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Central/Eastern Europe: Profit Motive Crucial For Successful Media

Washington, 5 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - For decades, the guiding force behind newspapers, radio and television in Communist countries was clear -- Marxist-Leninist ideology.

If the authorities fed citizens a diet of inspirational propaganda -- stories about the glorious overfulfillment of tractor production quotas, for example -- they could form "the new Soviet man." Or so the theory went.

But if newspapers want to flourish in today's post-Communist world, they have to learn to be guided by another principle entirely: money.

That's the word from an American expert, Ed Baumeister, an experienced print and television journalist who now provides advice to newly-independent media in Central and Eastern Europe.

He is senior media consultant to ProMedia, a program for developing professional media in eight countries in Central and Eastern Europe -- Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. The program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Baumeister spoke Monday at a seminar in Washington.

He said that outside journalists who want to foster free media in these countries will not have any success if they simply try to preach the superiority of American journalistic practices.

American journalists have to be sensitive to the very different cultures that Central and East European journalists operate in. He said that these countries have a history -- nearly three centuries old -- of backwardness under the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires that was exacerbated by decades of Communism.

They are painfully aware of their backwardness, and "they both love and loathe those they are catching up to." And he added: "They want to be modern, they want to catch up, but they want to do it on their own terms."

American journalism excells at two things, he said: making money selling news, and using new technology. These are the two achievements that American journalists can teach their Central and East European counterparts.

Baumeister says he captures the interest of any editor in the formerly Communist countries when he advises that the best way to make money is by offering a product that is independent, reliable and non-political. It is a formula that is already working for some newspapers in the region. He says radio and television are slightly different, because so much of their content is entertainment rather than news.

Baumeister cites "Gazeta Wyborcza" in Poland, "Mlada Fronta" in the Czech Republic and "Trend" in Slovakia as success stories.

"Gazeta Wyborcza" is the only former opposition newspaper to successfully make the transition to mainstream press. Although it is edited by a former Solidarity activist, Adam Michnik, its appeal reaches far beyond politics to serve half a million readers daily.

"Mlada Fronta," Baumeister said, has a simple formula: "reliable, honest objective news" that makes it a must-read for Czechs of all politicial persuasions from left-wing Communists to radical right-wing Republicans.

He also applauded "Trend," a business daily in Slovakia, that sometimes runs to 96 pages and is crammed with advertising -- a sure mark of success. "Trend" -- which he said provides "factual, verified, reliable" news -- has only two percent of the newspaper circulation in the country, but 20 percent of the advertising.

Using these three as examples, Baumeister argues that serving a wide audience and providing something of value to as many people as possible is not only the best way to make money, but also the best guarantor that the news provided will be fair and objective -- new concepts in these countries.

"These places won't have functioning democracies unless people really know what's going on," he said.

But there are still battles to be fought at both ends of the spectrum -- with government-run media and with opposition media. In many circles, he said, there is still distrust and disdain for the free market, and a preference for government subsidies of the media. But government subsidies mean bad journalism, he said.

On the other hand, those striving to call themselves independent journalists should not ally themselves too closely with opposition movements -- as was the case in Romania, where dozens of journalists from the so-called independent daily "Romania Libera" recently left to join the newly-elected government as ministers and press spokesmen.

"Independent isn't simply opposition," he said. "Independent is independent of everybody."