Cash-strapped Weekly Battles to Offer Independent Conservative Voice

Interview

Csaba Lukács, managing director of Magyar Hang, in the paper’s former editorial offices. It moved premises this summer.

Newspaper publishers in the serious “broadsheet” category would argue it’s never been an easy business, made progressively harder with the advent of the internet, COVID, and now a dramatic rise in operating costs. In Hungary, arguably no paper has had it tougher than Magyar Hang, the Hungarian Voice.

“We like having an economist on the front page; it helps sales, impulse buyers, in these difficult times,” says Csaba Lukács, managing director of Magyar Hang, as he hands over the latest edition of his weekly.

We are in his modest District IX office, a 120 sqm apartment, in early September, and the front-page photo is of Péter Ákos Bod, Minister of Economy in the first democratically elected government of 1990 and later a governor of the central bank. Inside, Bod has a full-page article entitled, in Hungarian, “Orbán Should ask for Forgiveness.”

Lukács hopes Bod’s image will lift sales this week towards the 12,000 mark, a level that, reckoning with current operating costs, keeps the publication in the black and alive. Such circulation numbers may seem small for a country of nearly 10 million, but for Lukács and his team of 31 full-time staff, it’s no mean success.

“Today, most newspapers are sold in grocery stores, not at newsstands. But, when people are shopping, and they see the costs of cheese, bread, everything ever higher, they don’t buy a newspaper. They consider it a luxury,” he says.

Indeed, sales of daily papers in Hungary have fallen 60% since the onset of COVID, and the decline is ongoing: second quarter circulation figures of serious papers and magazines typically slipped around 2% on the previous three months. Even HVG, Hungary’s long-standing, high-quality weekly, shifted only 25,000 copies, according to the audited circulation figures compiled by the Magyar Terjesztés-ellenőrző Szövetség (Hungarian Distribution Monitoring Association or Matesz).

And as Lukács points out, in the last two months alone, two venerable weeklies, Figyelő and 168 Óra have moved from paper to online-only publications. A third, which he won’t name as yet, is likely to follow in the near future, he says.

Moreover, as a quick leaf through the 32-page latest edition reveals, Magyar Hang’s survival is all the more remarkable given its advertising revenues, because there are none.

“This year, so far, we have had in total less than one page of paid advertising. We are in September,” Lukács grimaces.

Independent Conservative

The reason, he says, lies in the paper’s origins (see box) and its editorial line, which is conservative but fiercely independent from and critical of the Fidesz government.

As a result, although the majority of Magyar Hang’s readership is middle to upper-middle class (60% of sales are in Budapest, most particularly in the wealthy Buda hills), according to Lukács, many companies “are afraid” to advertise for fear of upsetting relations with the government.

To illustrate his point, he tells the story of a visit to a major automaker, hoping to attract advertising.

“We showed the CEO our readership survey because we have good [knowledge of] what kind of financial capabilities they have. He said that we fit 100% into their advertising strategy, but, fearing the loss of state aid for a new plant he was planning, he would not risk advertising.”

Lukács admits that nobody knows “whether they will be punished or not,” but says almost none is “brave enough” to take the risk.

On a personal level, Lukács says he has been the target of libelous slurs, including accusations of being a pedophile by one pro-Fidesz journalist. He sued and won his case, though he’s still awaiting payment of damages.

His work for Magyar Hang has even divided his family, his brother accusing him of being paid by arch-liberal George Soros to write critical articles.

“I told him he was crazy. We no longer speak to one another,” he says.

Controversial Contributors

Criticism of the paper’s editorial line is not confined merely to Fidesz supporters, however. Some conservatives reject the paper’s more controversial contributors, notably columnist Róbert Puzsér, because of his coarse language.

Lukács admits Puzsér is “divisive” and is often not to his own taste but says he attracts “a certain kind” of reader.

“Half of our readers send us letters or telephone if we don’t publish him, the other half send letters and make calls if we do. Sometimes I try to smooth his opinion, but then we have problems with him about that. Unfortunately, among Hungarian columnists, this kind of language has become quite [normal],” he says.

Meanwhile, having mounted a successful subscription campaign to counter a sales dip after April’s election, the paper faces a new challenge in the form of a massive rise in utility costs.

The publishing company counts as a “large business,” and the first of the new gas bills has arrived: it is a fraction under HUF 90,000.

In a bid to offset rising costs, the paper’s shelf price has been hiked from HUF 640 to HUF 790, but this risks losing sales, particularly in deprived areas where the equivalent of EUR 2 is a significant sum.

The obvious answer to reducing costs would be to follow the herd and move online, but this goes against the team’s ethos.

“There are many older, rural people who don’t like to read online. It’s definitely important to serve them with the printed paper,” he says.

Can Magyar Hang, devoid of adverts, continue to provide an independent conservative voice in the future?

“I don’t know, to be honest. When we started, it was a [kind of] therapy because we had lost our jobs at Magyar Nemzet. I didn’t believe that Magyar Hang could survive for four years. That’s a miracle!” he says. “We will continue for as long as it is possible. We are extremely grateful to those 11,000-12,000 people who are still buying our paper. If they disappear, we have no plan B.”

The Origins of Magyar Hang

Magyar Hang’s staff were the chosen editorial remnants from another conservative daily, Magyar Nemzet, which experienced a turbulent period between 2014-2018.

Back then, Magyar Nemzet was owned by Lajos Simicska, a business-media magnate and long-time economic confidante of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As such, the paper had been the unofficial mouthpiece of successive Fidesz administrations.

However, in 2015 Simicska fell out with Orbán, and Magyar Nemzet, while maintaining a national-conservative line, became a harsh critic of the government.

But the editorial pivot meant the end of any advertising from government and state-owned companies. Immediately after the third successive Fidesz election victory in 2018, Simicska, unable to sustain the huge costs involved, pulled out of his media empire.

Having burned their bridges with any Fidesz-friendly publications, this left the Magyar Nemzet staff facing unemployment.

In response, fired up in the belief that the country needed a patriotic yet independent conservative paper, Lukács and some close colleagues determined to found a new publication. Working feverishly, with a shoe-string budget and a slimmed-down workforce of just 30, Magyar Hang was born within a week.

“We couldn’t find a printer brave enough to print the paper in Hungary; we had to go to Slovakia. And we were desperate for cash, so we all went out onto the streets to sell the paper,” Lukács recalls. “Some people called us traitors, others were crying and hugging us. It was a great experience.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 9, 2022.

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