U.S.-Style Journalism Comes to The Danube
"The multi-national media giants are good for us," an editor says.
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
Just before midnight along the Danube, one of Eastern Europe's most impressive newspapers (and perhaps the biggest surprise in post-Communist journalism) starts rolling off the presses. Budapest's Nepszabadsag is hustled through the night by rail, truck, bus and auto relays to every corner of Hungary, an Indiana-sized country with 10.5 million people.
Many American newspapers would envy this delivery system, which actually is Hungary's postal service. Nepszabadsag was the official organ of the Communist Party, and its propaganda had top priority in the old regime.
Today the government frets about what Nepszabadsag will say, and the editors worry about potential interference tomorrow.
Andras Kereszty, a big, shaggy man in faded denim trousers and no tie, might have been mistaken for the composing room foreman the day I visited him in his fifth-floor office at the paper. He is the executive editor. As for a composing room, Nepszabadsag does it the modern way: with computers.
When the pages are ready for the presses, they go to a government printing plant. The editor worries about this, but so far the government has not used control of the presses to throttle Nepszabadsag.
Kereszty, 49, spent five years as the paper's correspondent in Washington. He has taken American newspapers' independence and reporting style as the model for his 123-member editorial staff. In a country where newspapers are long on opinion and political partisanship but short on fact-gathering, Nepszabadsag (circulation 330,000) has an investigative team and asks staffers not just to write but to report.
This is new, and Nepszabadsag has a long way to go. But it is trying to set a standard. It also is showing the way on the commercial side, with increasing ad revenues and rising profits. When Kereszty speaks of a free press, he also speaks of McCann-Erickson and Young & Rubicam.
Throughout Eastern Europe now there is growing tension between post-Communist governments and the press. In Hungary, while the government maneuvers indirectly for more influence on newspapers, it is more overt in its efforts to control the broadcast media.
Foreign companies (mostly British and German) now own almost three-fourths of the dailies' capital assets in Hungary. This worries others more than Kereszty.
"The multinational media giants are good for us," he says, since they are less susceptible to government pressures. He says the big German company that has controlling interest in Nepszabadsag does not interfere with its editorial work.
You have to be a bit of an optimist to believe that newspapers and magazines will succeed in establishing their independence in the formerly Communist countries. It is still another leap to believe that an independent press will abandon party partisanship in the news and become competent in basic reporting.
Nepszabadsag's emerging American-style model has not been followed even in Budapest, which has eight other dailies. If it succeeds, if independent and aggressive reporting succeeds, it will be because Kereszty and a few other pace-setters have overcome enormous odds. Right now, there is a special beauty in the roll of the presses at midnight on the Danube. l ###