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THE SLOVAK SPECTATOR CELEBRATES SEVENTH ANNIVERSARY

Letter from the Editor: The things that matter

THIS is an exciting time to be a journalist in Slovakia. Events that used to seem as far off as next Christmas to a child are approaching with dizzying speed - the privatisation of gas utility SPP, fall elections, Nato and EU expansion.
And receding into the past are the depressing stories we've covered as a paper - the Kováč Jr kidnapping, the 1997 Nato referendum, the Ducký murder and forgotten legions of corruption cases.
This anticipatory hand-rubbing and nostalgia isn't for lack of anything better to write. The Slovak Spectator turned seven years old March 1, an infant by major daily standards but an improbable greybeard for a small-market weekly with a start-up capital of $40,000 and no money but what it earns.

THIS is an exciting time to be a journalist in Slovakia. Events that used to seem as far off as next Christmas to a child are approaching with dizzying speed - the privatisation of gas utility SPP, fall elections, Nato and EU expansion.

And receding into the past are the depressing stories we've covered as a paper - the Kováč Jr kidnapping, the 1997 Nato referendum, the Ducký murder and forgotten legions of corruption cases.

This anticipatory hand-rubbing and nostalgia isn't for lack of anything better to write. The Slovak Spectator turned seven years old March 1, an infant by major daily standards but an improbable greybeard for a small-market weekly with a start-up capital of $40,000 and no money but what it earns.

To mark the occasion we decided to change the layout of the paper, but in truth it's something we should have done a while ago (how many of us don't have a hundred tasks that fit that description).

The changes give us more room to be creative with pictures (read: print bigger ones) and, I feel, reflect the fact we're all (you readers and us spectators) a little older than we were as Prime Minister Dzurinda was sworn in. Fewer of us are backpacking teachers; more have married and put down tentative roots. I don't know if changing print fonts and headline sizes can communicate all that, but that's my story.

We also know a little more about this place, and have our attention caught by different events than back in 1995. I, for one, want to know more about the driver of a black BMW who just roared past my window in downtown Bratislava at over 60 miles per hour. I see this jerk quite often, his engine howling as he swerves past cars on the trolley tracks, and I wonder why he thinks anyone at his destination wants him to arrive quicker than normal. Why he never gets stopped by the police (what police?). Why no one else seems to notice except me, glaring at him with my son on my shoulders as he hurtles on another shorthaired errand.

Asking questions like this has sometimes got The Spectator a label as 'anti-Slovak'. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'd like nothing better than to run headlines every week declaring "Parliament passes yet another courageous reform," "Slovak Roma glow as police make further skinhead arrests" or, better still, "Another gold for Slovak hockey".

But the first job of a paper is to defend the interests of its readers, and that often means exposing a stupid law, a greedy monopoly or a corrupt arms license commission. I'm interested in seeing Speedy Gonzales losing his wheels and ideally his freedom; some of you may want the police to explain why you have to waste so much time getting a green card; others to have Slovak Telecom explain its Internet pricing. All of us just want a safer, simpler, cheaper place to live, and the only way to get it is to challenge people who want the opposite.

I've also received some nudge-wink comments that a paper has to retract its claws on stories affecting major advertisers. Again, not true. The only reason people might pick this newspaper up (apart from the fact it's the only English-language paper in the country) is that they believe what we write is not motivated by any interest other than telling the truth.

I remember, for example, a story in 1998 on the Slovnaft refinery describing the toxins they had pumped into Bratislava's fresh water source; it appeared next to a Slovnaft ad touting their environmental sensitivity. Last month we ran a story on ST Internet rates holding back Internet development in the same issue as an ST ad for calling packages, and another piece detailing auditing irregularities by 'Big Five' firms in this country even though they are some of our biggest advertisers.

We're not crusaders, nor do we get a kick out of poking advertisers in the eye. The point is that editorial content has to be separate from advertising, and that building trust with readers means sticking to your guns. It's a credit to some of the advertisers I've mentioned that they still do business with us, and understand why those glowing headlines can so rarely be written.

It's been bloody hard work, and continues to be, but I don't know many people who live in this country who can't say the same. A doctor friend was telling me tonight how just supporting his family leaves him no time to be with them, and that this is no life. I sympathise, for many afternoons that I spend with my son I have to leave him on the couch sucking his thumb while I write another story.

If all of us - teachers and business people, diplomats and journalists - weren't at least trying to get at the truth, those missed hours with family would be intolerable. I'm sure I speak for many of you when I say I feel too old to compromise on the things that matter.


Tom Nicholson,
Editor in Chief

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