Reforming Media: Greece's Less Known Crisis

Greece's coverage by the international media outlets has been inversely related to the country's size. Indeed, the roughly 10.5 million population of this Southeastern European country has generated a significant volume of publicity in the last seven years. This publicity unfortunately reflected the country's failures rather than its successes -- namely, an economic crisis without precedent in modern Greek history, which has cost the country more than 25 percent of its GDP so far, along with significant levels of unemployment. Lately, a second crisis has emerged, reflected in the faces of thousands of refugees arriving on Greece's shores, seeking a safer future for their families and themselves.

Three bailout packages have been signed between Greece and its lenders since 2010, but the economic crisis remains to this day unresolved. Nonetheless, it is my firm belief that the Greek problem has not been properly captured and described even by expert audiences, that the roots of the problem are different than those typically discussed. And by that, I mean that Greece's woes have been mostly institutional rather than economic -- or, more explicitly, that the state of the Greek economy was the symptom, not the disease.

Institutions have been thoroughly discussed as a predictor of long-run growth in the academic literature, notably in the works of Fukuyama or Acemoglu and Robinson. Inclusive institutions are still a goal for Greece, not a given. And this is where the reform process should have been targeted, and it wasn't. One relevant example of a prominent institutional failure is the state of the media landscape in Greece, an industry which is essential not only on economic grounds, but for the proper functioning of a country's democracy.

Media has been badly regulated in Greece for decades. The discussion on media reform in Greece -- a country where the issue of media influence in politics has been at the forefront of political debate traditionally -- has opened in the last months. Nonetheless, it is my take that this discussion is starting in a manner which does not take into account the broader context in which it is being conducted.

Unfortunately, it is quite often that the domestic political discourse tends to disregard the international context in which it takes place. In reality, the discussion regarding reforms to the media landscape is one where national specificities are being encapsulated in an international discussion, where the political and the regulatory are adversely affected by the technological, where the forces of "creative destruction" and innovation are the dominant factors of the equation.

If my experience with 24MEDIA, or my involvement with digital media more broadly, has taught me something, it is that the properly defined boundaries between the different media -- the walls between them -- have collapsed. They have been superseded by life itself. Even in the recent past, in advertising, for instance, one knew that there had to be a different approach for radio, a different for television, for the internet, for newspapers. In reality, today, as citizens, we have become consumers of the same news item through different means, which are battling in equal terms for a piece of our attention, for a few seconds of our time either on the radio station we listen to in the morning while driving the car, or on the internet through our mobile devices, or by surfing the net on our office desktops, or on the 9 o'clock news on television. As media, we are now called upon to compete with traditional brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola or Apple, for a percentage of the consumer's available span of attention.

In what way can we ultimately achieve the "marriage" between advertising and content with the aim of achieving the best results? And how crucial is the role of social media? One way is the method of personalization, using a custom-made approach and increased personal targeting of content. For example, during Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, the Democratic Party's databases -- like Catalist -- were matched with data from social media, consumer data, and information obtained from the campaign volunteers themselves, in order to compile a comprehensive mapping of the electorate, which dramatically exceeded the information provided by polling results, along with their accuracy. Media such as the NY Times -- at the time via Nate Silver and his algorithms -- monitored this development from the very beginning, and to a significant extent, they managed to emulate it. This discussion is gradually opening up in Europe as well, and the privacy laws of the EU will soon have to evolve.

In Greece of course we are faced with additional hurdles, those of an economy in depression, of an unregulated media sphere -- for TV, the radio and the Internet -- but also of drastically diminished advertising budgets, which have adversely affected the media sector. Nonetheless, the quote about the Chinese character for "crisis" -- that it is expressed by two characters, one of which depicts threat and the other opportunity -- is quite known by now. It is time for us to begin capitalizing on the opportunity and not to let the crisis go to waste. We need to render Greece a creative policy and business laboratory in order to restore growth and put our people back to work. And we have been dramatically late in advancing solutions for this, generally across the Greek economy but also specifically in what concerns the domestic media scene.

More explicitly: although in Greece we often talk about the "establishment" and the "status quo," anyone who has managed in reality to advance in this country, and I dare say in any country, comes to realize that there is no such thing as a "establishment" or a "system," in the sense in which those who are outside of the arena imagine it to exist and operate. The "establishment" is something else. It is the way in which the leaders of a sector or a country conduct their business, their modus operandi, the rules by which they operate and their culture. And in this sense Greece is in a dire need of an overall change of system, generally but also specifically with respect to its media. And in fact, immediately.

In a recent opinion article at the Guardian, columnist Emily Bell wrote that the concept of the publisher in its traditional sense is over, that it reflects the values and the technologies of yesterday. It is obvious that by that she did not mean that the process of publishing content is over itself. She was referring to the degrees of freedom that a publisher has over the content managed by his or her organization. This is what we more explicitly describe as "political influence" of the publisher. The most significant decisions however, must increasingly be taken at the device level -- as showcased by Apple's recent judicial battle with regards to the security of its devices -- at the carrier level, and even at the platform level.

A few days ago, a UK phone company (Three) decided to block ads from all of its webpages viewed by its subscribers. Mobile advertising still only constitutes a small part of such companies' total revenues; however it is a piece of the pie that is constantly growing. I do not know if this policy will be contested by the relevant EU regulating bodies -- it may very well be so -- however it gives us a taste of what is really at stake in this sphere.

To conclude, we increasingly need 360° organizations which can combine the different elements of messages and trigger different experience. Therefore, in this sense, and to the degree in which we are slightly lagging behind in Greece, as a broader media sector we must have our ears open and bring about a shift. This shift refers to how we, ourselves, will choose to act in relation with the state. Will we seek a narrow income-focused approach based on the traditional terms of influence? Or will we try to contribute to the construction of a serious institutional framework, consistent with international developments, which will bring about smart regulatory policies for each technological medium? Is the issue at stake here just the outcome of another game? Or perhaps is it the establishment of healthy rules to a game that is constantly changing, in an arena which is, in itself, unstable? Such questions, in my opinion, should prove rhetorical in the time to come. And media reform should prove to be a crucial parameter to the overall national reconstruction effort, and, specifically, a positive one.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Greece. It has been translated into English