, reliability, efficacy, objectivity and modernity.
This is an independent officer directly accountable to the LRT Supervisory Council. I believe that the work of the ombudsperson will contribute to greater transparency with the audience and help maintain high standards of journalism. We recently renewed our editorial policy and will establish procedures for constant supervision of its implementation. We also renewed the LRT Code of Ethics for Journalists. As a next step to improve quality, we plan next year to join the Journalism Trust Initiative, that provides indicators for trustworthiness of journalism and promotes compliance with professional norms and ethics.
Apart from the ongoing pandemic that we have to live with, I think that many of our challenges are also playing out across Europe. We live in turbulent times with social media that can be divisive, political extremists, and populists splitting society and instigating anti-media sentiment. We saw this in August during the anti-vaccination protests in Vilnius. Trust in mainstream journalism is decreasing and journalists are increasingly perceived as enemies of the people and the target of assaults: from the streets of Vilnius to Paris and Amsterdam. As a result, media freedom is becoming more vulnerable, and so are our democracies.
In such an environment, it is very important that all media, in particular PSM, demonstrate the greatest possible honesty, transparency, and impartiality, keep the closest possible contact with their audiences and leverage their capacity to enhance cohesion and unity.
Beyond these societal issues, we face many challenges related to changing consumer habits, technology disruptions, big international competition and new players in the market. We need to compete for audience attention with an ever-growing number of news channels, and to attract and engage with our future audiences - kids and young adults -who look elsewhere for entertainment and news. This is a challenge for all media, including public service media (PSM).
To summarise, our biggest challenges are fighting fake news, maintaining trust in media, engaging with audiences, raising standards, showing that we are impartial and charting a course in an environment of growing fragmentation and competition. Last but not least, we need to face the increasing costs of content development and acquisition due to the impact of tech giants and international media players.
If you look at the anti-vax movements and protests, you see that the same pattern prevails in most countries. On the one hand, PSM must reflect all opinions and views, including anti-vaccine attitudes; on the other hand, we must not misinform our audience or spread unfounded opinions. We selectively and carefully give a voice to vaccine opponents and within a context. This raises a lot of discussions on how PSM contributes to social cohesion. These issues are not very easily solved. Media are in a way losing their power as people turn to social media and they find the information that confirms their convictions. In addition, there are marginal political groups, populists, etc., aiming for power, who have always criticised PSM and are doing it now. I recently found my notes for a conference in Poland on social media in 2019. Even then, I was talking about anti-vaxxers demanding air on LRT.
Riots and assaults on journalists have been a painful experience for big cities like Paris but also in Lithuania. Our journalists were shocked at the level of aggression by anti-vaccine protesters in Vilnius. They felt safer in Kiev, on the Maidan than here, where they were pushed around by our own citizens and prevented from doing their job. It was dramatic. I think that governments should also take this issue very seriously and ensure safety of journalists as a pillar of democracy. Nevertheless, it is very important to mention that, in all this, there is a very high percentage of trust in LRT and I hope we will preserve it and maintain it.
Each of these challenges requires a different approach. I believe that global challenges require a collective response and collaboration between stakeholders at different levels.
I also believe in cooperation between PSM, pooling resources and developing technical and content solutions. It is important to cooperate, even with commercial media, and counterbalance the growing influence of tech giants and their attempts to control the media, as well as address the issue of growing mistrust and disrespect of journalists. After the riots here in August, LRT organised training for all our journalists, including commercial media, together with the police to help them ensure their safety in such situations.
Another issue is raising standards, being impartial, offering quality content and trying to engage with diverse audiences. We have strengthened our regional presence and provide news not only from Vilnius but also from the regions, which is very important. For instance, last year the LRT.lt web portal launched a series of more than 50 publications “Around Lithuania”, with journalists travelling to the remotest towns and villages to interview local people. We have to listen to the needs of the people and be indispensable.
It is always a challenge to reach out to ethnic minorities and understand their needs. We are reforming our content aimed at ethnic groups and I believe we are moving in the right direction. In the past, we mainly offered cultural content and local news to these communities. But we want to broaden the range of topics and include more current political news. Recently, we organised three unique radio discussions in Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish on relevant topics including vaccinations and the migration crisis. We invited experts who speak all three languages, or at least two of them. We have also cooperated with municipalities in minority areas to encourage people to call and ask questions to doctors and experts to get more clarity on important issues.
Every crisis is a good opportunity. The pandemic has been the most serious real-time exercise for testing a public broadcaster’s ability to adapt and operate in extreme and unpredictable crisis conditions. It required the efforts of the entire LRT team and we passed this test with distinction.
We used the time to focus on things we wanted but had no time for, including our online presence, packaging our archives and more. Covid showed that we were well prepared to work remotely. Some of our journalists were already working remotely, so it was a smooth transition for everyone including managers. The issue of paramount importance was the safety of our people. I am pleased that 90% of our people got vaccinated overnight, which is one of the highest rates in Lithuania.
The Covid crisis has shown that there is a great need for LRT content and that we are indispensable. We had to replace schools and the church, inform, entertain and educate people. The pandemic has also highlighted the value of public service broadcasters around the world as a trusted source of news. I am delighted that the public also considers LRT as the most objective and reliable source of information.
Leading commercial media outlets filed a complaint with the EU Commission over our funding arrangements and raised questions about LRT’s public service remit on the internet. However, our remit is defined by our mission. We do not work for a profit. Our goal is to fulfil our mission and operate exclusively in the public interest. A public service broadcaster must reach out to various groups of society and people of different ages, nationalities and convictions through a plurality of topics and channels.
LRT has to adapt as consumer habits change and more people look for news in the digital space and on social networks. We must be where our current and future viewers, listeners, and readers are and ensure public access to information through the channels and platforms used by our audience.
We will lose future audiences if LRT is prevented from being on the Internet and platforms. It is a very dangerous path and I hope that the European Commission understands this and will take into account the broader context of digital transformation and changed habits of information usage. Lithuania is a small country and a young democracy, making the role of LRT particularly important. Thus, if we limit our presence and remit on digital platforms and the Internet there will be very negative consequences for the whole of society. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) urges media to be more present online to tackle fake news, provide quality information and be a high-quality alternative. PSM have proven their indispensable role during Covid. I hope that we will not go back as society has changed and their needs have changed.
I think that we have a good model. Most of our income comes from State budget revenues from taxes. We do not need to go to Parliament every year to confirm our budget and expose ourselves to possible political interference. LRT’s budget is automatically calculated as a fixed share of taxes collected by the State and it guarantees our independence. We receive only a small share of income from sponsorship. Our content is not loaded with any advertising and this distinguishes us in the media landscape. I believe that it is important to have a clean environment without commercial messages. Our audience loves it!
On the other hand, it makes us dependent on a single source of funding. But if the government does not try to limit the allocations from the State budget then the model is good although it is criticised by commercial media as our budget has increased in recent years due to economic growth and increased tax collection.
However, LRT remains underfunded compared to other EBU Members. We are at the bottom of the EBU PSM funding scale. We have been underfunded for many years and you can see this from the high number of repeats we still have to show, especially in the summer. We have expanded our online activities and therefore need more resources. What annoys commercial media the most is that audiences like LRT because of the quality of the content and the lack of commercial messages.
My experience and the important support provided by the EBU in the fight for LRT’s independence from political influence convinced me that a strong EBU is of paramount importance. My decision to run for the Executive Board was motivated primarily by the will to reinforce the EBU’s commitment to uphold the core values of public service media and to speak with a strong and united voice.
In addition to my seat on the Executive Board, LRT has seats on two EBU committees: the Digital Committee and the Radio Committee. This gives us an opportunity to take part in strategic discussions influencing the future of PSM and bring the perspective of small organizations and the region.
I am delighted that LRT has significantly increased its engagement and become more visible in the EBU community. This has been one of my priorities in terms of our membership: to be active, to make the most of the EBU membership for the benefit of LRT and the whole alliance. Just to mention a few facts: LRT is among the most active participants of the Euroradio Music Exchange and our contribution to the News Exchange has been acknowledged with a nomination of LRT for the Gunnar Høidahl Award for Excellence in the Eurovision News Exchange for the second year in a row.
Together with other EBU Members, LRT is engaged in multiple EBU initiatives and projects (PEACH, EuroVOX, the News Monitoring Tool), enhancing the profile of EBU services and promoting PSM values.
For me it is important that we are part of a big family, sharing best practices, which I immediately share at LRT. Contribution to Society, 50 Ways to Make it Better, solution journalism are all initiatives that we have quickly implemented. Participation at the EBU gives us an excellent networking experience, an opportunity to learn, share and gain relevant experience from fellow members.
How do you see the future of LRT?
In a small and competitive media market like Lithuania’s, LRT stands out as a major source of high-quality reliable information. Despite the abundance of information sources and channels, LRT’s emphasis on fact-based journalism and analysis is still the main alternative to the emotionally charged and predominantly infotainment content offered by most commercial media.
LRT will remain indispensable if it manages to maintain the highest quality and transparency, strengthen its relationship with audiences, catch up with technologies and respond to changing needs and habits, and at the same time not merely follow trends but also shape them.
I am optimistic despite all the challenges PSM and LRT face. PSM remains highly valued in many countries across Europe. The pandemic has reinforced its importance as a primary source of high-quality and reliable news and other services needed in times of crisis: from educational to psychological support or services for worshippers.
Given the severe crises and polarisation in European society, the role of PSM in promoting social cohesion and bringing people together to share experiences is more important than ever. We also ensure diverse, pluralistic markets and set standards for a whole country’s media.
To secure our future, we need to be as close to audiences as possible and reach the widest possible audience. From the PSM side, this will depend on the ability to adapt to the disruptions brought by technologies and the media industry. It also requires our governments to provide frameworks that guarantee PSM’s independence from political or economic interference, ensure sustainable and sufficient funding and that PSM is not disadvantaged by tech giants and international media giants.
Transparency, impartiality, and high standards are essential. Audiences are fragmented and giants like Netflix are getting stronger. But practice shows that the public trusts social media less. I think we need to constantly reinvent PSM to stay relevant to audiences.