Where Journalists Live the Story


Keene, New Hampshire. -- It's reasonable, when gauging how far liberty has advanced in newly unshackled countries, to look for the freedoms we put first in our Bill of Rights -- the freedoms of speech and press.

Of course, the existence of any freedom has never guaranteed the ability to exercise it, a fact quite clear in some Third World countries where political control of legally independent newspapers is the rule.

But in some other parts of the world a force considerably more complex than politics constrains a free press. I speak of countries in Central Europe, where editors and publishers grapple with the vestiges of four decades of ideologically mismanaged economics.

Consider the case of Eva Uhrova, the editor of Czechoslovakia's largest women's weekly. Her paper has three rather expensive chauffeurs on staff, holdovers from the days when all sorts of jobs were created in the spirit of socialist full employment.

The owner of the publishing house that hired the drivers is and always has been the government, but as Czechoslovakia stumbles toward a free-market economy, editors like Ms. Uhrova need to cut expenses. Getting rid of the chauffeurs would help.

But some reporters balk. They were driven to assignments before and, says Ms. Uhrova, they see no reason why the country's shedding of Communist rule should change that. Anyway, she's told, most of them don't have driver's licenses. As for those who do, few can afford to buy cars. So, the chauffeurs and their vehicles will have to stay for the time being.

It's been only a few years since the Communists began their departure from government in Central Europe. Economic change has followed, but in a halting fashion that is as frustrating to those with enterprise on their minds as it is understandable to those who know history: Never before has a government successfully installed a market economy in the space of a couple of years, much less a couple of decades.

The economic transition is all the more complex in countries where the chains of Communist ideology and control discourage just about any initiative. They are strong chains; they are forged in economic arrangements, work habits and beliefs that, for the press, are as controlling as any government dictate on what should or shouldn't be printed.

And the possible consequences are dire: three-quarters of Czechoslovakia's 35 dailies and possibly 90 percent of its weeklies and monthlies are likely to go bankrupt by year's end. They're threatened by inflation shocks brought on by the end of price controls, big new taxes imposed by a cash-strapped government, inane structural inefficiencies in the way companies are set up and a work ethic as inspired as the latest five-year economic plan.

In short, the challenge facing many editors in Central Europe is not a journalistic one, but one of business survival.

Even as editors might focus on lofty principles of journalism -- ethics, accuracy, fairness and the like -- they have to eat. And that's not easy when they're at the mercy of state-owned printing presses (who roll the presses at whatever exorbitant price they like) and state-owned distributors (who deliver as few copies as they like). It's not easy when advertising, the life-blood of independent journals the free world over, is scorned by some HTC as a social ill.

The press in much of Central Europe can overcome these obstacles -- after its managers and workers unlearn the main lessons of the last 40 years, which are: 1) initiative and enterprise have no value, 2) there will always be consumers for the products you make, and 3) the best response to idiotic government mismanagement of the economy is shoulder shrugging.

But, then, newspapers aren't just any other business. They have responsibility none other has -- to be a watchdog -- and that's why their financial survival is so important.

At a time when government officials untrained in public policy are writing laws and rearranging the economic structure of things, the opportunities for mistake, fraud and abuse are overwhelming. Will party hacks wind up atop newly, privatized businesses? Will a bungling Parliament enact killer economic reforms. Will ethnic passions be unreasonably inflamed by confused government lawmaking? A dead press can't report the answers, much less ask the questions.

A perceived solution is capital. There's a lot of talk these days about getting Western money into Central Europe. But the capital will be wasted unless business managers there learn how to manage. The tasks extend from the basic to the sublime.

The basic: Finding new gauges for personnel-performance reviews, which until recently monitored whether or not workers attended the May Day parade.

The sublime: Coping with conflicting values. A monthly magazine in Czechoslovakia recently ran an advertisement for toys produced outside the country. The manufacturer explained in the ads that payment couldn't be made in Czech crowns, which can't easily be converted into other currencies. The magazine publisher was immediately lambasted by readers for printing an advertisement that semed to encourage inequality, because not everyone in Czechoslovakia has access to foreign exchange.

Central European countries are in a crucial transition, moving from the safety of subsidy and full employment to a market economy where the rules are being written on the run. There'll be pain and suffering along the way. With luck, journalists will be skilled enough to report the biggest achievements, accidents and abuses of the shift to an unmanaged economy.

But those same journalists will be living the story they're covering. With luck, they'll have the skills to survive and get the job done.

James A. Rousmaniere Jr., a former reporter for The Sun, writes frequently on press problems abroad. He is editor and president of The Keene Sentinel.

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