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Thomas Escritt finds that the giants of traditional media are lossing out in the battle for virtual readers.
WHEN the Fidesz MP Róbert Répássy voiced suspicions of a Socialist campaign to disparage Viktor Orbán, his party's leader, the news portal Index.hu ran a story under the headline Return of the fake campaign.
Next to the article, there was an online poll. "What would you use to disparage Viktor Orbán?" the Website asked, letting readers choose between options including his wealth, his supposed "gypsy background," and - the winner - "his friends."
By way of balance, Index repeated the same question a few paragraphs later, asking how the site's readers would do down Orbán's opponent, Socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány. Would they focus on his business dealings before entering politics? His troubled childhood? His party colleagues?
It's an irreverent formula, mixing up-to-the-minute news and politics with sarcastic guides to the city's beer gardens ("Which beer garden is best on a bike? Where to find lawyers with literary interests?") and reader surveys hunting for "your favorite council estate." But it's also a successful one:
Index is one of the most successful Hungarian online news sites.
For many, Hungary's online news media is fast replacing the daily press. László Ress, a translator in his 20s, says he is attracted by the freshness of the online offering.
"The printed press tends to be conservative and unadventurous, so the attitude of the online media is more attractive." He describes the portal's news agenda as "high-end tabloid." Márta Seresi is another convert. "I only read the dailies if my parents get them."
For her, the advantages of online news are its immediacy - "It's sometimes superficial, but it's quick" - but she also concedes an environmental motive. "I always felt so guilty throwing away a stack of newspapers."
According to Alexa's world visitor rankings, Index and Origo, another news portal, have the highest numbers of visitors of all Hungarian language news-sites .
Other obvious destinations barely get a look-in. Népszabadság, the market-leading "paper of record" is around 20,000 slots further down in the world rankings, more or less in the same position as the Magyar Nemzet, the other major broadsheet.
The public broadcasters and MTI, Hungary's principal news agency, are even farther behind. When Hungarians want news, it would seem, they go to Index.
Things look different in much of the rest of Europe. Go to Google.co.uk and type news - the BBC comes first, then CNN. Then a list of American broadcasters, followed by the Financial Times in eigth position.
Traffic rankings show the same thing: the BBC's website comes first, the Guardian's second, and it's mostly the traditional media that follows in the web rankings.
It's little different in Germany, where the major news sources on the web are the e-branches of traditional media outlets like Der Spiegel and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The same applies to niche markets. Hungary has two financial dailies - Világgazdaság and Napi Gazdaság, both of which have extensive websites.
But the winner in the online financial news stakes is Portfolio.hu, which leaves the other two far behind. Balázs Sándorfi, Portfolio's editor, boasts of his site's having "more or less 100% penetration,"" in its target sector. His readers, he claims, are bankers and investors, "people who have a higher than average income - you could call it a premium reader base," meaning that advertising space on the site is valuable.
At the same time, the operation is relatively shoe-string, with just eight fulltime journalists.
Index is a larger-scale operation. According to Ákos Szabó, the portal's commercial director, there is a staff of 80, of whom around only a dozen are not directly involved in the editorial process. He argues that since Index predates the rest of the online news market in Hungary, it has decisively shaped the character of Hungarian portals. Index's routes go back to a publication distributed regularly on CD-ROM in the mid-1990s, which later evolved into a Website. It acquired its present form in 1999, when Index.hu proper was launched. Since then, Szabó argues, other companies have tried and failed to compete in the field.
The only other successful general portal is Origo - run and supported by Magyar Telekom - and even this does not compete directly. Though it originally had a news focus, it has since diversified into chat, entertainment and games.
Both Portfolio and Index belong to Kristóf Nobilis, an investor, who explained his purchase of the latter in an interview earlier in the year, saying that he took it seriously as a news provider. But others are not so sure. The media sociologist Péter Zsolt regards enthusiasm for Index and its brethren as a symptom of dumbing down in the Hungarian media. Not that he would use such a phrase.
"For the past 15 years, I've been watching the erosion of the Hungarian quality press," he says, adding that this is the result in a decline in journalistic ethics.
Newspapers, he argues, have aligned themselves not along ideological lines, but have let themselves be drawn into party camps. The public's dissatisfaction with this state of affairs has driven it into the arms of electronic competitors, he believes, adding that the traditional press is now read by people with a party allegiance.
"People who are keen on politics now insist on getting just what they want to read from their paper. Much of the public is fed up with the prestigious papers, and has turned to the tabloid press - and its more modern and active online equivalents - in a search for authenticity, not just entertainment. "I can imagine that the online tabloids could raise their game, and their readers might follow them, but for the time being they are too worried about their market to do this."