Maxim Behar: Novinite.com is a One-of-a-kind Media Phenomenon
The Novinite.com’s founding father, Maxim Behar, about the start, freedom of the press and novelties in PR business…
The first English-language media in Bulgaria Novinite.com turns 20 tomorrow. What are your memories of March 12, 2001, your launch day?
That day had at least a year's history behind.
I was very keen to start a small daily newspaper in English for foreigners in Bulgaria, who were not all that many at the time. Throughout my professional life of a journalist, I had only worked in daily newspapers, and of course I knew how to do it...
We discussed this project quite often with my unforgettable friend and mentor late Dimi Panitsa, who at the time often dropped over for dinner to our small apartment downtown Sofia.Dimi had a sharp nose for everything related to journalism and encouraged me in moderation as he thought that I won’t tackle the project marketwise.
When I sent him the ready clipsheet of the daily – which then was titled Sofiа Morning News – he called me up and said, “Maxim, I’m going back to Paris, I Ieft you a note at the reception desk of the Sheraton hotel with my opinion about your newspaper. Come to pick it up when you have time…
I went there right away, the receptionist gave me a big glossy Manila envelope, I took out the clipsheet carefully andthe sight of it broke me into cold sweat: all over the front page Dimi wrote in English with thick red felt pen, “Don’t do it! It will be waste of time!”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so thrilled about the idea of launching this newspaper and he nipped it in the bud. However, in two or three days I realized that my friend Dimi was absolutely right. This project was doomed to fail miserably within a couple of months. The Internet editions were making ground little by little and hardly any foreigner would agree to wait for a fresh newspaper to read what’s going on in Bulgaria, anyway their secretaries would have fed them the news first thing in the morning…
So, one morning I came to my office and opened the door of the Internet Department, my eyes sparkling. Milena Trapcheva, the then director, an amazing person and real professional, understood right away that something was brewing, then I shoot out, “Go and buy novinite.com. Now! We are starting a new project…”
And so it happened.
What was actually the first news published in Novinite.com?
It all happened naturally and quite logically. Our PR Company, M3 Communications Group, Inc., had to organize an opening ceremony for the first Radisson Hotel in Bulgaria and it was a real high-profile event for Sofia. I went straight to the office after the morning opening for journalists was over and Milena broke the news: the site is ready for a launch but we need at least one news to start it off… Thus, the first Radisson hotel in Sofia became the first headline in the newborn Novinite.com. On March 12 exactly 20 years ago.
How has the site developed over the years?
It seems to me that Novinite.com managed to retain its independence, its neutral and informative style. During its first years it was a unique source of information, moreover we were very lucky to have really good journalists in its management team – the first editor-in-chief Martina Yovcheva, who left this world too early, her successors on the post, Ivan Dikov, Milena Hristova, Angel Petrov.
All of them are highly educated and skilled journalists, people of high personal integrity and broad knowledge in many spheres. I set great store by the team’s professionalism and held sacred the independence of the team from the publisher. I and my colleagues were (and now are) always in the thick of events because we knew that our mission is extremelyimportant – to a great extent we shaped the opinion of the world about Bulgaria, were responsible for how investors, diplomats, politicians or tourists see our country…
I am sure that there was no foreign ambassador or businessman (and it is true now, too) who wouldn’t start the day with novinite.com.
Over 20 years now, for many of them our site opens automatically as soon as they switch on their computers and this tradition is passed down from diplomat to diplomat to this day… If our site were not independent, authoritative and professional it would have never been so popular, widely read and quoted…
Actually Novinite.com reached the peak of its popularity two years later, on 3 April 2003, when I called up Martina at midnight from Hilton hotel in Athens, where I took part in a conference of The Economist, just to quote the then US vice president Al Gore whose words, most likely by chance, were cited in the international information pool and (as Milena Trapcheva told me an hour later) all our servers “went up in smoke”…
The very fact that Novinite.com became the most recognizable Bulgarian media outlet in the world made us feel even greater responsibility, but it also made us very proud (and proud I am now) that we have created such a wonderful media product. And nowadays, when I am no longer part of the team, I see that it is getting increasingly better with each day, it has retained its independence and to a great extent has become a standard of quality journalism in Bulgaria and not only here.
How has media environment in Bulgaria changed over these two decades? Do the trends in Bulgaria differ from those across the world?
In 1999, I gave an interview for a then startup online edition and said that print media are apparently becoming history and I don’t believe they would last for another twenty years. Then many of my friends called me, all the lot mad at me, and reminded that after all I myself started off with a job in a daily and it doesn’t become me to say such things. However, it was so obvious. First of all, the online media are thousand times faster. Second, they are free, interactive and are a magnet for advertisers.
Practically speaking, the last factor, advertising activity, is the most important of all. The newspapers were - and still are - a wonderful mass media, if we count in the emotional elements, such as the smell of ink, the rustling sound of paper when you relax on a sofa and open your favorite paper…
Nevertheless all this is irrelevant for the advertiser. It is them, the advertising space buyers, who all of a sudden found their “promised land”, where they can place their ads at affordable prices, and it would be interactive, i.e. with one click you can buy their product and, what is most importantр it enables them to assess with а great degree of precision who saw their ad and who bought the product… So, the newspapers really offer good journalistic work, but they do not have ability to withstand because without advertisers’ contribution they have to set a price at, let’s say , in order to survive.
Understandably, none of them can afford it. In my opinion, the online media in Bulgaria are on the upswing, however, I have always insisted that their ownership should be fully transparent. This is the only way to ensure their independence, or dependence, for that matter, at the same time it would be clear who bears the responsibility for the fake or misleading news.
In the last 20 years the world and Bulgaria have lived through a number of crises and currently we witness yet another one. How did they impact the mass media?
No doubt, the crises invariably affect the media and the impact is always negative. In my estimation, though, this particular crisis caused by the Covid pandemic has had a beneficial effect on the media environment and has further accelerated the evolution of online communications, learning, pooling of interesting data… We all understand that the mass media have undergone revolutionary changes.
Only ten years ago all media outlets were under the control of several publishers who in fact used to set the public agenda. Currently there is a total of about four billion publishers and each of them has his or her own social media, profile, group, media space and, if these people show enough intelligence, they can exert influence over millions of readers. In 2020, the pandemic stepped up this process, social media are evolving day by day, as new and newer sites are sprouting and everyone who wants to take part in this race, want to be part of the media market or even to peddle influence should keep abreast with this process.
I feel very optimistic about the new media, the actors on the new media market become increasingly mature, more experienced and the end of the fake news is drawing near having in mind the scaled up personalization of each social media and prompt exposure of fake profiles or users hiding behind anonymity.
Recently there has been a nascent conflict between mass media and social networks. The situation in Australia appears to be most serious, but we also witness similar conflicts in Europe. In your opinion, how will this situation develop in the near future?
I think there is no conflict, only misconception. Some people believe that the traditional media are leaving the stage forever and only online media will run the show. At that, they will fully move to the social media. The readers, markets, advertisers, all want transparency, clear-cut peoplemetrics methodology and assessment of effect and personalized opinions from real-life profiles of live people. And now only and solely social media can provide it.
You have been running a thriving PR business too. How has it changed from 2001 onwards?
There have been drastic changes.
What we are doing now in my company M3 Communications Group, Inc. has nothing to do with what we were doing just five-six years ago. And the key, again revolutionary change, comes with the total change in media ownership and the fact that we, all the PR experts, as well as our customers, have immediate access to media and in practice own them. On social media, online environment, everywhere. Owing to this fact we have, to a great extent, changed from consultants to publishers, editors and reporters at the same time. Publishers, because each of us owns a social media, editors, because we have to post professionally written texts on these media and finally – reporters, because no one will read our news if it is not authentic news.
Our basic activity as modern PR experts stems from this fact, and this is creating real stories (story telling) that would be interesting, novel, true to life and catchy. To me this business is not anything new, I have devoted at least 20 years of my life to journalism and now I am happy to upgrade the skills I acquired as journalist, including when founding and managing Novinite.com.
Let me conclude with some wishes to novinite.com.
To the team – be professionals, independent and interesting. To the readers – be very exacting, never miss to tell the editors what you expect of them, you have a perfect opportunity to do it through feedback. And to the management – every day you should put another brick into the Chinese wall dividing you and the editorial team who have to feel free and voice their professional opinion at large just like their conscience dictates. Don’t forget that media must always be a corrective, in this sense, media are a controlling power, fourth or whatever, but their work has to be really professional, honest and transparent.
Read the interview at Novinite.com