Revisiting an American Newspaper War Abroad
By Jacques Poitras
MATT WELCH WAS back in Prague for the Party at the End of the World. It was March 1, 1995, and the newspaper and the life he had created for himself were crumbling in the old cobblestone streets of the Czech capital. Prognosis, the English-language rag he had launched five years earlier with a few friends, had ceased publishing; tonight, a final, drunken bash would send it off into history.
Before heading to the party at Rock Club Bunkr, a bar housed in a former Communist nuclear bomb shelter, Welch, some of the other founders, and a few friends ducked into U Vejvodů, a traditional Czech pub. They reminisced about all the struggles going back to the beginning. Charlie Hornberger, the paper’s last editor-in-chief, described closing down the office. Welch shared anecdotes from the Budapest Business Journal, where he’d taken a job two months earlier. At their feet sat bundles of newspapers: the cover of the final issue of Prognosis showed a Communist-built apartment complex crumbling under the headline “The End.”
That possibility had been looming for months, even years. Prognosis had never made a single koruna in profit. Then again, that had never been the point. “Though it misfired and miscued on more than one occasion,” Welch wrote in a goodbye essay, “Prognosis at its full bloom was one of the most ferociously good newspapers any part of the world has ever seen. There is no satisfaction that can compare to this essential fact, nor any disappointment that can diminish its luster. Prognosis was, for nearly four full years, the exact sum of what the editorial staff imagined a great newspaper should be.”
And now it was over. Along with those defiant superlatives, Welch’s essay dished out an equal helping of self-pity. The other founders of the paper had postponed promising careers to embark on this adventure with him; “I, as a college dropout with little experience at anything, had nothing except an exaggerated sense of self-worth,” he wrote. “I am acutely aware that my life, such as it is right now, exists because of this newspaper and this experience called Prognosis. … Fact is, I now have something akin to a viable life, and the tangible source of that life is now dead.”
Prague was no longer the dreamy, mystical city Welch and his friends had discovered in 1990 as it emerged from the Cold War. The looseness of those post-Velvet Revolution days was fading, and the city was completing its transition from Soviet bloc outpost to Western destination. The Czechs were cashing in, hustlers now outnumbered hipsters, and the market was swallowing those, like Prognosis, who didn’t cut it.
Back home in the United States, Ken Layne, a former Prognosis writer, read Welch’s farewell column. The piece, he told me in 1995, “just shows Welch playing his favourite role: the bumbling can’t-get-my-shit-together-but-I-mean-well loser. … He refuses to take real responsibility for stuff falling apart. Prognosis failed because the founders had no interest or experience in running a successful business—and that’s what a newspaper is: a business. They thought business was bad and success was evil.”
“Any outcome would be an adventure and therefore a success.”
ACROSS THE TABLE at U Vejvodů, Doug Arellanes, a former art director at the paper, pulled out an old letter. In 1990 Welch and two other founders — campus paper colleagues from the University of California at Santa Barbara — wrote to Arellanes from Prague. They shared the excitement of an idea: to launch an English-language newspaper in the Czech capital. “The key to all this I think is tapping as many good people as we can,” Christopher Scheer wrote in that letter, “not running this like a business but like a movement.” He would later explain: “No one starts a business with basically no money. We did. Lacking money, we damn well better have some love and elbow grease to carry us through. We were somewhat fatalistic, also, realizing that any outcome would be an adventure and therefore a success.”
Welch had arrived in Eastern Europe that August to write a novel. When the other Americans who made up the future core of Prognosis pulled into Prague at the end of disparate backpacking trips, he was away in pre-war Yugoslavia; his pals discovered he had already established a profile. “He made quite an impression on this town,” Scheer wrote to Arellanes. “Women strewn in his wake, fans rumour-mongering about his eternally imminent return … It’s like Jesus!”
Anyone who met Matt Welch understood why. His long, blond hair, piercing dark eyes and affable demeanour often made him the center of attention. In Prague, he took to playing guitar for passers-by and spare change on the city’s postcard-perfect 700-year-old Charles Bridge. Back home in California, he had worked alongside the other Prognosis founders at the Daily Nexus, the University of California at Santa Barbara student paper, composing its weather forecasts as beat poetry. “He drank enormously, liked to wear dresses to work once a week and otherwise tried to create a mythos about himself,” Scheer would remember.
There was no shortage of talent among the founders of Prognosis, but Welch seemed to be the catalyst. He was “incredibly skilled at assembling myriad people to make his daydreams come to life,” according to Ken Layne. “I once told Matt the reason he’d never finish [writing] a book of fiction is because he’s too goddamn busy living a book of fiction.” If his life was, as he told it, going nowhere until he reached Prague, then the city offered the ideal setting for the latest Matt Welch drama: his apotheosis.
BESIDES THE STUNNING architecture, a rich cultural tradition, and women with beautiful Slavic eyes, Prague had Václav Havel. Czechoslovakia’s president knew about rising from despair to an exalted position. Havel, a playwright, had been jailed as a dissident by the Communists before the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 transformed him into head of state. He remained an idealist who talked of “living in truth” and building a civic society; for young Americans disenchanted with the Republicanism of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Havel added to Prague’s appeal. “My God, this is what politics should be,” John Allison, an early expat arrival, would remember thinking after seeing Havel’s February 1990 speech to the U.S. Congress. “This is my calling.” By the end of the year, Allison found himself working as the “American advisor” to Prague’s mayor.
Havel “did sort of underline the uniqueness of the place and time,” Christopher Scheer remembered. “He sort of encapsulated it. But he wasn’t the whole story, just a symptom, because every Czech we met seemed to have a wild story, to be oddly humble and intellectual at the same time. That’s why Havel could be president—because he represented a powerful strain in Czech culture.”
Welch came to idolize this rumpled philosopher-king who, indirectly, had made Prognosis possible. In his cramped apartment in an industrial section of Prague, a large poster of Havel occupied a place of honour on one wall. Someone had used a cigarette to burn out the eyes on another poster, of Václav Klaus, Czechoslovakia’s Thatcherite finance minister. You can deface anything on the walls, Welch once told a group of guests, except the Havel poster.
Besides Welch and Scheer, the other Americans who gathered at a pub in Prague in November 1990 to hash out the newspaper idea were Ben Sullivan, Laura Pitter, Jenny Ogar, and Lisa Frankenberg. They were all staying with Czech students Welch had befriended. “The next morning, we woke up hungover and had to decide if it was all just a beery fantasy,” Scheer recalled. “We decided tentatively that it wasn’t.”
The next evening, sober, they sat down and figured out how much money they could pool for the launch. Travellers’ cheques, credit card advances and anything they could sell were all put on the table. Everyone anted up except Lisa Frankenberg.
IN WELCH’S PROGNOSIS narrative, Lisa Frankenberg became the villain. Even in those early days, Scheer and others had doubts about Frankenberg, who had worked at the Nexus before leaving to get involved in the UCSB student government. Her unwillingness to put up money made them question her commitment to their Prague newspaper, but Welch, a friend, defended her. “She was not at all like our vibe,” Welch says. “We were pretty hippie and idealistic and journalism-based and easy to get along with. She was considerably more abrasive.” But he argued that “we need different types of personalities here, particularly on the business side, and maybe we can convert those negative characteristics into something we need.”
“We wanted to create something that had never existed, in a place where it was impossible to imagine such a thing existing.”
Today, the first few issues of the monthly Prognosis look amateurish, with unattractive fonts, awkward layout, and collegiate earnestness. But they were fresh and lively, and in the spring of 1991, with Prague’s expatriate population swelling, and thousands of English-speaking tourists on the way, they represented a triumph. The founders, their meager start-up funds supplemented with money from “investors” — a few well-heeled family friends back home — had waded through layers of left-over Communist bureaucracy just to launch the paper. The first edition, “zero issue,” was snapped up by expats and backpackers starved for something to read in English. The paper would go on to chronicle everything from the sweeping privatization of state institutions, to the growth of the drug trade and prostitution, to the establishment of an Andy Warhol Museum in the Slovak village where the artist’s mother was born. “We wanted to create something that had never existed, in a place where it was impossible to imagine such a thing existing,” Welch says.
Frankenberg soon began to have doubts. In charge of distribution and advertising, she heard the same comments over and over when she tried to sell subscriptions and ad space to the growing foreign business community. Prognosis was fun, but her prospective clients wanted serious business news to help them understand this lucrative new market. They also wanted it fast: a monthly paper didn’t provide immediacy in a quickly changing economy. And the sometimes arch, collegiate tone of the paper turned them off.
In an interview in 1995, Frankenberg described how no one at Prognosis seemed concerned about what she was hearing. “The attitude was, ‘We’re having fun, we’re enjoying this, why should we change?’” she told me. There was no business plan for growth, and no budget forecasting revenues and expenses. “Very clearly, the response [from the others] was, ‘We’re not a business, we’re a newspaper.’ And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, a newspaper is a business.’”
“I was flabbergasted that anyone would turn away such a gifted writer.”
Frankenberg’s worries were compounded the day Alan Levy visited the Prognosis office to offer his services. Levy, a 59-year-old American journalist, had covered the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček’s 1968 attempt to democratize Communism from within. When Soviet tanks arrived to crush Dubček’s experiment, Levy was expelled. He lived in Vienna for 21 years, moving back shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and his book about 1968, So Many Heroes, became a must-read for expats. He proposed writing a column for Prognosis, a series of profiles of interesting Czechs and expatriates.
The founders turned him down. “We didn’t want to publish an archetypal expat-freelancer just because he had ‘clips,’” Welch later wrote. “I wasn’t at that fateful meeting, but apparently he came on strong and condescending, and I’m sure we were more than just a little defensive about people questioning our credentials and telling us what we should cover. So with those prejudices, we read his stuff and thought it wouldn’t fit into our Mission-from-God approach.”
Welch came to see it as a defining moment for the young paper: “We finally had confidence enough in what we were to reject an over-qualified representative of what we didn’t want to be,” Welch said. Frankenberg would later call her Prognosis colleagues “callow” for not hiring Levy. “I was flabbergasted that anyone would turn away such a gifted writer and I expressed my apologies to Alan,” she wrote years later. Frankenberg was now so frustrated that she considered packing it in and resuming her studies back in the States in the fall.
But in July 1991, a newspaper distributor working for Frankenberg had a chance meeting with a Texas businessman, Monroe Luther, who was in Prague inking deals. Luther told Frankenberg he might invest in Prognosis, but he wanted his money put to good use: he wanted a more business-oriented weekly, and suggested she come back with him in two days with a proposal to transform the paper.
According to Matt Welch and Christopher Scheer, Frankenberg and her philosophical soulmate in the Prognosis business office, Kent Hawryluk, demanded a radical change of editorial direction—more serious and business-friendly—without mentioning Luther’s possible infusion of cash. (Frankenberg disputed this account when I interviewed her in 1995, saying she was upfront about Luther’s investment offer and that the desire for a revamp came from him.) Frankenberg and Hawryluk also wanted to be equal partners in the business, a status denied to them because they had invested no money. Otherwise, they said, they’d walk. “Man, were we agonized,” Welch says. “We definitely needed them, and they did stuff we couldn’t imagine doing ourselves, but there was something pretty gross and not trustworthy about playing ultimatum games with an idealistic venture started by people of good faith. So ultimately, we said no.”
“It was like a jackhammer in the nuts. It totally drained the joy out of the situation.”
A few days later, Frankenberg and Hawryluk resigned from Prognosis and persuaded Luther to use his money to help them launch a business-oriented weekly called The Prague Post. It hit the streets in October, 1991, its early issues were hopelessly dull in design, style and content. But the paper knew how to sell itself: the Post played to the business community with credulous coverage of finance and investment, and bought prime space on billboards, branding itself a serious player in the marketplace and selling a lot of advertising. “Their initial billboards cost more than we spent in the first nine months of our entire operation,” Scheer recalled.
Alan Levy was hired as titular editor-in-chief of The Prague Post. “We are living in the Left Bank of the ’90s,” he declared in a column in the inaugural issue, alluding to Hemingway’s Paris. “For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others a new frontier where anything goes, everything goes, and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but, somewhere within each of us, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time.”
The Prognosis founders were hardly jealous of the Post’s content—they rolled their eyes at Levy’s prose, and they wouldn’t miss Frankenberg and Hawryluk—but the pair took their advertising and distribution contacts with them. Suddenly, Prognosis was without a business staff, and without the network the pair had assembled to sell the newspaper in an often-baffling post-Communist environment. “It was like a jackhammer in the nuts,” Welch says. “It totally drained the joy out of the situation.”
Welch, Scheer, and the others responded by taking Prognosis biweekly and working even harder. “We did not, however, try to beat the Post at their own game,” Scheer said. “Arrogant or not, we decided very consciously to keep trying to put out the newspaper that we wanted to put out and not just try to be a local version of The Wall Street Journal.”
THEY STILL HAD HYPE on their side. For foreign reporters dropping in on Prague to profile the growing expat community, the grimy, cluttered Prognosis office was an essential stop. The paper represented the kind of journalism they secretly wanted to practice: fun, smart, brashly principled. Any feature piece on the self-exiled, twentysomethings of Prague inevitably included the same tropes: the American-owned New York Pizza restaurant; the mayor’s “American advisor,” John Allison, who had moved onto a job in Havel’s office in the majestic Castle overlooking the city; Laundry Kings, the American-owned, first-ever self-serve laundromat in Prague—and Prognosis. “It’s practically impossible to live here for any length of time and not be interviewed by some major paper or broadcast network, adding another level of absurdity to what is already a pretty ridiculous existence,” Welch would write. “All this silliness has not exactly hurt our paper, my career or my swelling ego needs.”
In July 1992 Welch was the central character in a lengthy article in Details magazine that many expats credited with single-handedly spinning the Prague hype-meter into the stratosphere. Using Prognosis as a framing device, writer Henry Copeland portrayed Prague as a hedonistic haven for a new lost generation. Welch and others would mock the article, particularly a quotation uttered by one Prognosis writer: “In Prague, everything is so open that you can re-invent yourself every day.” Yet a copy of that issue, preserved like new, was tucked away in Welch’s flat, where I discovered it during the two months I spent subletting his place.
In retrospect, that Details piece represented the high-water mark for expatriate Prague. The same summer it was published, reality began to intrude on the fairy tale: Czechoslovakia’s first full-scale elections, in June 1992 produced a political schism in the federation. Václav Klaus, leader of the Civic Democratic Party, triumphed in the Czech parliament, while the victory of a pro-independence party in Slovakia threatened to split the country. Klaus, a bottom-line man in favour of rapid privatization and economic restructuring, had no qualms about saying goodbye to the Slovaks: the poorer, less-educated, more rural part of the federation was a drag on his ideological plans. As president, Václav Havel sought to preserve the federation because of the multi-ethnic ideal it represented, but even Havel’s moral authority could not contain the forces that had been unleashed. On New Year’s Day, 1993, Czechoslovakia, the country that had survived Nazism and Communism, the two great totalitarian plagues of the twentieth century, ceased to exist.
Havel was soon chosen as president of the new Czech Republic and Klaus became its prime minister. Prognosis would call them “those wild and warring poster boys of the modern Czech soul.” Klaus, the no-nonsense, get-things-done manager in a hurry to downsize the machinery of government, was the efficient administrator, while Havel, the philosopher and moralist, was perfect for the role of symbolic head of state. They would clash repeatedly: Havel felt Klaus forgot the human element in governing; Klaus found Havel’s dreamy idealism impractical. “The advocate of non-political politics met a consummate political animal,” Havel’s biographer later wrote.
The schism echoed Prague’s expat newspaper war: Prognosis, though struggling financially, continued to strive for a journalistic ideal akin to Havel’s “living in truth” as it chronicled the changes in Czech society. The Post, Klaus-like in its pragmatism, prospered by playing to the market, giving the big-spending expat business community what it wanted. Prognosis was still cooler, but like Havel, it was no longer invincible.
THE DETAILS STORY drew me to Prague as I fled a recession-wracked newspaper industry in Canada. But by the time I arrived in January 1993, the city was re-inventing itself so quickly that it was no longer the Capital of Dreams sketched by the magazine just six months earlier. The cost of two expat staples, beer and apartment rent, both ridiculously cheap by U.S. standards in early 1992, were creeping up as the market adjusted to the city’s destination status. The talk now was less about Havel, the playwright president, and more about Klaus, the economic guru whose reforms were seen as a textbook example of how to move from Communism to capitalism.
Visiting reporters had also discovered a new source of expat wisdom. They now often visited the offices of The Prague Post to interview Lisa Frankenberg. Across town at Prognosis, meanwhile, the founders, exhausted by the grind of publishing and the battle with the Post, turned over senior editorial positions to newcomers and moved into writing positions, or onto new adventures. Welch relocated to Bratislava, the capital of newly independent Slovakia, to run the paper’s bureau there, while the new managers grappled with how to give the operation some much-needed stability.
The new publisher, Erica Breth, discovered there was still no real budget, business plan, or bookkeeping. (Scheer, when I interviewed him in 1995, disputed the idea that the founders had ignored the business side; they “worried enormously” about it, he said, but “none of it made our business sense any more acute, none of it made us more organized, none of it brought us big investors.”) More money from “investors” back in the U.S., including wealthy liberal philanthropist Helen Bing, couldn’t erase the red ink. The journalism remained solid, and Breth and her fellow managers stayed one step ahead of invoices from printers, phone companies and other suppliers. But Prognosis was sputtering financially.
Several staff members left in the summer and fall of 1993. Some, like me, were lured by jobs back home; most feared the paper’s demise was a matter of time. On a fundraising trip to the United States, Breth made the rounds of foundations and other do-gooders who had endowed the paper in the early days. But the Czech Republic’s much-publicized economic success meant, perversely, that the novelty of a scrappy little paper in Prague was wearing off. The money Breth gathered in early 1994 was quickly used, all at once, to pay off the paper’s printers, who hadn’t collected for months and were refusing to roll the presses.
“He figured he could just play God and assemble a new group of `founders’ that would … maybe put some fire and guts back into it.”
Matt Welch wouldn’t give in. He closed the bureau in Bratislava and returned to Prague, where he and Ben Sullivan, another founder, stepped back into senior editorial jobs under John Allison, who became editor-in-chief. “I still recall that the engine that was the news desk was being fueled almost single-handedly by Matt and John Allison, who both toiled mightily to put out a newspaper,” reporter Logan Mabe would say.
Welch was still making myths: Prognosis could rise again. In May, 1994, a Dutch businessman, Harmen Smink, injected cash by buying 51 per cent of the paper. Welch contacted a handful of Prognosis alumni in California, among them Ken Layne, and appealed to them to return to Prague. “He had these various godlike attributes attached to each of us,” Layne told me in 1995, “and he figured he could just play God and assemble a new group of ‘founders’ that would continue the legacy, as it were, and maybe put some fire and guts back into it.” Others were wary, but Layne accepted an offer to become editor-in-chief—until he learned at the last minute that he would not have the authority Welch had promised him. He was tempted, he said, to fly to Prague “just to beat the shit out of Matt and leave him for dead with his fucking guitar rammed up his hippy ass.” In Layne’s place, Charlie Hornberger, a Nexus pal of Welch, took over.
Smink’s money allowed Prognosis to move into better offices and go weekly with full-colour covers. Newsstand sales jumped, but advertising did not. Within a few weeks the problems began anew: Smink’s hard currency seemed to be evaporating. It would later emerge that the paper’s business manager was defrauding the paper, funneling money into her own private ventures. By the time anyone noticed, it was too late.
The newspaper’s philosophical guru up in Prague Castle was in no better state. As his popularity plummeted, Václav Havel mused to one interviewer about how he looked forward to leaving the presidency and becoming a simple pensioner. The economy, not ethics and morals, drove the agenda in Prague, and Prime Minister Václav Klaus was the man of the moment. He had a budget surplus forecast for 1995, the lowest inflation rate in the former Soviet bloc, and a jobless rate below four per cent. At the end of 1994, Klaus mocked Havel’s idea of the president delivering a “State of the Nation” address to Parliament — then delivered one himself. Poll after poll showed Czechs considered Havel the more principled of the two men, but they trusted Klaus to run the country.
On New Years’ Day, 1995, Klaus gave a look-ahead interview to the country’s first private TV station, Nova. In a clear attempt to eclipse the president, it was broadcast at the same time as Havel’s New Year’s address on state television. Of Havel’s remarks, Prognosis reported: “Far from an optimist in his days of waning popularity and influence, Havel could apparently muster only the dark conclusion that ‘Not everything is lost yet.’”
The president might as well have been talking about the expat newspaper inspired by his idealism. As the financial situation worsened, Welch accepted a job at the Budapest Business Journal. Smink tried to buy out the remaining 49 per cent of the paper still owned by Welch and the founders; when they balked, he cut off salaries and shopped his controlling shares to potential buyers, including The Prague Post. A gossip column in the February 21 issue of Prognosis ended prophetically with a comment that “all things come to an end sometime.” The following week, the founders decided to maintain their paper’s dignity. They closed it down.
MATT WELCH SAT down with a bottle of wine at his desk in Budapest at the end of February 1995 and wrote a piece for the final issue of Prognosis that would be headlined “A Long Goodbye to the Paper I Loved Best.”
“We were right all along,” Welch wrote, “if excessively stupid and self-indulgent in the deployment.” He expressed pride in the legacy Prognosis would leave—in particular the journalism education it gave to many young Czechs and Slovak interpreters and translators who became talented reporters for local media organizations—but he also mourned: this was the piece in which he declared that “the tangible source of [his] life is now dead,” tying his own fate to that of the daydream he would soon bury. “What I was expressing there,” he says now, “was a kind of gratitude for having been able to experience something that made me at least quasi-presentable to the world of journalism, and a melancholy for that beautiful and helpful thing being dead.”
“She won the battle, for which she deserves real credit. But history will not remember her paper nearly the same way.”
Lisa Frankenberg told me she felt no sense of triumph at the demise of Prognosis, even though it gave her Prague Post a freer hand in Prague’s English-language media market. She claimed to be moved by Welch’s coda. “There were probably only a handful of people who read that through to the end. I read it. I read it to the very end,” she said. Winning the expat newspaper war was “very weird and sad. It was a very weird day. We knew it was coming for a long time.”
One night in May 1995, as the spring air brought with it the promise of another beautiful summer in Prague, Frankenberg took a stroll on the Charles Bridge with Monroe Luther, the owner of the Post. They talked about the paper’s prospects: its circulation was rising, and a growing number of English-speaking Czechs read it. “It’s a successful business,” Frankenberg told me at the time, though she refused to reveal if it was profitable.
Suddenly Frankenberg saw a familiar figure with a guitar, blond hair waving in the breeze as he strummed on the bridge. “Hey, Matt!” she yelled. He smiled, answered, “Hey, Frankenberg.” Matt Welch was back in town, and could still muster a smile for his former rival.
Frankenberg and Luther kept walking. “Someday in the future, I’d like to sit down with him and have a coffee or a beer and talk things out,” she told me in 1995. “But it takes time. It was probably like part of him dying when Prognosis died.”
They never had that coffee. Welch eventually returned to the United States, where, he says, he parlayed what he called the “quasi-presentable” reputation he earned in Prague into a career in journalism. The Prague Post continues to publish digitally, though it shed its print edition in 2013. Welch says he holds no grudge against Frankenberg. “Why? Competition’s good, man! It made both papers better. And because I, unlike her, can look at myself in the mirror every night before going to sleep without so much as a twinge of doubt of how I comported myself professionally in my early twenties. She won the battle, for which she deserves real credit. But history will not remember her paper nearly the same way, and that just makes me smile and smile.”
IN 1995, MANY Prognosis staffers and alumni were less sanguine. True, the city had become faster, harder, more expensive and less forgiving: the free market that had made Prognosis possible had killed it. But it was tempting to conclude Welch and the others had squandered what they had built—a newspaper that everyone who worked there had come to consider their own.
“If Lisa Frankenberg is your villain, you’ve bought into the biggest piece of fabricated history ever.”
“These American kids start the first English-language newspaper. … It can’t help but thrive, right?” Welch’s friend, Ken Layne, told me in an e-mail in 1995. “It sputters along for several years, getting a million dollars in free press, no business plan, no financial plan, no discipline, just bumbling along, just like all of Prague is doing. And just like the fucking Communists, Prognosis is living off subsidies,” a reference to the money from relatives and foundations in the United States. “Meanwhile, the Czechs figure it all out. They toss away a lifetime of anti-capitalist bullshit and turn Prague into a fucking money machine. Everybody figures out how to run a business, how to make cash, how to succeed — everybody but these American kids who refuse to even acknowledge the need for money, for success.
“If Lisa Frankenberg is your villain,” Layne added, “you’ve bought into the biggest piece of fabricated history ever. If they had figured out how to use Lisa’s smarts … Prognosis would be a thriving media empire today instead of a dead newspaper fondly remembered by fifty people. The results speak for themselves. Lisa is no monster. A hundred other people have felt the same way about the half-ass manner in which Prognosis was run.”
When I remind Layne of those comments almost two decades later, he explains that “one of my habits of my youth was to get good and drunk and pissed off while typing. It was, I guess, my literary style of the era.” In 1995, he says, he was still bitter about his aborted return to Prague. “I was supposed to be editor of a paper I loved in the Czech Republic, and instead I was drifting around.”
Layne still doesn’t blame Frankenberg for the paper’s demise: she left in 1991, and the paper took another four years to fold, he points out, plenty of time to have turned things around. But he is more forgiving of Welch and company. “While I’ve lost touch with all but a dozen or so of the Prognosis gang, those dozen people remain some of my best friends,” he says. “The group of Californians and Czechs who started up that paper did a pretty good job with intolerable circumstances.” Even in 1995, at his most frustrated, Layne said of them, “they are good people, and that Prague experience remains incredibly significant. It reverberates through every part of my life.”
CHRISTOPHER SCHEER’S FATHER, journalist Robert Scheer, urged the Prognosis founders in 1994 “to just become an Internet newspaper,” Welch says, “which would have been way ahead of the curve.” Instead, because the paper died at almost the precise moment the Internet became a mass phenomenon, there is no online archive or digital database of its five-year run. Former employees now speak of a complete set of printed issues the way one recounts an urban legend: the full run is always sitting in the basement of the friend of a friend, just out of reach. So Prognosis, as an iteration of young, earnest, idealistic journalism, cannot be considered in its entirety, but only in pieces. A virtual collection of yellowed issues lies scattered across the globe, a notional scrapbook of clippings, impressions, half-memories and fading photographs.
“The paper failed, but it wasn’t a failure.”
In the twenty years since its demise, my picture of Prognosis has evolved from a lost opportunity into something else. As a bit player, I too was frustrated to see it fold. Today, I no longer imagine an alternate history in which Prognosis survived the nineties: I just marvel at the audacity of its brief, improbable existence. During one gloomy period in 1993, Christopher Scheer wrote in a memo to the staff that the paper was not “a normal institution. … Stability is not its primary, overriding goal. Those who seem to wish Prognosis was some great gleaming ship of stable corporate love — including myself at many an exhausted moment — would not want to work at such a place.” The founders of Prognosis gave us a life-changing experience; they didn’t owe us permanence.
Any outcome would be an adventure and therefore a success, Scheer had said. And so the sharp edges of the picture soften to something else: a moment, ephemeral but real, in the dusty swirl of post-1989 Central Europe. Lyle Zimskind, a managing editor of the Czech edition of Esquire, would remember Prognosis as “chaotically managed” but “livelier” than the Post — a victory by any measure, except that of for-profit survival.
In his 1990 letter, Scheer had advocated “not running this like a business but like a movement.” And every movement runs its course. Welch made not only his daydreams come to life, but those of every other expat who saw their work — their words, their whimsy, their passion — on those pages. “Prognosis was an expression of pure newspaper romanticism,” he says. “The whole thing was an expression of love for the form.”
“The paper failed,” writer Logan Mabe would conclude, “but it wasn’t a failure.”
IN LATE 2011, Welch, now the editor-in-chief of Reason, a Washington libertarian magazine, returned to Prague to attend the funeral of his idol, Václav Havel. Havel’s English translator, Paul Wilson, had secured him a seat inside St. Vitus Cathedral, the imposing Gothic structure at Prague Castle that dominates the city skyline.
Outside the gates, hundreds of thousands normally taciturn Czechs were mourning their hero. They were part of the West now, part of the European Union and of NATO, and though Havel’s popularity had faded before he left the presidency in 2003, his reputation for principle was intact — unlike that of his rival, Klaus, whose government was eventually tainted by corruption scandals. And so, though the end of Communism had produced many complications and disappointments, the citizens of Prague crowded the streets for Havel’s funeral procession, wrapping the city in the same atmosphere of possibility they created in 1989.
In a piece for Reason’s website, Welch reflected on what Havel had inspired, not in Welch himself, but in the Czech capital. “From the Velvet Revolution through at least 1991, and in many (though lesser) respects for years after, Prague was alive with rediscovery and experimentation in the exciting, difficult, anarchic interlude between Communism and its built-out replacement,” he wrote. “More than mere nostalgia for a limited era of time (one I was fortunate enough to participate in), that same spirit of, well, love, or at least its handmaiden decency, has never really gone away.”
The newspaper was never far from Welch’s mind during his quick return to Prague. “That forty-eight hours I spent there was a profound moment, one I absolutely lived up to by drinking until 5 a.m. the night before the funeral with a bunch of ex-Prognosis comrades, and then vomiting inside the castle after the religious ceremony, and also, again, under the Charles Bridge on the walk back,” he told me. “Friends from New York told me to do it right, in their honor, and so I did.”
“Prague is beautiful like an insecure woman,” Prognosis staffer Kate Sullivan once wrote. “It doesn’t seem to realize the crazy extent of its beauty; it doesn’t notice the effect it has on people.” But everyone who ever worked at the paper realized it. They still do.
“To this day,” Welch says, “I reject the term `the real world,’ because my feeling is that we should all strive for the surrealism that we were able to enjoy in early-nineties Prague.”