Monday, July 27, 2009

Under the Radar: Saving the English-language Press

“Where else in the world,” the young American asked me, “can you walk into a newspaper office and get a job on the very same day?” This was several years ago, and he’d just got a job at the Baltic Times, the region’s only English-language newspaper. The young man had done some writing for his high school newspaper, but beyond that his chief qualification was English as his mother tongue. Before he arrived in Tallinn he’d worked a year pouring concrete for shopping mall foundations. His university diploma was in physical education.

“Does it worry you that you don’t know anything about journalism or Estonia either one?” I asked. He had been candid with me. I wanted to return the favor.

“Just a bit,” he replied. “But I figure they’ll start me out with movie reviews.”

The very next week I saw his byline under a story about Estonian politics.

The economic crisis has certainly bitten the Estonian-language press. Journalists are being let go or forced to take reductions in pay, magazines are merging, and publications are dying. But you never hear about the English-language press, which is completely under the radar. English-language journalists are being paid late or not at all, and the good old days when you could walk in with zero skills and get a job on the same day is, at least let’s hope, gone forever. So when it concerns the local English-language press, a little bit of crisis isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Despite some bright points in Estonia’s English-language journalism history (projects associated with Edward Lucas, Michael Tarm, or Steve Roman, for example), local English-language publications have mostly served as an embarrassment. Headlines like “People Having Less Estonian Babies,” “Health Board Closed Recipe Factory in Tallinn Downtown,” and this century’s pièce de résistance, “Economical Crisis,” make English-speaking Estonians wonder if the publications are not parodies or if all foreigners residing here are illiterate.

Part of the problem lies with the local owners of English-language publications. Some of them do not speak English at a level much above what’s required to read a candy-bar wrapper, or if they do, they believe there is a direct path to ad revenue, ignoring the causal link between good content, readers, and the El Dorado of advertising gold.

One of my favorite English-language media moguls is from Vilnius. He has the habit of calling his employees peasants and kicking their chairs out from under them—a rather strange motivational strategy which, despite poor results, he continues to believe in. He is such a tyrant that no foreign editor has ever lasted more than six months working for him. I used to make a tidy sum sitting in his editor’s chair for the two months it would take him to find a replacement. He wanted copy fast and I didn’t mind producing it as long as he permitted me to write under pseudonyms, which I eagerly did, working my way through characters in the Snopes Trilogy. Few readers, I suspect, knew that Faulkner’s lower-class rural laboring family could produce such readable copy.

Part of my job was to interview new editorial candidates. I would tell them directly that their life span on the job would be only slightly longer than a freshly-commissioned American First Lieutenant behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War. Most still couldn’t wait to sign up.

What allowed me to keep the job? I think the combination of knowing I’d only be there as long as it took him to find his next whipping boy and the fact that we Canadians are tolerant and flexible enough we could probably work with Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, and rest of the previous century’s top baddies and still find something nice to say. Plus, I needed the money.

Oddly, this tyrant is also a very good businessman whose only indulgence seems to be a slick car, and his publications are indeed weathering the “economical crisis.” Western news bureaus could learn a lot from him. He gets a phenomenal number of pages per employee, not that many of them are readable. It won’t surprise me, though, if someday Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., owner of the New York Times, hires him as a consultant. Western media appears almost that desperate.

What those of us who like to get the local news in English are left with is BBN, the English-language arm of Äripäev. It’s staffed—as far as I can determine—by one well-meaning woman who has the unenviable job of translating tiny bits of stories and then suffering the abuse foreign readers throw at her in the comments section. In addition to a glimpse of the news, BBN’s website provides a source of therapy for foreigners as a place to vent, and often they rant tediously about how stupid Estonians are (and, by implication, how smart they are). One reader has gone so far to write all his comments in short non-rhyming stanzas resembling haikus, though their random structure would not suggest he does it consciously—I suspect his burning anger somehow causes his pinky to wander and repeatedly strike the return key.

The Baltic Times is still around, but since Steve Roman left the editor’s chair I’ve assumed that in their zero-budget quest to make ice-cream from feces they’d replace him with retired, albeit highly-trained, circus dogs. But mostly I don’t read it because I can get the news from Estonian papers, and because of my firm belief in the computer science axiom, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). If one aspires to write like Shakespeare, he won’t get there by reading Danielle Steele.

I’m rooting for someone to succeed in English-language media, because I really would like to read intelligent commentary in English on the Baltic States. As it stands now, I’m left waiting for whatever occasional Edward Lucas piece touches our region. Although Edward occasionally fires an unqualified broadside (as he did recently in Foreign Policy: “It is a scandal, for example, that [Baltic] higher education…is so second-rate”), I have to forgive him, as he’s the absolute best we’ve got.

Of course, towering high above all others is my English-language blog, but the silly names of our two-man news team (mine, plus photographer Imbi Imetore) don’t lend a lot of credibility, plus we have a news budget entirely financed by Google Ads ($11.35 earned last year). Since Google doesn’t cut the check until you reach a threshold of 25 dollars, both Imbi and I are still working on credit, which I suppose puts us neck in neck with every other publication in the world. So when you stop to think about it, we could come out of this crisis ahead.

But Imbi’s let this crisis get her down. She hasn’t made a photo in weeks. She could use a little motivation. Maybe it’s about time I walk over to where she’s sitting and kick her chair out from under her.

This story first published in Postimees.