Eastern Europe's New Press Lords

By Vamos, Miklos | The Nation, September 30, 1991 | Go to article overview

Eastern Europe's New Press Lords


Vamos, Miklos, The Nation


I had got used to the idea that the foreign papers I worked for were all taken over by Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch, from the New Haven Register to The Jerusalem Post. The only exception was The Europeansince it was always Maxwell's. And The Nation, of course. But I didn't guess that Maxwell and Murdoch would also compete for the Hungarian papers for which I have been writing. Is this contagious?

In Eastern Europe, hundreds of new newspapers started to bloom in the ruins of socialism. Hungary was the pioneer in the newspaper business. New dailies and weeklies still show up every week. This week, three dailies will go to the streets and fight for the favors of readers: Esti Szo ("Evening Words"), Koztarsasag ("Republic") and Reggel ("Morning").

It has never been so easy to start a daily or a weekly, and it has never been so easy to lose one. The incompetence of the state-run postal system is the main obstacle. Even papers that are popular and could take many more subscribers are shackled by the limited capacity of the postal service. No private delivery business exists yet. One of the new dailies, Kurir, hired newsboys to sell the paper in the streets at traffic fights. This seems to be the only solution during this year of transition from socialism to capitalism. But a serious paper cannot be sold exclusively to impatient motorists. Kurir is the Hungarian version of the New York Post-and that's being complimentary.

Most well-established and prestigious publications are dying in Eastern Europe. Of course, only the ex-Communist papers could have been well established. They all dropped their old names, except for Nepszabadsag "People's Freedom") in Hungary, which sticks to its old name and subtitle: "Socialist Daily." This socialist daily was turned by its editors into a Western-style Hungarian-West German joint-venture company; the foreign partner is the Bertelsmann Group.

The Polish Trybuna Ludu dropped Ludu ("of the People") and stopped being the paper of the Polish Communist Party's Politburo. The Bulgarian Rabothnitshesko Delo ("Workers' Affair") was renamed Duma ("Word"). The Romanian Scinteia Poporului ("Spark of the People") first dropped "of the People," then changed its name to Adovarul ("Truth"). All the socialist papers publicized for many years the famous Marxist slogan: " Workers of the world, unite! " None of them adhere to this idea any longer. The new slogan should be: "Capitalists of the world, invest (in our paper)!"

And the message has been heard. Foreign investors seem to be very interested in buying and funding newspapers in Eastern Europe. Many intellectuals are afraid that soon the Western media moguls will call the tune. These tycoons started to negotiate with the last Communist leaders because, at that time, no deals could be made without them. Robert Maxwell had a headstart over his rivals and, after delays, bought into several publications. Now, the dailies he owns partially or totally in this region sell more than 5 million copies.

Magyar Hirlap ("Hungarian News") was one of the four national newspapers in Hungary. It was the youngest, created by the Communist government as an ostensible alternative to the existing three, all government papers. But people did not pay attention to this fourth mouthpiece of the government, and Magyar Hirlap was a failure. Still, 20,000 to 30,000 copies were published for years, since the print run was decided by the Politburo and the expenses were met from the state budget. When Communism collapsed, the state did not want (and was not able) to subsidize newspapers any longer, so selling the money losers became as important as it is in Western countries. Because Magyar Hirlap seemed to be the weakest among the four national newspapers, many experts thought it would simply fold.

Suddenly, Maxwell entered the picture. On February 13, 1990, he bought a 40 percent share of Magyar Hirlap. The Communist leaders with whom he had started to negotiate were already out of power, but he had good connections with some representatives of the former opposition who are now M. …

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