Newspaper Shakeout in the Baltics

Article excerpt

With the coming of spring comes the moment of truth for scores of newspapers in the Baltics.

A shakeout of massive proportions is around the corner for the dailies and weeklies that sprang up almost overnight in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the past year.

Last August, as the former Soviet Union began to crumble, the three small republics on the Baltic Sea declared themselves independent of Moscow. After a half-century of subjugation, first by the Nazis, then the Soviets, the winds of democracy swept like an Oklahoma twister through this ancient corner of Europe.

Now, with a harsh winter behind, comes harsher reality. With freedom, and the free market economy, have come headaches and hardships in virtually every newsroom.

New governments sit in Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia), and in Vilnius (Lithuania). Hesistant, cautious, they struggle to return state enterprises to private hands, introduce new currencies to replace the ruble, and organize agencies to solve problems once left to Moscow.

The newly freed press is caught in the backlash, and whiplashed by other serious problems. For starters, there is skyrocketing inflation, including a tenfold increase in the price of once plentiful, and subsidized, Soviet newsprint. Suppliers demand hard currency, which is in short supply, instead of Russian rubles.

State-owned, centrally located printing plants are sadly out of date. Production creaks along. Editors are forced to move their deadlines back by many hours.

A Goss letterpress, salvaged from Indianapolis newspapers, sits in crates in Riga, waiting for the government to assign a building to house it (E&P Jan. 18, 1992). Although outmoded in the United States, the press could help speed newspapers to readers throughout Latvia.

Distribution is in the hands of the government and many morning editors complain their papers often are delivered the next day.

In the dimly lit lobby of the Russian-built Draugyste Hotel in Vilnius, more than 30 dailies and weeklies were stacked on the counter one morning in late February. Most remained at the end of the day, as did thousands in the street kiosks. With inflation, single-copy prices go up regularly. Many readers choose bread and milk over a newspaper.

"It is a miracle that we have survived this long," said Linas Medelis, editor and publisher of Vilniaus Laikrastis, whose daily cut back to four pages, four days a week. He has tried sending hawkers to the streets to bolster circulation.

A team of veteran U.S. media executives visited the Baltics in late February on behalf of the International Media Fund of Washington, D.C. seeking to determine how the IMF can help the struggling newspapers in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Members of the team were Frank Miles, retired executive vice President of the Thomson Newspapers in the United States; John Schneider, former president of the CBS network; William Sheehan, former president of ABC News and senior counselor for IMF; Kevin Delany, a onetime ABC and CBS correspondent, and this writer.

Some newspapers requested help in obtaining newsprint. Others asked for desktop publishing systems and computers for reporters and editors who take turns at old Eastern Bloc terminals.

Rytas Staselis, editor of the crusading weekly Mazoji Lietuva in Vilnius, must rnt his computers, as do several papers visited, and this has contributed to the mounting losses Staselis faces. He keeps a picture of Lenin on his wall, draped with a cork chain, as a reminder of tougher times.

Miliroslav Mitrophanov, a subeditor of Dinaburg, a Russian-language daily in Daugavpils, Latvia, presented a carefully hand-printed request, in English, for a black-and-white scanner and other equipment. …