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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thumbing It

In North America, hitchhikers are one of three types: (1) Psycho-killers, (2) Soon-to-be victims of psycho-killers, or (3) Foreigners unaware of types one and two. But in Estonia, hitchhiking is not only safe, it’s pleasurable, and it’s one of the best ways for a foreigner to experience the countryside’s natural beauty, as well as to meet colorful locals.

True, between the continents technique differs slightly. In America, the hitchhiker attempts to convey insouciance, even ennui. He stands one leg bent, gazing into the middle distance, thumb slightly off the hip, pointing in the vague proximity of the desired direction of travel. In Estonia, a more formal stance is customary: legs locked straight, eyes directed to oncoming traffic, arm extended in a gesture crossing a Heil Hitler salute with what is used to hail a taxi in New York.

In the early 1990s, I used the American style, until a friend explained that country folk might think I was sunning myself by the side of the road. Adopting the local technique helped somewhat, but so did waving a small Canadian flag, the international symbol of harmlessness. After that, I never stood long on the roadside.

Once I was picked up by a UAZ truck, its windshield shattered in a spider-web pattern. A couple of holes caused it to behave like a lung, expanding and contracting at regular intervals. “I can’t go faster than forty,” the driver explained. “Otherwise it’ll cave in and cut your face.” He had a beard like Rasputin, rotted teeth, and breath like a dragon. “Mind if I stop?” he asked. Who was I to mind? He pulled over at a kiosk and returned with three bottles of vodka that he rolled under the seat with a wink.

I never got picked up by hot, lonely women (as in the popular commercial for an allergy remedy). Most who offered a ride were truck drivers or pensioners. Both made for lively conversation and quick improvement in my language.

Several years later when I had a car, I tried to return the favor, and I picked up hitchhikers wherever they appeared. One cold winter’s day, I picked up a young Russian woman near the Latvian border. She wore a light dress and no coat. “Don’t you get cold?” I asked, eager to practice my poor Russian. “No,” she said, “I’m fine.” We drove a kilometer in silence until she finally spoke several long, complicated sentences.

“I have to say I didn’t understand a single word you just said,” I confessed.

She laughed, understanding that I was not Estonian. So she rephrased, making it simple: “Seks, ne nado?”

I felt immediately guilty that my minimal Russian skills had forced her into such coarse language. Surely, her original proposition had been as eloquent as a poem by Pushkin. “Ne nado,” I replied, but thanked her profusely for her kind offer. She indicated an area where I should pull off the road, and I watched in my rear-view mirror as she stepped across the highway to work a line of parked lorries.

I imagined her knocking on a trucker’s door and afterwards relating to him the anecdote about the foreigner who picked her up because he thought she was cold. Laughter would ring from the column of trucks into the still winter air. Undiscouraged, the foreigner drove on, eyes peeled for another hitchhiker.

Read it in Estonian in Eesti Ekspress.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Long Live the Government

Estonian actor Tõnu Kark, asked by a TV reporter why he came to the song festival parade, answered “I wanted to see some happy people. And there are a hell of a lot of them here.” Ditto for me.

The song festival is the only event I’ve ever witnessed where shouting “Long live (fill in the blank with almost anything)” is met consistently with a hearty roar. Most cheers are tributes to choirs, or counties, or parishes, but occasionally there’s something unique. Prime Minister Ansip marched by and shouted “Long Live Estonia,” to which a 70-year-old woman next to me rejoined: “Long Live the Government.”

Here are some images made by our staff photographer, Imbi Imetore.

And, finally, the following. Imbi, not being male, was wondering about the illustrated accuracy of the man's right hand as portrayed in the song festival portapotty wall-side instructions.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Raised by Wolves?

A friend's son was visiting and he posed with Mundo. Everyone started to wonder if the two weren't from the same litter.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fair-weather Gentlemen

“What invoice?” the real estate developer said. He didn’t know it, but Liina had him on speakerphone. Phone conversations with him are cheap family entertainment.

“The one you didn’t pay three months ago,” she replied. This was one of her bigger clients for her interior design business. Around the house, I refer to this client as Snake.

“I didn’t get the invoice,” Snake said. “Can you send it again?”

That was three months ago. He still hasn’t paid. I sometimes think that we should translate Snake’s words to Latin and print them on currency: Ego non adepto invoice. Vos transporto is iterum?

The financial crisis has done a lot more than show who is, in the words of Warren Buffett, swimming without trunks. It’s put a host of so-called businessmen under the loop and outed those who are in American parlance, “fair-weather” gentlemen: they behave as gentlemen only when business is going well.

Of course Snake got the invoice both times that Liina sent it: she has a collection of his “we’ll get that paid right away” emails. So it’s a rather odd dance that plays out on the phone, where both Liina and Snake know the invoice was sent and received, yet Snake claims he never got it and Liina, out of a combination of not wanting to call the guy a liar and the hope of getting her money, plays along with him. Wouldn’t it just be easier on everyone if Snake would admit he doesn’t have the money? That despite his Audi Q7 and Hugo Boss suits, it’s really the bank who’s running his company?

Instead, he’s on the phone with my wife pretending he’s a bigshot, talking about other härrasmehed he’s in business with, and trying to convince her to take on another project, even after he never paid her for the last one.

An even better question: Why is Liina still talking to him?

I’ve tried her to persuade her to walk away from the guy, to take their contract to an inkasso company who will at least drag Snake’s name through the mud. So that the next time he appears in Kroonika, readers will look at his photo and say, “Ah, there’s Snake again. Has no one killed that scumbag?” Getting the money out of Snake would be nice, but telling him mine persse would be more satisfying. I can live without money. I can’t live without some measure of integrity.

Which is probably why I can’t understand Snake. To me, there’s no shame in bankruptcy itself. The shame is in pretending everything’s going swimmingly.

But I doubt Snake’s fooling anyone but himself. In Estonia’s real estate heyday, my dog Mundo could have run Snake’s real estate company. Some parts of the business excepted, it isn’t rocket science to buy property, build ugly apartments on it, and then re-sell it. In fact, the greed and false confidence of gentleman geniuses like Snake is what got the world into the mess we’re in. Why’d we ever let them run the place?

I think what we need in Estonia (not to mention the rest of the world) is a revolution of accountability. We start locally, because Estonia is so small no one can hide. Estonians seem to already know who the scumbags are in their country. But my question to you: Why haven’t we run them out of town?

The first step in this revolution is the rule of No Second Chances. Let’s say you’re a university rector who spends the school’s money on Church’s English Shoes and a charter jet instead of on a student library. You should get the boot and never be allowed a second chance. That’s right: Never. Not in a million years. Your ass should go to jail. And when you get out, the only job you should be able to get is shoveling coal into furnaces at the university you cheated. Well, okay, from time to time you should be released to do yard work, so that professors may point at you and say to students, “Look, there’s the stupid son-of-a-bitch who abused the public trust.”

The second rule of our revolution is Money is Not Your God. This could be taught by replacing obligatory Estonian military service with eight months of helping lepers in Orissa, India’s poorest state. And this program isn’t just for young men. Let’s say you’re a minor bureaucrat, convicted of siphoning off EU funds and awarding contracts to your own MTÜ. India will be happy to get the volunteers, and a little time away from fluorescent office lighting will do every public official some good.

Third is the rule of Public Humiliation. Let’s say you’re a minister of parliament who swapped land or sold your signature for cash. Public humiliation should be so steep that you’ll flee to Argentina to live next door to Nazi war criminals (if you stashed a lot of dough) or in a tent on the beach (if you didn’t).

Some Estonians argue that the reason these rules can’t be applied is because so many who might apply them also have skeletons in their closets. This is entirely absurd. There are 1.3 million people in this country, most of them perfectly honest. Many have never cheated anyone, have paid all their bills, and will do most anything to honor their word when they shake your hand on any size deal. If you’re an Estonian and haven’t met any of them, then you need to crawl out of the cave you’re living in and meet new people. There are some damned fine people in this country. (More good news: Some of these fine people are businessmen and some work in government.)

But what if the problem isn’t Snake and his ilk? Might the bigger problem be the rest of us? Are we too forgiving? Are we too easily walked over? Maybe Edmund Burke is overdoing it, but what the hell: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Some readers may wonder how I can judge. It’s easy: I’ve never cheated a fellow citizen or stolen anything. And, for the rest of my life, I don’t plan to. I also know plenty of rich people who got rich without stealing. So, in fact, it’s damned easy to sit on my high horse and look down at people like Snake.

Yes, if Jesus were here he’d tell me not to be so judgmental. He’d tell me to turn the other cheek and give Snake love. But until Jesus arrives, I don’t plan on forgiving Snake. And I think Estonia would be a hell of a lot better place if more of its good citizens weren’t so forgiving, either.


Due to Vello's crankiness (too much Martin Amis?) as witnessed in the above column, or perhaps due to shrinking magazine advertising revenue, as of next week his column will no longer appear in Eesti Ekspress. (He's still available here in English.) He promises to take a hoe to Snake and to recover the Vello within.