Sme: Mečiar's scourge, and a digital pioneer

ON THE first working day of 1993, Slovakia was four days old and the editorial staff of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, the Smena daily, knew there was no way to avoid politics and that it was, therefore, the end of the paper as they knew it. Eleven days later the first issue of Sme, a new daily led by former Smena editor-in-chief Karol Ježík, appeared.

The Sme daily marked 20 years in print on January 15.The Sme daily marked 20 years in print on January 15. (Source: SME)

ON THE first working day of 1993, Slovakia was four days old and the editorial staff of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, the Smena daily, knew there was no way to avoid politics and that it was, therefore, the end of the paper as they knew it. Eleven days later the first issue of Sme, a new daily led by former Smena editor-in-chief Karol Ježík, appeared.

“I was 19 when I started working for Sme,” Matúš Kostolný, the current editor-in-chief of the daily, recounts in his column published in the Sme daily on January 15 to mark its 20th anniversary. “In Ježík’s editorial … not only newspapers but also history was in the making.”

New country, new paper

Alexej Fulmek, the head of Petit Press, the publishing house that prints Sme as well as The Slovak Spectator, was Ježík’s right-hand man in the days when Sme was founded under rather dramatic circumstances. Originally, the 1991-92 government of Ján Čarnogurský decided that Smena would be privatised, with a French investor expected to enter the publishing house. But after the sweeping victory of Vladimír Mečiar in 1992 the decision was cancelled and the new government decided Smena would be transformed into a state-run stock company. On January 4, 1993, the then director of the company, Peter Weiss, and the editor-in-chief, Karol Ježík, were replaced.

“We knew in advance that something like that was going to happen,” Fulmek, who at that time was Ježík’s deputy editor-in-chief, told The Slovak Spectator. “We were preparing to leave.”

Fulmek was in charge of persuading the former editorial staff to leave, and in the end he managed to convince 80 percent of them.

“People were very insecure, and persuading them was demanding indeed,” Fulmek said. “Only the arrogance with which they [the representatives of board] came to kick us out did it. They were using the poor economic results of Smena for their reasoning, but that was nonsense, because the daily was making almost 7 million crowns at that time. So we managed to persuade the people that we were right and that it was a politically motivated putsch.”

The first issue of Sme was published on January 15, 1993.

“We are out and we consider it a small miracle,” Ježík wrote in his editorial on the front page. “After the chaos of several days and nights, a newspaper was born, not as a child of a cold business mind, but of our internal need. We will miss terribly the space we had built over the past three years.”

Although new projects at that time were considered to be very risky, Sme survived the first two years, which Fulmek remembers as the toughest. After that, things started looking better for the daily economically. In 1998, during the culmination of the political fight between the opposition, endorsed by Sme, and the ruling government of Mečiar, Sme started making a profit, said Peter Vajda, one of the founders and now a shareholder in Petit Press, in an interview with Sme.

Against Mečiar

Opposing the ruling power was practically Sme’s raison d’etre until the elections in 1998, when the opposition led by Mikuláš Dzurinda defeated Mečiar in the elections and the country resumed its path towards Western politics and European integration.

After Mečiar’s election victory in 1992, Smena was published with a black frame on the front page, resembling an obituary notice.

“That was because we knew it was the end of Czechoslovakia, but we also knew that non-democratic practices were going to prevail,” Fulmek said.

In the years that followed, society was polarised and the anti-Mečiar forces, among which Sme held a prominent position, were determined to bring his government down. The daily’s journalists even went so far as to abandon journalistic standards by establishing very close relationships with opposition politicians.

“Sme was a critical flagship that did not hesitate to enter into the conflict with Mečiar,” Fulmek said. “In 1994–1998 Sme even did extra work: we organised two election buses containing exhibitions of our [political] cartoonists, and we toured the country presenting artists and opposition politicians. So the interconnection between the opposition and the journalists was a non-standard phenomenon.”

Today such closeness between journalists and politicians is viewed rather negatively, Fulmek admitted. From 2000 onwards the two sides gradually drifted apart, and under editor-in-chief Milan Šimečka traditional boundaries in the relationship were re-established.

“[Journalists] started keeping their distance again to retain their critical spirit and to remain independent,” Fulmek said. “It is better now than it was 20 years ago; there is no such closeness or even coordinated cooperation between journalists and politicians.”

Anchored in the digital era

At 20 years old, Sme, just like any other newspaper, continues its ongoing struggle for independence, balanced reporting, and high-quality journalism. Unlike in the 1990s, it no longer needs to give up its principles in order to save democracy and freedom of speech. The challenges it currently faces are more related to ongoing economic problems and rapid technological development.

All publishers are facing two main challenges, according to Fulmek: free online content, and the declining price of advertising due to the crisis-driven decrease in advertising volumes.

“Publishing houses seem to be cutting costs, and I believe this will eventually lead to the consolidation of the market, which means that not all the players will keep their market position,” Fulmek told The Slovak Spectator.

Since 1994, when Sme first launched online content, it was among those who made content available online free of charge, Fulmek said. In 1998 Sme was the first newspaper with an online department, after which it became the Slovak pioneer in launching blogs and posting daily news updates online.

“Hence the unique position of Sme on the market is that it has about two million readers monthly, which is a big thing,” Fulmek said. “But it also cannibalises the printed issue.”

A typical Sme reader used to buy the print issue four times a week five years ago, but nowadays he or she buys it only twice a week. Still, the readers’ sense of loyalty towards the brand remains, because they are now reading the news online instead.

“So the biggest challenge is to face the digital era and find a way to monetise the content without having the readers pay for it,” Fulmek said.

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