The flipside

Today I can say MaltaToday is a respectable liberal and left-of-centre newspaper with strong ideals and solid editorial direction. I do not meddle in its editorial affairs, but I definitely support it to a successful business model

Later this year, we will be celebrating MaltaToday’s 20th anniversary.

I started my own printed publication at the age of 16, soon learning everything (I thought) one should know about newsprint and design.

In the age of ‘pre-modernity’ for Maltese news, I was one of the first journalists to design the tabloid newspaper on an Apple computer. It was great fun: publishing to me then was about getting a message across, not about sophisticated prose. At 20, I was publishing a Maltese-language paper for a small political party, and four years later I launched and financed the bi-monthly Alternattiva, for Alternattiva Demokratika. It was an investigative newspaper that gave me the formative experience of irreverence which I have always cherished in journalism.

But it was also my first taste of how difficult and expensive it is to run a media product. Were it not for the contributors who wrote for no remuneration and the driving force of two to three people who worked for free, it would not have survived. The designer, proof readers, distributors and the printers had to be paid every month.   

When I left politics eight years later to take up journalism full-time, there were still bills to be paid for thousands of liri in debts accumulated by that newspaper.

In the late 1990s, I started to involve myself in the launch of various newspapers, among them The People and The Malta Independent, where I used my first-hand experience in print to propose business models of how newspapers could survive and make money.

One fine day I was approached by a publisher who asked me to launch a newspaper for him. The name MaltaToday was coined by him. I accepted, but a year later he ran into financial difficulties. So I did the unthinkable: I took out a loan and bought the title from him.

Overnight I was landed with a salary and printing bill and bank loan repayment. And the competition was tough.

Everyone belittled MaltaToday, the then ‘third’ English-language newspaper vying for attention, saying that it would die a natural death. Needless to say, there were many rumours that the newspaper was being financed by third parties, namely the minister John Dalli. It was hogwash. There is no secret in the fact that I was close to Dalli and supported his candidature for the PN leadership. But I never accepted any favours or contracts from him or his ministry.

In hindsight it was a mistake to support him. John Dalli let many people down, and it is a great pity that he allowed himself to be overtaken by ‘ego and greed’. Only last week he gave us notice that he will sue MaltaToday for describing him as ‘disgraced’. Well, the failure to see through him was mine and mine alone.

From Mediatoday’s inception, I created models to raise money for the products we produced, whether it was a boating magazine or business newspaper, or MaltaToday itself. But I was very careful to draw a very clear demarcation line between the commercial aspect of the company and the journalism of our flagship product and the editorial line.

Anyone who has worked at Mediatoday can attest that this has been the case, and that its newspaper editors are fiercely jealous of their independence. Which is how we like it, of course.

Of course, running MaltaToday as a print and online news title requires a whole lot more of financing, and it is in that sense that Mediatoday is responsible to finance such an important title by also exploring new publication avenues, as well as other projects. Most traditional publishing houses would have invested in property and other diverse business interests. Abroad, media houses have their own advertising agencies or belong to holding companies whose magnates have their own advertising agencies; newspapers like The Guardian were financed by the sale of GMG’s Autotrader print and online publication; other newspapers are backed by insurance companies, and other endless interests.

Even in Malta, you will find newspapers financed by their holding company’s interests in insurance; or major shareholders who own printing presses and even financial institutions. Not us of course.

But the point is: anything to raise money to pay for the salaries. In our case, it is not just through Mediatoday, the holding company for the publications; but also through related companies that handle business operations.

In 2010, at the 10th anniversary of MaltaToday, I officially passed the baton to Matthew Vella as editor of MaltaToday, who now is executive editor. I said that I would be there to continue inspiring young journalists to come up with ideas and make the company grow. I said that I would continue to write, opine and carry on with TV.

I have no apologies to make for the way I carry out my duty to finance this important operation. The routine in my job is cruel, relentless, makes no difference whether it is a Sunday or Monday, Christmas or Santa Marija, and does not tolerate long holidays or well-earned breaks.

When I moved out of editorial, my ‘new’ job put me into direct contact with the business and political community who use all their leverage to influence me. But as our editors said this week, the upshot to our editorial has been – and I say this with no shame – the most independent and fair.

Many people out there love us or hate us. But those who have cared to read us and follow our stories will know that we have tackled each and every story. We have put fact before fiction, truth before untruth, objectivity before bias and the reader before the advertiser.

There are a few statistics that will follow me when I bow out of this world. But I am the Maltese journalist who has received amongst the largest number of defamation cases in Malta, an expensive bill that has cost us hundreds of thousands, and in most cases, employed simply to coerce us into shutting up.

I have taken part actively in various media and community campaigns: the need to establish local councils, the removal of parliamentary privilege, the need to establish an environment impact assessment, the campaign for Europe Union accession, the campaign for divorce and the campaign for the abolition of spring hunting.

Today, after years of being one of the longest serving journalists in Malta, I am the owner of newspapers and online platforms. And that places me in a position where more politicians and businesspeople tend to want to have a word with me. It is an inescapable reality.

Today I can say MaltaToday is a respectable liberal and left-of-centre newspaper with strong ideals and solid editorial direction. I do not meddle in its editorial affairs, but I definitely support it to a successful business model. Mediatoday has other newspapers to tend to, such as Illum, MaltaToday Midweek and BusinessToday.

But the company that owns it is a diverse company that does everything: audiovisual productions, general publishing, TV scripting, polling, advertising and media-buying. Because it is a media company. And nothing will stop me from widening the scope of this business model to allow us to provide high-quality journalism in four of our newspapers and three online sites.

Age does wonderful things to people. In my case it has made me more cynical about those who lash out at us. I have argued that our critics from the competing media should be the last ones to cast a stone. Most of these critics have been involved in marketing projects that are at the heart of political controversy, serving previous and present governments and taking direct orders galore.

In our case we carry adverts and book adverts from clients, who are then – even on the same day of publication – bludgeoned in our editorials by a newsroom that never cared, let alone knows what the other business arms of the company are doing.

We could, if we wish, refuse this work as a matter of principle. But I believe this would be fiscal suicide.

And I understand that readers feel that my commentary last week may have hurt the dedicated and non-partisan activists who put themselves out there to make their views clear to the government. I can only say I never intended to belittle anyone. I have been there and I know what it means to be on the forefront of environmental protection.

In the past years, this newspaper was hammered incessantly by partisan elements that sowed hate and derision against us. It was the direct effect of what we did, prior to 2013, in terms of our role in the divorce campaign, our unveiling of corruption, the Enemalta oil scandal, and our general editorial drift in favour of liberal values. This partisan campaign to undermine MaltaToday had a lasting effect: people who have never read this newspaper simply have an image of us rooted in lies and fiction.

Bloggers whose own history of acting as PR agents and publicists (representing American bidders for MIA’s privatisation or the Rabat golf course entrepreneur) seemed to have a free hand in denigrating anyone for partisan gain.

Today I see history repeating itself, but with a difference. The people out there can make their own judgement.

Hand on heart, I can only say that in my history as a journalist I have contributed much more than anyone can expect in raising the level of journalism in Malta in print and online media. Many followed our style and irreverence.

I would love to go back to the days when I would work late at night, with a whisky next to a keyboard and a cigar (I did not smoke cigarettes) in some hand-made ashtray, arguing until a phone call from my patient spouse called me back home.

I have slept in a car in a secluded field, waiting for my source to turn up at 3am in the morning. I flew to Rome to collect leaked documents. I endured taunts, some death threats, close to a quarter of a million euro in defamation cases, commercial ostracisation and government boycotts, and SLAPPs (since way back we knew what they were).

That is not part of the past. These challenges continue today, but this newspaper is rooted in worthy journalism and supported by a good business model. It would be great to believe that the strength of a newspaper is only based on the quality of its stories and the dedication of its journalists.

It is, but the freedom of the press can only come about if there is a financial foundation that will keep the journalists going. And one that does not preclude them from losing their independence and impudence to state facts as they stand.