The Vukotić family is a renowned Montenegrin family whose origin dates back for 600 years. They were warriors, generals, dukes, serdars, skillful politicians, artists, sportsmen etc. Manojlo Manjo Vukotić (1938) is undoubtedly the most famous media arbiter in the former Yugoslavia. More specifically, he is the greatest master in journalism for the highest circulations of dailies. Vukotić was born in Cetinje, as the grandson of colonel Jovan and the son of Vukale, a law graduate and a high functionary in the Zeta Banate who experienced the fate of the most horrific Montenegrin divisions: at the beginning of the Second World War, three brothers joined the Partisans, while the fourth, Manjo’s father, joined the Chetniks. In May 1945, from Zidani Most, Vukale ran to Italy, then to America, where he was buried in the first row in front of the Nova Gračanica Monastery, on the outskirts of Chicago. At the time of the stern communist regime, Manjo was asked to denounce his father, and his mother to denounce her husband, which they never did. Manjo began studying world literature in Belgrade the year Danilo Kiš and Muharem Pervić finished it as the top graduates of the first generation. Throughout his entire studies, he wrote for Student, after which he moved to a city newspaper called Beogradska nedelja, and then to Večernje novosti.
“At the time of my arrival to Novosti, in September 1966, Novosti had already had a reputation and high circulation. According to today’s standards, Novosti was somewhat a yellow press paper, a sensationalist newspaper, a tabloid in a mild sense. However, it was a much more serious and responsible editorial concept than any other tabloid today. For example, Novosti had a column that was the forerunner of all modern columns on celebrities – Klub poznatih (eng. Celebrities’ Club) that was published every day. Once, when I was still young and pretentious, I complained at the editorial staff meeting about Lepa Lukić showing up in the column several times the previous week. That is when I learned a lesson I have never forgotten, taught by then chief editor Slobodan Glumac, my idol and my role model in editing: he invited me to his office – he didn’t want to say it in front of everyone – and said: ‘Maybe you don’t like the songs of Lepa Lukić, but she has sold 400,000 records. Someone who sells that many records has to be in the papers all the time. Novosti always has to be anywhere where there are at least a thousand people.’ And that editor of a ‘communist yellow paper’, Slobodan Glumac, translated Nobel Prize winners from the German and French language!”
Hand in hand with Borba’s and Politika’s schools of journalism, Novosti managed with its own profile to develop Novosti’s school of journalism. The most modern one. The most attractive one. Generations of journalists began learning the ropes there the moment they stepped into the editorial office. Everyone began with the Belgrade column. I remember when Dragan Jovanović (a NIN writer and columnist afterwards) came as a graduate of philosophy, I gave him to follow the events in the Savski Venac municipality. Young people learned from this, learned the tricks of the trade, the rules of the profession…This is the difference between today’s journalists and journalists of the time. Despite so many schools and faculties of journalism available nowadays, they enter journalism without knowledge, without general education, without enough wishes and ideas. Cold and flat. It’s important that they have a job. But journalism is not a computer task or a clerk register.”
When chief editor Mirko Stamenković made him editor of the Belgrade column, he told him: “Politika has a circulation of 100,000 copies in Belgrade, ours is 90,000. The task is to outrun Politika.” After a year, Manjo triumphantly showed that the circulation of Novosti in Belgrade outran Politika’s.
Personally, Vukotić liked culture and sports best, but he was also accomplished both as a journalist and as a chief editor who knew how to achieve high circulation with political events and topics:
“In Tito’s time, there were certain rules you had to follow. You couldn’t criticise Tito or the Yugoslav People’s Army, but you could write critically about almost everything else. Those who say they couldn’t, lie. Of course, you had to be ready to pay the price. There was a price for the free word as well.
Newly established and won freedoms could be recognized on every page of Novosti – from politics to sports. Novosti was the first to dare shorten Tito’s speeches. Why, Jovan Kesar and I cut Tito’s speech at the Tenth Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia from 120 down to 16 pages! Congressional speeches of party republic leaders could be reduced to one page. Or, photo-reports and photo-news from the country and the world were published in the middle pages, and along the entire height – a pretty girl. Truck drivers would cut out those nudes and put them on windshields. And the circulation – more than 300,000 copies. You know who the audience is, who to ‘target’, who to seduce. The editorial office was headed by strong professionals. They stood upright. They protected us. They defended concepts, ideas, they defended the mission. Without this, there is no freedom of journalism, not even in the strongest of democracies…”
A journalist can’t apply auto-censorship if they see their editor and chief editor don’t. Unfortunately, most of today’s chief editors do apply it. Well, that is not journalism. Not even its cheap replica. It’s like, instead of Lubarda’s painting, you have a gobelin of the painting. Tiny stitches
Vukotić believes nothing much has changed in the last twenty years of democratic government:
“Every multi-party government wanted to influence newspapers, expected their loyalty. The blindness of vanity. The delusion of upstarts. The ambition of the unintelligent. Many were pushing: leaders, bosses, counselors, PRs, deadheads… Back off! You make a barrier, a professional barrier, and there is no pass. Once, Tadić’s office wanted to stop an interview with him because I wouldn’t accept their title. Fine, I said, then there’s no interview. I am the editor of this paper, not you. You don’t like it – replace me. And that is how you win. During the election campaign, they asked us to report on and photograph some alleged students who protested in front of Toma Nikolić’s house and demanded to see his diploma. This is the best you got? We are not doing it. We are not going to do what the ministers’ offices ask. We have our concept. We have our views. We have our devoted readers. We are accountable to them. Without them, we too become servants in the government! There is no servitude. And, whether I’ll be chief editor – I don’t care. It is my temporary assignment, not a lifelong senator role.”
After so much experience and all the turbulences, the story of censorship in today’s journalism seems ridiculous to Vukotić:
“A journalist can’t apply auto-censorship if they see their editor and chief editor don’t. Unfortunately, most of today’s chief editors do apply it. Well, that is not journalism. Not even its cheap replica. It’s like, instead of Lubarda’s painting, you have a gobelin of the painting. Tiny stitches. This is, among other reasons, why today we have this theory that you have to support the government in order to make newspapers. Nonsense! This is good neither for the government nor the media. This was also demonstrated during the time of Milošević’s autocracy: media independent of the government had around 650,000 copies, while the state media had far fewer than that.”
Vukotić knew when to leave something out one day, so it could be published the next. He knew how to wisely use information that was to be hidden for a greater goal and interest. He was not reckless. He could recognize a good topic that would interest people, regardless of their social status and education. Following his basic principle of journalism to be in the service of truth, he cannot understand what he finds today:
“I cannot fathom that such huge amount of lies and fabrications is found in almost all newspapers, and that such insane kind of vocabulary is used. This isn’t journalism anymore. It has lost its fundamental principles, main goals, basic obligations.
It is easy to speak about and document the tabloidization of Serbian journalism today. It has even reached Politika. However, it is even more painful and difficult to talk about the tabloidization of Serbia, its politics, its society, its culture, its education… Those fountains of lies and deceptions “water” hundreds of thousands of people every day. If we have – a we do have – barren chief editors in the media, frightened and poor journalists, primitive and temporary media owners, those media cannot have a reputation, strength, trust, circulation… In such environment, among other things, two suppositions, two currents become widespread. First: if you support the government, you’re safe. Second: if you are gunning for celebrities and yellow press, you have circulation and income. Both these are lies. Both deny reality. Today, in Serbia, Informer (that costs 20 dinars) is the only daily that has more than 100,000 sold copies. And Novosti, and Blic, and Kurir, and especially Politika, have fewer than 60,000 sold copies. All three or four news weeklies don’t even sell 35,000 copies! The total circulation is lower than it was four years ago – almost by double! Therefore, there is no serious media power. They don’t play an important role. They’ve become episodists. It all looks like a puppet show. As such, it is an expensive, a very expensive children’s toy. And for that, a high price will be paid. It was so much easier, for instance, to ruin Novosti’s circulation and make it plummet by half, than it will be for anyone to turn it into a serious high-circulation newspaper again.
It is easy to speak about and document the tabloidisation of Serbian journalism today. It has even reached Politika. However, it is even more painful and difficult to talk about the tabloidisation of Serbia, its politics, its society, its culture, its education… Those fountains of lies and deceptions “water” hundreds of thousands of people every day
In response to the remark that the power of print media has moved to the other side, to the Internet and social network, CorD’s interlocutor says:
“It’s only partly true. I may be a conservative representative of the old school, but I don’t believe all those social networks and the Internet will outplay newspapers in semi-literate, underdeveloped Serbia. They have a wide reach, superficial and incomplete information – and not much further than that. Print media must find mechanisms to outsmart social networks. For that, you need ideas, creativity, imagination, will, concept… But there is no surrender and defeat. The front is open…
One of these ‘open fronts’ for Vukotić is culture and education:
“There are almost no pages dedicated to culture. They have been replaced by pages and pages on celebrities. From day to day, on an ever more regular basis, we read more about some unknown singers, on love affairs of singers’ children, birthdays, outfits, than about theater and books. Cheap, bad, distasteful, contagiously sick…When I recall that, for example, 30 years ago, theater critic of Novosti Žarko Komanin would immediately after a premier in the evening write 35 lines of review so that it could already be in the paper in the morning, I wonder: Why wouldn’t they do it like that now? Nowadays, there are no regular critics of theater, film, books. There are no names. No one to guide you, to show you the way, no one to teach you. Hundreds of scribblers are practicing, while great names have withdrawn. They have been banished by editorial philistines. Guides to tastelessness are being written for the audience. The so-called cultural columns are becoming flea markets.
Many do not know that Manjo is the author of some of the legendary titles in newspapers that can now be found in textbooks for the Faculty of Political Sciences. For Manjo, Novosti was his father and his mother. The rest were children. Witnessing the decline in circulation of this newspaper is difficult for him, both personally and professionally:
“There are some useful, rescuing moves that must be taken immediately. Borba Printing House is the ‘producer’ of 75% of the newspapers of the Novosti Company that is 80% stateowned. Just as the state has 30% share in Novosti, and in the third company, Borba, it has 100% share. They should be joined in one house that will be called Novosti. House Borba hasn’t existed for a long time. There is no parent newspaper Borba. The state must agree with the majority owner of Novosti, Miša Beko, on how to resolve this. “
Today we have this theory that you have to support the government in order to make newspapers. Nonsense! This is good neither for the government nor the media. This was also demonstrated during the time of Miloševi ’s autocracy: media independent of the government had around 650,000 copies, while the state media had far fewer than that
It was inevitable to ask him why he had not solved that while he was director and chief editor of the Novosti Company. The answer is:
“The documentation contains the first letter I sent to the Government of Zoran Živković in 2003, suggesting that those three companies join. And that they be called Novosti. Later, I wrote respectively to the federal and the republic government. Everyone agreed this should be done, but no one wanted to carry it out. When I came to the head of the entire Novosti house, in October 2000, everything was one stateowned house – the so-called Federal Public Institution Borba. It was managed by members of the Yugoslav Left party. Novosti drowned and even lost the status of a joint-stock company earned in 1992. They ruined the house in all aspects: financially, organizationally, professionally… We had to rebuild it, like after a war. A few years later, comprise was made in agreement with the government, but there was a turn of events: three companies were made. Novosti regained the status of a joint-stock company, and was given four semi-failed companies as ‘compensation’. Nonetheless, new restructuring was possible. And it was done.”
At the time, Vukotić believed that agreements with the state would be easier and that the state will leave the media on its own, just as it announced:
“It didn’t want to! It still believed it was all its. It returned nothing, it gave nothing. I decided that we should sue the state and get 10,000 square meters in Kosovska street (new part of the house). Later on, Borba Printing House (100% state-owned) also joined to fight for its 6,000 square meters. Everything was built with the money of these two companies. The state didn’t spend a dime. We won, twice in court, even though experts had been chosen by the court. In the end, a capital court decided that everything belonged to the state and that no further appeals were possible. I think they are possible. It should be requested and obtained. I don’t like to say it – through the Strasbourg Court. And why wouldn’t the state accept justice? Well, it couldn’t be ours in the time of communism. But it can be today. Just as it can in thousands of companies. Why can’t it be some sort of restitution? The state is returning villas, hotels, palaces to private owners, it is returning thousands of acres of land to the Church, it is returning farms to Germans in Vojvodina, why isn’t it returning this to those who built it, gave their money, their income, their work?! Here’s how it is, after 70 years of existence and operation in that house, Novosti does not own a single square meter! Just like Politika built a 25-story house, and the bank took the house from it, due to loans and interests, and made Politika a subtenant! But were the state to, for example, return that space to Novosti, the Company would be at least 30 million Euros richer. A healthier, or, a more desirable bachelorette. But it won’t, ‘it’s holding by thin air’, as Šotra would say. It has an unquenchable desire to manage, through its supervisory committees (to whom those houses give large appanages), but it hasn’t given and is not giving a single dinar. It’s not healthy!”
“Every multi-party government wanted to influence newspapers, expected their loyalty. The blindness of vanity. The delusion of upstarts. The ambition of the unintelligent. Many were pushing: leaders, bosses, counselors, PRs, deadheads…
From Tito to Vučić, there is no politician Manjo Vukotić has not met or known, or has even become friends with. Recalling those who have been either difficult or easy to talk to, he lists:
“It wasn’t comfortable dealing with Stane Dolanc, or with Nikola Ljubičić who acted like the second Tito. Or with Branko Mikulić. It was easy to agree on everything with Stipe Šuvar or Vidoje Žarković, get valuable information from them. I remember a very valuable talk with Milovan Đilas in the same office of Borba in which I later succeeded him. During Milošević’s rule, there were some decent people you could cooperate with, from young Ivica Dačić and Goran Perčević, to Milutin Mrkonjić or Dragan Tomić. I never talked to the members of the Yugoslav Left party, because it was the most malicious party present at the political scene. Afterwards, among the socalled democrats there were also those who were insolent, arrogant, presumptuous. It was easiest to work with the exceptional Zoran Đinđić, with whom I communicated on a daily basis if necessary. With Boris Tadić, I could always talk openly. When the Serbian Progressive Party came, as everyone knows, I left soon afterwards.
There have been many interlocutors on the long, constantly rolling conveyor that can speed up but rarely stops. They are not all politicians, of course. I have met, gotten to know and become friends with many writers, actors, painters, businessmen, sportsmen…”
There is no way Manjo will stop working. He says he will keep working until the rest of his life. Every day, he goes to work to his publishing house Vukotić media, in the centre of Belgrade, where he has published more than 70 valuable and interesting books in less than four years of its existence.
And, as always, he is optimistic:
“My every wish came true. Maybe there are some left. I would do almost everything all over again. Happiness is my companion, and work – my identity card. And I am still dreaming sweet dreams.”