While the Internet has become a major tool of communication in developed countries around the world, much has been made of Slovakia's lacklustre IT prowess. Indeed, a September, 1998 survey conducted by the Slovak Academic Network revealed that only 2.5% of the population used the Internet on a regular basis.
But IT insiders and analysts say that the trend is slowly reversing, and that today close to 10% of Slovaks are regularly on-line. With the increased activity, Internet media outlets have begun to sprout up in Slovakia in hopes of cashing in on the heightened use of the World Wide Web.
The firms say that profits are still at least a couple years away, and that their survival today is dependent upon wealthy backers willing to wait for their investments to pay off. Despite their current financial woes, Slovakia's Internet news outlets say that by setting up shop now, they will reap the benefits sure to come in the country's brightening IT future.
"I believe that this business has a big future, even in such a technologically asleep country as Slovakia," said Pavol Rusko, head of the nation's top-rated television station TV Markíza and one of the co-owners of the newest Internet media outlet, Markíza Portal. "We are investing today because in this kind of business it's important to follow a vision. It's better to invest now than two years from now when the business is expected to boom."
Markíza Portal (www.markiza.sk), which is scheduled to begin operations on the Net in October, will join two other Internet media groups already operating in Slovakia. InZine (Internet Lifestyle Magazine, www.inzine.sk) was the first to hit the Web, beginning on February 1, 1999, and was followed by Internetové noviny (Internet newspaper, IN, www.in.edom.sk/noviny), which launched their site September 9, 1999.
Neither of the two existing sites have reported a profit, and all three are backed by IT firms. InZine is financed by the Slovak IT company Gratex, while the American wireless communications firm Corinex is the 100% backer of IN and a 50% partner in Rusko's Markíza Portal. Officials from Corinex were unavailable to comment for this article.
"It's absolutely impossible to survive without a strong and stable company behind you in this business," said Peter Pišťanek, InZine's editor-in-chief. "The only way to raise any money is through advertising, but as you probably know, the Internet ad market is today not even worth mentioning."
While times are tough, the new media outlets are encouraged by the predictions of IT experts that the Internet will soon become more accessible to the general population. The high costs of connection, for example, have been cited as hindering the medium's growth, but the July privatisation of state-run fixed line monopoly Slovenské Telekomunikácie (Slovak Telecom - ST) is expected to drag costs down to more affordable levels.
"Currently, the lines are too expensive for a private user," said Marián Velšic, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank in Bratislava. Velšic explained that ST currently connects users by "dial-up connection", or through fixed telephone lines. With expected infrastructure upgrades driven by the new ST majority owner Deutsche Telecom, however, less-expensive "cable connections" will become the norm. "After the market is opened to the less expensive cable connections, prices should fall considerably."
When they do, Velšic continued, the core group of Slovak Internet users (young, university-educated, urban dwellers) will boost Internet use to new levels. Markíza Portal's Tomáš Szalay, in fact, predicted that "in three years Slovakia could have 30% of the population as regular Internet users."
InZine's Pišťanek, who as a noted prose writer has been credited with capturing the gritty realism of Slovak life, agreed that the future of Internet media lay with the younger generations. "University-educated people between 23 and 35, people with a sense of humour who are interested in public affairs - that is a typical InZine reader," he said, adding that the site receives 1,500 to 2,000 hits per day. "We have managed to attract people who either are or in a few years will be representing the elite of this country."
InZine's current rival on the scene, IN, is updated around-the-clock and has managed to attract some of the country's most respected reporters. "It wasn't very difficult to attract quality reporters to work at IN," said editor-in-chief Július Gembický, himself a respected journalist with nearly 30 years of experience for the special-interest magazine Svet, and the daily papers Národná Obroda and Sme.
"For [reporters], it's a great opportunity to react quickly to political and social events," he added. "The Internet offers one thing which the classical print press is missing - the opportunity to be interactive and more communicative with its audience."
But far from trying to compete with traditional printed media, Gembický said IN was striving for "co-existence with the print media. Internet media will never bury the printed paper," he said. "But Internet as a new medium of media offers more than the classical printed paper - it's interactive, it offers sound, and even moving pictures."