Two decades and counting, we still chase the story

As legacy newspapers keep feeling their way about to rediscover their true role as quality media, the well-documented story will always be the one true consideration for journalists

Saviour Balzan with Roger Degiorgio in 2009
Saviour Balzan with Roger Degiorgio in 2009

22 years ago, on 19 November 1999, the first edition of MaltaToday’s print newspaper came off the printing press at Pietà’s Stamperija. It would later be printed at the Union Print, and then Progress Press and now Millers, running the gamut of Malta’s major newspaper printers.

In 1999 I had already spent the previous two decades and a bit more in journalism. So I managed to bring together a posse of writers, typically ‘self-made’ journalists, designers and salespeople, with a rabid desire to change the world. Many of them hailed straight out of the stable at the Green Party, Alternattiva Demokratika, others had worked at the Independent or the defunct paper The People.

As editor I was given a free hand on editorial policy and the newsroom. I made it a point that I would rock what I saw was a morbidly supine newspaper industry that had enjoyed comfortable domination, owned by business families, political parties and the Church.

MaltaToday had to be all about relevance, quality and drive an agenda for change. At the cusp of the second millennium our priorities were on show for readers and prospective journalists joining the paper: we were left-wing, we were pro-divorce, open to discuss abortion (then still taboo for the entire country), in favour of drug decriminalisation, in favour of wider gay rights, and against spring hunting and poaching. We were out to question the establishment and annoy its lackeys picking up its scraps.

‘Colleagues’ with whom I lunched during traditionally long yet ineffectual editors’ lunches hosted by the advertising agencies, would be replete with derogatory comments, especially from the Sunday Times’ crew. They fuelled my determination to prove everyone wrong. The pundit and ad-man Godfrey Grima would brag about his days at the FT, and needle me by asking me time and again the name of the newspaper... he was then close to Richard Cachia Caruana of course. We became good friends later... but of course, by then MaltaToday could not be taken for granted.

Two years into MaltaToday, its original owner faced financial difficulties. I bought the title and later shared the ownership with someone more level-headed by my side. Defamation cases were the first sign that our journalism had started to count and that our probing was seen as a threat. We had Dom Mintoff, the entire Nationalist Party executive, Labour’s Michael Falzon, priests, banks, business tycoons like Albert Mizzi, even a few hard-nosed criminals wanted their pound of flesh in the courts. It was endless. A politically-appointed judiciary gave them what they wanted: fines and unfair decisions. And yet, the newspaper was galvanised into being more daring. How we did it, I do not know.

In the run-up to European Union membership, the newspaper took a leading role, positioning itself as independent political newspaper that was outrightly in support of EU accession. But what happened next would prove decisive for the fate of the newspaper. It was 2004, and I had taken an unexpected interest in showing preference for John Dalli to become prime minister after Eddie Fenech Adami, and not Lawrence Gonzi. This ‘exposure’ would cost me dearly, punished with the cancellation of advertising budgets. Dalli was my wrong choice, as I would learn in later years (only last week, he called our newspaper ‘corrupt’); but the Gonzi-led PN’s reaction was entirely disproportionate. Apart from blocked ad campaigns, PN apologists like Lou Bondì and Daphne Caruana Galizia had been weaponised by the Nationalist establishment to hit out at MaltaToday.

MaltaToday’s zeal in spearheading the divorce referendum, which broke the Church’s soft power once and for all, had also revealed Lawrence Gonzi’s detachment from the changing times and even propelled Joseph Muscat to the fore. MaltaToday stood out from all the other newspapers during that 2011 referendum, and as it happens, intersected with the rise of Labour leader Joseph Muscat as a modern politician with a fresh, dynamic vision of Maltese society.

After almost 25 years of Nationalist power, Muscat was simply a more exciting proposal for any newspaper that sought change. We offered Muscat a platform in the face of accepted wisdom that the anglophone readership we nurtured would never support Labour. I think we suffered a lot for that, and certainly right after 2013, the PN and its zealots were further enraged at the loss of power.

Still, this newspaper has been a key player in some game-changing stories on corruption, conflicts of interest, and digging deep into human stories and uncovering damaging elements in society. As we live the radical shift from print to online and social media, the audience that reads us has also changed, as well as in the way they interacted with us.

The digital world has taken away much of what made the newspaper-people of yesteryear – back in the 1980s it was all about the smell of ink and paper, the din of the press, the brusque ways of journalists, the late hours and noisy newsrooms. It was pure adrenaline. In the digital world, the barriers between the newsroom and the reading public have been further taken down, the gatekeeping role of journalists radically redefines, and the 24-hour news cycle taking over journalists’ lives, and the social media commentary adding to psychological interference in our lives.

The values of that old newsroom cannot die: the intensity of a well-written piece lives on, but married to the digital story of audiovisual journalism. As legacy newspapers keep feeling their way about to rediscover their true role as quality media, the well-documented story will always be the one true consideration for journalists.