Two Leaps of Faith for Independent Media
Part 1: Jumping to Latvia
The call came unexpectedly, and the contrast between where I was and what I was hearing over the phone was dramatic.
It was a warm, sunny day in July, 2009. My whole extended family had just finished lunch at a fine little restaurant in the south of France, where we were marking the last day of a get-together after which everyone would be heading back home. Walking back to our car with the contented complacency you feel after a good, leisurely meal, I answered a call from one of my closest colleagues and heard him say — Pauls, they’ve sold Diena.
Let’s back up a bit. It’s 1990. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was breaking up, and I had come to my ancestral homeland Latvia as a twenty-something to work for the pro-independence Popular Front. At the time it seemed like just a temporary gig. Having gotten a degree from Harvard in Russian and Soviet Studies and then bummed around the States for a few years, I was on my way to grad school. It seemed there was no better place to spend the nine months between submitting my applications and starting classes than getting a ground floor view of the “singing revolution” taking place on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. But with the Cold War world order coming apart at the seams, there were just too many opportunities waiting to be taken.
In Latvia censorship had ended, but that didn’t mean that quality media had sprung up overnight. Together with some colleagues we got an idea — if Latvia was going to become a democratic, free-market society, it needed a Riga equivalent of The New York Times or The Washington Post. After all you couldn’t have a real Western society without that kind of newspaper. (Yes, back then newspapers were that important). The result was Diena (The Day). Although I did return to the States for two semesters of grad school, I was back in Riga the next spring. When the August coup failed and Latvia’s independence was recognized by all the major nations of the world, I called my professors and told them I was staying.
It wasn’t a difficult choice. I was single, had no car, no mortgage, nothing to tie me down in the US. In Latvia I was looking forward to the excitement and challenges of helping rebuild a country after fifty years of Soviet occupation, of living and working in the place I had heard so much about from my parents and grandparents… Who wouldn’t jump at the chance?
For almost twenty years Diena was the most influential newspaper in the country and set the standard for quality journalism in Latvia. New York Times columnist William Safire called it “the most adamantly independent major new daily among the nations of post-Soviet Europe.” During the nineties I was the managing editor, then took a year to create Diena’s website, and afterwards ran the editorial page.
Then came the crash. 2009 was a rough year for Latvia. The global financial crisis hit the country especially hard, and Latvia saw the largest drop in GDP of any European country. Diena’s advertising revenues fell off a cliff, and even repeated staff and salary cuts couldn’t keep the newspaper out of the red. However, we felt confident that we could ride out the storm because of our investors, the Swedish media conglomerate Bonnier that had been our partner since the early nineties. For a long time our relationship was strong, but times had changed and Bonnier was now under new management. The news from Latvia in the international media was almost universally bleak. (Latvia is “the new Argentina”, as Paul Krugman famously and quite wrongly predicted). So the guys in Stockholm got scared and decided to sell.
The day I got the call I was some 1,600 miles from Riga, where a young man who had previously worked for Diena walked in the door and announced that he had bought the newspaper. Since everyone knew that he didn’t have the money for a deal like that, we naturally asked — who financed you? I’ll tell you in a couple of days, he said, but after those days had passed he said he’d reveal his backers in a week. Then he asked us to wait a month. Then three months.
This wasn’t good. As journalists one of our main jobs was asking people uncomfortable questions like — where did you get the money? Now our own publication belonged to someone who couldn’t give a straight answer to this seemingly simple question. The most likely explanation was that Bonnier had sold Diena to one or more of the Latvian “oligarchs” — powerful businessmen/politicians who hated Diena because of its investigative reporting and strong editorial stand against corruption and for good governance.
What could we do?
Part 2: When Conviction Counts
To put it mildly, 2009 was not nearly as propitious a time to jump as 1990. The economy was practically in free-fall, so hopes for getting another job were slim. Advertising spending was cratering. My colleagues and I were print journalists in a world that was being eaten by the internet. Prudence would have dictated swallowing our pride, staying at Diena and hoping against hope for the best.
But neither I nor my colleagues could do that. Having given the new “owner” three months to reveal the source of his money, we were already preparing the ground for our next move. When the time came, almost one quarter of the editorial staff of Diena, including all the editors, editorial writers and investigative reporters, handed in their resignations. The core of this group set to work on a new project — a weekly news magazine called Ir, which in Latvian means “it is” or “it exists” — an insistent affirmation that we were not planning to disappear.
The pure business case for starting such a publication in the teeth of a depression and despite the increasingly dire situation of the print media all over the world was close to non-existent. Why would anyone in Latvia buy our magazine if money was tighter than it had been in a long time and people could get all the news for free on the internet or TV?
But we had one thing going for us — the intense conviction that Latvia needed a politically independent, quality print publication.
As it turned out, we weren’t alone. The scandalous opacity of the Diena deal had shocked a lot of people for whom the newspaper was almost a national institution. Concern about the future of the media in Latvia was widespread. There was a social niche that needed to be filled. Because of this anxiety we were able to raise the money to start our magazine from a number of small investors (no more majority shareholders!), and our first issue came out in April, 2010.
But would this idealism last? After the initial shock faded and the focus of people’s attention moved on, would we be able to put together the kind of profitable business that we needed to maintain our editorial independence? Most media professionals thought the answer was no. Some said we would last eight months at best.
Almost six years later, Ir has not only survived, but we are expanding our business step by step. We are the only print publication in Latvia that consistently runs investigative reporting and have broken a series of important stories. I am both a columnist at the magazine and the chairman of the supervisory board of the company, and I feel confident in its future.
This wasn’t a classic story of deciding to jump from a safe job to pursue a more personally rewarding line of work. In 2009 I would have preferred to stay, but couldn’t, so you might even say I was pushed. But there are still lessons to be learned here, because I did have some influence on where I would land. The spot I chose was risky. Coming down successfully required a strong dose of idealism, the conviction that I was doing something other people will value, the stubbornness to ignore the doubters, and, perhaps most importantly, a small but committed team of fellow-believers.
Whatever the reason you leap into the unknown, these are the things to take along.
Pauls Raudseps is a columnist and chairman of the supervisory board at the weekly news magazine Ir in Riga, Latvia.
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