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Neos board member Zielina warns of "super editor in chief" for ORF

Anita Zielina (41) is one of 35 who will determine the head of Austria's largest media group, which weighs around one billion on August 10. At the end of 2020, the Neos sent the digital expert, who heads advanced training for media executives at the City University of New York, to the ORF Board of Trustees.

Zielina took over the mandate on the ORF committee from Hans Peter Haselsteiner, who also declared his retirement in STANDARD with the fact that in 2021 Chancellor Sebastian Kurz "like Caligula with thumbs up or thumbs down" will determine the next ORF boss. Foundation councils close to the ÖVP have the necessary majority without any other couleurs. So far, only the Social Democrat Alexander Wrabetz, who has been in office since 2007, has declared that he is applying again.

What did the Neos Zielina give for their ORF task? "You did not want to occupy the position politically, but with the knowledge and experience of media, digitization and transformation from an independent expert," she says in the STANDARD interview.

Of course, agree

"Of course I will discuss the big votes on ORF with media spokeswoman Henrike Brandstötter and party leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger. That is clear, and I see that as a commitment. But otherwise the Neos won't tell me what to do" ( laughs). The law obliges the foundation councils of the ORF to work independently and without instructions in the most important ORF body.

In the STANDARD interview (below), Zielina works out a requirement profile for the next ORF boss. In the future multimedia newsroom, it is clear to Zielina: "Of course this must not lead to a super-editor-in-chief who governs all media. There has to be a management team for political hygiene - and because the challenges are journalistic, commercial and technological at the same time."

ORF General Wrabetz has so far spoken of a management team for the newsroom.

"Of course there is still a long way to go before ORF": Zielina in the STANDARD interview

DEFAULT: What is your first impression of the Board of Trustees?

Zielina: An extremely professional and constructive discussion, in which many also contributed.

DEFAULT: What are the first findings about the ORF, from the inside, so to speak?

Zielina: I have had access to the essential documents since February and am now having conversations with many people from the ORF who have approached me, who are happy that someone on the committee is also dealing with digitization and transformation.

DEFAULT: Is the ORF up to date when it comes to digitization and transformation?

Zielina: Of course, there is still a long way to go before the ORF - as is the case with many traditional media companies I work with: it is right in the middle of it all. This does not make it very different from other public and private media companies.

DEFAULT: So what is to be done?

Zielina: The ORF has to create this transformation in the next few years, with new structures, new processes, new roles, new workflows and a new culture in a traditional broadcasting company. It must be clear on ORF that this is not a purely technical, not a purely structural process.

DEFAULT: And is that already clear on ORF after your first finding?

Zielina: I can't say that for ORF yet. But I see the mistake of some traditional media companies that investing in technology is the crucial step. With a new multimedia newsroom and a technologically modern ORF player, the transformation does not yet happen automatically. These are just two pieces of the puzzle. Everyone's work will change over the next ten years. That doesn't happen by itself, it takes day-to-day persuasion. That takes a lot of energy and strength.

DEFAULT: As a member of the board of trustees, are you already confronted with calls for help from the company? Motto: Help, I can't go with you, that's nonsense?

Zielina: I have not yet felt any fear, rather tense, perhaps tense expectation, rather hopeful, but partly also unclear how this will work. Uncertainty is always part of such change processes.

DEFAULT: Isn't ORF a little late? I've been hearing the plans for ORF video platforms with interaction and recommendations for a decade.

Zielina: I haven't looked at the ORF for ten years and haven't been to Austria for nine years. The ORF is not in a position to sit back and relax. But I would say that about almost any traditional media company. One can see transformation as a painful, must-do process and wait until it has to be. Or you can see it as an opportunity to at least partially reinvent yourself. These are usually the companies that master such processes better.

DEFAULT: Has Markus Breitenecker already called you, who is not so far from the Neos? The managing director and master builder of Austria's largest private television group ProSiebenSat1Puls4 has already thought a lot about the public ORF over the past few decades.

Zielina: No, we haven't chatted yet.

DEFAULT: What did the Neos give you for your role as a member of the foundation board at ORF?

Zielina: The Neos have explained to me that they want to fill the position differently from what we would usually do in Austria. Not partisan, but with knowledge and experience with media, digitization and transformation as an independent expert. I would not have said yes if I could not cope with the basic media policy positions of the Neos. Of course, I will discuss the big votes on ORF with media spokeswoman Henrike Brandstötter and party leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger. That is clear, and I also see that as a commitment. But otherwise the Neos won't tell me what to do (laughs).

DEFAULT: Do you have the impression that expertise was also decisive when filling the remaining 34 ORF foundation boards - as far as you have already got to know them. The Neos have often criticized the party politicization of this body.

Zielina: The party politics is already evident in the structure, in the posting mechanism. It shouldn't be. It has nothing to do with the quality of the people who are now on the committee. I have now been on this body once and have spoken longer with four or five members of the Board of Trustees. I would not presume to judge competence in the whole organ. Everyone I've spoken to is committed and competent. Criticizing the structure and the appointment process does not mean criticizing the members of the body. It is a question of political culture to appoint differently to a supervisory body.

DEFAULT: Namely how?

Zielina: Similar to stock corporations. A general assembly elects a presidium by means of transparent and international tenders. This in turn appoints a board of directors.

DEFAULT: In August the current board of trustees will - also with your vote - make a fundamental decision about the future of the company: Who will lead the ORF as general director for the next five years from 2022. How will you decide?

Zielina: An essential part of this decision is missing: Who is actually applying? In any case, I don't see any signals for a General Director at the moment.

DEFAULT: One or the other can be seen. But you may have already thought of criteria according to which you will decide.

Zielina: Whether the same general or a new one: I see some crucial points for such an order, all from the perspective of the transformation process. Talent is a big topic. In the next few years, 600 people will retire on ORF. This opens up a lot of leeway to bind young, enthusiastic, digital people to ORF and to give them opportunities and responsibility. And at the same time to create perspectives in digitization for the many committed people at ORF and to impart the necessary skills to them. This is a great opportunity to redefine the roles at ORF - from digital storytelling to digital marketing. For this I want to see a concrete plan from a new General Director - also with clear ideas for diversity.

DEFAULT: Is that how you get your vote?

Zielina: I also want to know from a new CEO: Who is leading this major transformation process, how is it being supported, how is it being budgeted? A multimedia newsroom and a convergence process must not be a mere savings process. I want to know where the investments in innovation and cultural change are. Another central point for me is relevance. Digital platforms are not just about 18-year-olds: How do you manage to remain relevant for 25 to 45-year-olds? This has a lot to do with user-centered work, with dialog with the audience during product development. I want to know all of this from a management team, a general manager.

DEFAULT: Her predecessor, Hans Peter Haselsteiner, left the Board of Trustees with the conclusion that he could not do anything for depoliticization in this body, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will determine the next ORF general over the ÖVP majority in the Board of Trustees with the thumbs up or down Roman emperors in the arena.

Zielina: I don't go to this body hoping for formal influence. I am just one voice among many. But with discussions, alliances, and shared access to topics such as digitization and diversity, you can also make a difference in committees. And I want to be the contact person for people on ORF about digitization from other companies, for example in the USA.

DEFAULT: Which company could ORF orient itself to? What would a role model be? Where should the ORF look?

Zielina: There is no blueprint for successful transformation. An infinite number of media companies do certain things well. Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk, for example, has built up a fairly strong and fairly well-paid innovation and transformation department. You can get inspiration from this and ask: Where is this department at ORF? The Washington Post has made an extreme leap in terms of digital marketing and target audience work. You can see how the "Zeit Online" started a dialogue with the users. One can ask whether the state studios cannot be exactly this ear on the pulse of the local communities and do hyper-local local journalism.

DEFAULT: The regional publishers traditionally important in terms of media policy are probably less likely to like to hear that now. You have to ask the representative of a liberal party in ORF about the financing of the fees. Is it still up to date?

Zielina: I am not a party member and I am not committed to the Neos party program on every point. It also does not provide for an abolition of GIS fees. I firmly believe that one should not rely on the market alone to finance public service broadcasting. I live in the USA and see what happens to the media when you rely solely on the market. We have four years behind us with Donald Trump, which have shown us a TV landscape in which there is no longer any independent, only left or right, for or against. I don't want Austria to be like this. Here you can see what that does to political culture and society.

DEFAULT: So still the GIS fee?

Zielina: In the cultural sector and in the media sector, I consider basic state funding to be necessary and correct - as is the case in health. The question is: is the fee model the most effective and efficient for it? From my point of view, a household tax like in Germany with social cushioning is the more effective model. The subject has to be discussed.

DEFAULT: In the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, funding from the federal budget was an issue.

Zielina: The massive difference is: fees are dedicated and taxes are not. I consider ORF tax financing to be extremely dangerous if an ORF director general has to go begging to the finance minister in every budget period. Austria already has a cultural problem with the influence of politics in the media sector. Budget funding would add fuel to the fire.

DEFAULT: Speaking of influence: soon after the appointment of the ORF general from 2022, ORF will have a key editorial position - managing the common newsroom across all ORF media.

Zielina: I am not giving away a secret that this topic is to be discussed fundamentally again in the ORF Board of Trustees in June, in the last meeting before the appointment in August. I actually think that's a key decision. Of course, this must not lead to a super-editor-in-chief who governs all the media. Everyone in Austria for whom independent public broadcasting is important is agreed on this. But a pure matrix, where 20 people have the same amount to say, carries the risk of chaos and constant conflict. There has to be a management team - for political hygiene, and at the same time because the challenges are journalistic, commercial and technological. (Harald Fidler, May 20, 2021)