A Year as a Foreigner in the Croatian Media: Total Croatia News Turns One

Total Croatia News

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Total Croatia News celebrated its first anniversary on July 8, 2016. Some reflections on running a Croatian media portal as a foreigner.

It seems only last week that I was sitting on the disused watertank in Jelsa’s main square chatting to HRT presenter Karmen Sore, as we launched our latest website, Total Croatia News, live on the national television show, Hrvatska Uzivo. 

It was a busy day for Jelsa and the television cameras, with another HRT crew also in town, for the filming of a summer tourism programme, Susur, which was partly filmed live, and partly from some pre-recorded material. A busy media day, and a sign of what was to come.

Looking back, I can’t quite recall what my expectations for TCN were exactly. It just seemed the right thing to do. Apart from one good website covering lots of sport, tourism and lifestyle stories, there was nothing meaningful out there in English regarding news about Croatia, apart from tourism promotion websites. Now over two years in the EU, this seemed both a little strange and a potential opportunity, so I put together the concept for the site with my Croatian partner, and then used my almost non-existent connections in Zagreb to seek help and advice to turn our idea into a national portal. 

“Avoid politics at all costs,” was the first piece of advice.

“Great idea, but steer clear of politics,” came the second. 

“If you start writing about politics, you will be dead within a year.” There seemed to be a theme. 

Although my knowledge of Croatian politics was close to zero, it would be hard to build a credible news portal without covering politics, especially in an election year. We decided that the best way to compromise would be to cover politics through direct coverage of the national media, from all sides – a policy that might have worked well and pleased everyone in a country that was not Croatia.

I have read with much amusement the many comments over the last twelve months on my political affiliation, financial backers and secretive mission with Total Croatia News. I truly do have to give credit to the conspiracy theorists who insisted I was a British spy in the pay of George Soros, working for some place called Greater Serbia to destabilise my adopted home country, when in reality the idea for Total Croatia News came after one cold one too many at The Office on a Friday lunchtime. Of course I was a Communist, or some days a Fascist, but mostly a Communist, so much so in fact that when a Croatian friend of mine visiting London spoke to someone about this website, she was asked if it was run by that ‘Commie Brit.’ Being British and writing about Croatia seems to offend a large minority of people here (or perhaps more so in Australia – although I don’t feel very British any more and had no particular interest in Brexit, for example, I do sometimes wonder how the abuse would have been different if I had come from somewhere like Western Samoa).

I was entering a world from which I had been more or less sheltered in my happy tourism promotion bubble of Croatian happiness, and the last year has certainly been the most eductional, fascinating, eye-opening… and abusive of my 14 years in this fair land, and whether I would like to return to my happy tourism promotion life or not, I know that this is no longer possible after my experiences of the last year.

Of course, starting a news portal just as the elections were starting, and the farce that followed – both the attempts to form a government and what passed as six months of government after that – it was hard not to get sucked into the politics. A successful application to be a Google News partner meant that our news reached a much bigger international audience, as well as being noticed more nationally, as friends started complaining that TCN articles were clogging up their Google Alerts. Excellent and thorough coverage of the election results and immediate aftermath by Danni ensured that we were picked up by many of the international media networks, and so a new phase was entered. 

Covering the politics then became easy, with the biggest decision of the day being to judge whether or not the stories being generated in the new Balkan Alice in Wonderland were real or placed there by satirists. At times, it was really hard to tell. And then of course, the accusations of political bias from Sydney. I actually agreed that the site was a little more left-leaning that I would like, due to the volunteer contributors rather than any editorial position (TCN is as apolitical as its editor), and I invited our detractors to even things up with coherent contributions of their own. One promised he would do just that, send in his profile and first contibution within a week. Almost a year later, we are still waiting, and I suspect we always will, as it appears that whinging from the sidelines is a more attractive pasttime. That for me is one of the tragedies of modern Croatia. So many people willing to accentuate the negatives and hatred from distance, rather than move back and play their part in building a prosperous modern Croatia. A strange type of patriotism. Not that I am allowed to have an opinion of course, a discussion in a recent editorial which also got national coverage

We were fortunate to have some early exclusives, and as we were the first in the world to report Demi Moore’s arrival on Hvar, it was an important moment for the site, to see the tens of thousands of hits coming to the site, from Jutarnji, Vecernji, Index and almost every national media. We had been ‘noticed’. Celebrity sightings are one thing, but I soon realised that the more popular one became, the more likely it was that a more controversial article written over a cold one could end up as front page national news. Something as innocuous as the Jelsa Christmas star for example.  

Reporting on the removal of Communist stars was one thing, but when a foreign-owned portal aimed its guns at a state institution, that was also headline news, although I am happy to report that the end result of our constructive commentary on the tourism project Croatia 365 has been some very constructive dialogue, resulting in a partnership on an initial project between the Croatia National Tourist Board and TCN. More details shortly.

But to criticise Croatia or Croatians as a foreigner, whether constructively or otherwise, can only bring one result – torrents of abuse, as well as the great Croatian protective mechanism, the policy of deflection. Rather than acknowledge a crticitism here (unless the person criticising is local, of course – different rules), the best form of defence is attack. What about X? Why criticise Croatia when Britain’s record is Y? Again, how the reaction would have been had I been Western Samoan would have been interesting. It is for me one of the reasons why Croatia will struggle to move on – as a nation it is allergic to any type of criticism from abroad, even when it is done constructively. 

But through the wall of hate, the brightest finding of the entire year – a whole level of amazing people in this country who have had enough of the politics and the nepotism, and who are existing outside the system, and whose positive energy, properly harnassed, could be a real dynamo for this country. Instead, these bright young minds have either already emigrated or are planning to do so. With such a polarised and politicised society, chances of progression for the apolitical and unconnected are slim, and the many messages of support have not only far outweighed the hate, but also led us along a path of new projects, with dynamic and motivated partners. Total Croatia Cycling, Total Croatia Wine, Total Croatia Technology. Coming to an Internet near you soon, and all these sites have one thing in common – not an ‘uhljeb’ in sight

But the biggest success of the first year has undoubtedly been this website being a bridge between Croatia and the world in terms of news. So many great stories in Croatia have remained just there, due to them not being available also in an international language. I can think of no better example than of the case of the ‘journalist’ from The Sun, who claimed to have gone from Istanbul to Paris in six days without showing his passport, travelling through Croatia by hiding in the toilet. A translation of Index’s article on the subject exposing the truth (and leading to a change in editorial policy from The Sun) was one of the most popular articles ever on the site, and our subsequent editorial on the subject was quoted in The Huffington Post. In the last three weeks, we have been contacted by three different branches of the BBC (sport, current affairs and wildlife), for example. The increasing links with the international media are welcome and important, but they come with a responsibility, a responsibility we take very seriously. 

A word of thanks to our fabulous team of contributors, as without them, there would be no chance of sustaining such a project. From our diligent translators to our many volunteer contributors, the variation in contributions – both in topics and location of contributor – has been truly humbling, and I would have laughed on that water tank with Karmen in Jelsa a year ago if you had told me that we would have over 50 contributors in our first year, including a former prime minister, former foreign minister, current head of a political party in the government coalition, and several senior names from other aspects of society in Croatia and its diaspora. Thank you one and all, I am very grateful to each and every one of you. 

A word too on the Croatian media, which I am getting to know a little better. Some have welcomed us on a friendly level (and large gold stars go to Index and Dalmatinski Portal, some have taken the opposite approach, and had probably better not mentioned). It seems as though we are here to stay, and seeing the same faces at various press conferences indicates that it is quite a small community. TCN is – and always has been – open to discussions on cooperation, and I would hope this will intensify in year two.

And what of the future as we enter our second year? More of the same, is the plan, not that planning has ever been a particular strength of mine. With a new election campaign about to start, it is certain that politics will vie with the Olympics for the top stories, but we intend to be as broad in our coverage of all things Croatian as our meagre resources allow. And if you don’t like what you read, or have something to add, the platform is yours. As long as what you have to say is coherent, newsworthy, well-written and not from the Donald Trump book of insults, it will almost certainly be published. Get in touch via [email protected]  

From all the team at TCN, we thank you for all your interest, support and constructive criticisms during our first year, and we look forward to growing together what has been the most fun project of my life so far.

Here’s to a successful Year Two. Cheers!


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