In many streets corners of Tirana, newspaper stands are illustrations of how the time of Albania's monolithic communist press has become history, also contradicting the gloomy future often predicted for the industry worldwide. In the capital's hip Blokku district, for instance, the kiosks show glossy magazines with their assortments of automobile, women, computer, and leisure titles. They are less numerous than in developed democracies, but leave a feeling of a vibrant industry.
Similar publications, some of which are familiar to western European and American readers, can be spotted in other limited places like the commercial streets of Durres, the second city and main port. Some Albanian names convey a local exotic touch (Klan, Spekter, Psikologji), unlike other magazines spotted even in areas not so much visited by foreigners (the original English-language, Italian, French, and even Spanish versions of Gente, Femme actuelle, Cosmopolitan).
More intriguing are the political dailies often displayed horizontally on tables - or vertically, hanging like cloths from a string - in front of the newsstands. They are plentiful, easily numbering more than a dozen, which is considerable for a country with only 3.6 million inhabitants. Their cover pages are also widely visible on Albanian television channels,which fill their news program every morning with endless press reviews quoting the main headlines.
Not less remarkable is the fact that print media's oversupply is not enhanced by low brow, yellow journalism. One can spot gossip outlets called Paloma or Intervista, but their presence is somewhat discrete, for the moment at least. Albania does not seem to have followed a strong pattern prevalent in other Balkan countries from Croatia to Romania, with the splashy presence of graphic papers. "One can say that of Kosovo [also primarily populated by ethnic Albanians], where most newspapers are based on a British concept, more tabloid-like. This could not succeed in Albania, because of the communist mentality and not because of Islam [the dominant religion]," comments Albert Gjoka, quality daily Albania's deputy editor-in-chief. "Rather we follow the Italian model with small pictures, big texts, and classical design."
Other serious newspapers with well-established brands include Shekulli ["Century"], Gazeta Shqiptare ["Albanian newspaper"], Zeri i Popullit ["Voice of the People"]. These names are familiar to anyone who wiki-googled the country's press before discovering it directly on the screens or in the streets. Other dailies may ring less a bell, whether they are called Panorama, Republika, or Tirana Observer (not written in English despite its name, and unlike the Albanian Daily News).
In the sport niche, the titles are far from being limited to Sporti Shqiptar [="Albanian sport"]. This is not surprising for a nation where soccer is worshipped everywhere, from district and village matches to international encounters (enhanced by highly visible betting stores and billboards). The self-described oldest Balkan sport paper - created in the 1930s before being shut down when the country became hermetically closed from the rest of the world - has been facing new competitors. Passerbys can spot names like Ekspres Sport, Metropol sport, Sporti & basti, Panorama sport. With its black and white cover page, the so-called Bota e sportit gives a now rare arch-communist flavor to the few kiosks where it is available.
At least 20 general news dailies
Even more than in soccer leagues, it is hard to establish a definitive ranking between the more than 20 general news dailies published in a country lacking audited circulation figures. Positions can change as quickly as the way players change clubs or editors switch to other newsrooms. From watching people in the streets or talking to journalists, however, the press league champion at the end of this first decade of the millennium seems to be Panorama. Shekulli has been at the top of the podium in the past years (if not the most profitable as its cover price is lower than many of its competitors'), but it is now joined - and maybe overtaken - by Panorama with circulation of 20,000.
Their closest and most respected followers, selling less than 10,000 copies, include the Italian-owned Gazeta Shqiptare (which set the tone for the new democracy's media, as many of its former editors now control other important outlets), Shqip or (same name in English) Albania. "Our price is about the double of the two best sellers', and the quantity of news we provide is longer, with 32 pages," says Dori Daka, Shqip's deputy editor-in-chief.
Panorama does not differ much from its peers in appearance, but it seems to be the most popular daily as also shown by an aged cloths seller met at the bazaar. A much younger journalism student, Elida Rustemi, says that she reads it "because it is more factual, less politicized." The would-be reporter attends the so-called UFO University, a private school based on Tirana's central Skanderbeg Square. "UFO" means "Universitas Fabrefacta Optime", and the institution is recognized by established journalists. But these abbreviations convey a feeling of strangeness.
There is definitely a sci-fi dimension in Albania's general news dailies, as they number immeasurably more than in European countries which are 15 to 20-times bigger in terms of population, such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and nearby Italy. Even including its multi-states 5 million-plus nationals living in Kosovo, Macedonia and other countries - who have their own dailies and can hardly have access to the print copies coming from Tirana anyway - the profusion of newspapers seems based on a model which could also be called UFO for "unlimited financing oddity".
Albania's high literacy rate of 99 percent may account for this huge number of publications, totaling about 70 for magazines and 90 for newspapers (the general news dailies representing one quarter of them). But western democracies have comparable education levels, and even considering a positive upshot after decades of tight dictatorship, it is hard to understand this business model.
A more valid explanation may be found in the sums invested by advertisers, at least for some activities. In the past weeks for instance, full pages have been taken over by a telephone company featuring Jim Belushi, the American actor. He is subject of national pride in this part of south-eastern Europe, as the son native Albanians. But this explains his widespread presence far more than the announcers' deep pockets. "Rates are very low, between 200 and 300 euros for a full back page color ad. Maybe 500 euros for the two dailies selling over 15,000 copies," comments Gjoka, who also manages online news agency www.alblink.com.
Many businessmen want to control their own daily
Just because there are so many papers, there are not necessarily that many readers. Circulation numbers rarely exceed 4,000 and subscriptions are non-existent or of a few hundred maximum; these dailies' newsrooms are usually not staffed by more than 10 reporters. "Only four or five out of the about 23 are really sold, and the total circulation is 100,000 maximum [which is comparable, per capita, to French national dailies' sales]," believes Robert Rakipllari, Panorama's editor-in-chief. "We have many newspapers because we are a new democracy and some businessmen want to have their own. It is good for their ego to see their cover pages mentioned on TV every morning, and they also like to have a pressure instrument on the government."
As a matter of fact, two of the three businessmen who founded Panorama in 2003, active in the construction industry, left shortly after to launch their own dailies, Tirana Observer and Metropol. "There will be a consolidation in three-five years, however, with less than ten dailies left on the market," Rakipllari anticipates.
Beyond this Darwinian fate, the Albanian printed media have also to cope with a malfunctioning distribution system due to the poor infrastructure in a land where half of the population is still rural. Despite some European Union pressure and assistance, there is a lack of cooperation within the industry. "The EU people did nothing to help improve Albanian papers' distribution," Gjoka says.
Albania has been a parliamentary republic since 1990, lagging behind its Balkan neighbors in their efforts to turn into a more modern economy and democracy. Unlike in most eastern European countries, only a few weeklies are available in many regions, and there was no media privatization after communism. The only papers which continued after the communist collapse are the Socialist Party controlled Zeri i Popullit and a few state-owned specialized periodicals (in military, education, research). "There are no regional dailies because the concept is connected to communist propaganda. They were about 26 in 1990," recalls Shqip's editor-in-chief Aleksander Cipa, who also presides over Albania's Union of Journalists and comes from Gjirokaster, a southern city close to the border with Greece. "This absence is mostly linked to market conditions, lack of demand, lack of resources", thinks Ilda Londo, the research coordinator of the Albanian Media Institute (AMI), which manages monitoring and training projects.
Most newspapers have to follow a political or business agenda, as pointed out in the rare surveys on the industry. There are no public subsidies officially, but print media are indirectly assisted through free or cheap access to office facilities, and through state advertising. This represents most of their revenues according to daily Korrieri's editor-in-chief, quoted in one of the last studies, released five years ago by AMI.
Last November, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), the network of editors and media owners, organized for the first time in Tirana a major international journalism event, its yearly "South East Europe Media Forum", focused on marketing and new platforms. The two day conference, hosted in conjunction with AMI, attracted over 300 media executives, journalists and press analysts from the region, and Albania's President Bamir Topi opened it. It was a major achievement indeed, symbolically at least, for a country confined in a safe rather than just behind an iron curtain until 20 years ago.
The event was co-sponsored by Germany's press conglomerate WAZ Medien Gruppe, which is very active in the Balkans and, interesting to note, has no assets in Albania's print media, only in television. Italy's Edisud Media, which publishes La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno just across the channel separating the two countries, is practically the only foreign investor as the owner of Gazeta Shqiptare. Unlike in other central-European countries, foreign control of the media is limited in Albania. The access is unrestricted, but in print journalism at least, they are still not attractive for potential investors from abroad.
Just two days before the conference, an incident in Tirana also highlighted the difficulties of running a newspaper: daily Tema's editor Mero Baze was physically attacked by an oil tycoon and his bodyguards. It was the most notable act of violence in months, by coincidence. Baze is known for denouncing cases of corruption also on television, and had to be brought to a hospital. This was not the first time that he was a victim of an aggression (and earlier in the same year, his daily had also been expelled from its offices based in a state-owned building).
The violence was widely condemned within and outside the conference, not the least by Tema's competitors. It also served as a reminder of past habits, when intimidation and self-censorship was notwithstanding much more widespread. "Albania is between the Bulgarian, organized crime, and the Russian, oligarchs' model," says Gjoka, whose newspaper promptly reacted, devoting its cover and the full page three to the attack. "We are also having new journalism schools created, like UFO University's, and our investigative journalism is in its first steps."
Going back to Tirana's fashion district, the boutiques hardly hide the old decrepit buildings behind or over them, which are like vestiges of communism. But the numerous titles on display in newsstands are not just façades either. In spite of being mostly financed by businessmen with agendas, or sometimes threatened by thugs who do not understand there are more subtle ways to defend their interests, Albanian dailies are definitely symptoms of a democracy in progress, where what is on print - more than on internet for the moment - is part of the political debate.