An old publication's new tricks: How an Estonian-American newspaper is compiled from Tallinn (1)

The front page of a June 1949 edition of Estonian-American newspaper Vaba Eesti Sõna ("Free Estonian Word") featuring news about the mass deportations conducted in Estonia contrasted with a more contemporary June edition of the paper. (Vaba Eesti Sõna)
7/23/2016 3:40 PM
Category: Culture

Over half a century before the arrival of the Internet and social media, it was an Estonian-language newspaper published in Manhattan, the Vaba Eesti Sõna, or "Free Estonian Word," founded in 1949, which kept the Estonian-American diaspora connected and up to date on news from both home and the Soviet-occupied homeland. Nearly 70 years later, the paper's official editorial office remains located on the third floor of the New York Estonian House, but in modern e-Estonia style, editor-in-chief Kärt Ulman has been putting the weekly paper together from her home in Tallinn for three years.

Despite being tied up with getting the current week’s paper to press by its Thursday deadline and then immediately beginning preparations for the following week’s edition, Ulman found time this week to answer some questions for ERR News about the Vaba Eesti Sõna (VES), how she came to be involved with it and how the paper ended up seamlessly moving with her back to her native Tallinn.

ERR News: How did you end up working for the VES?

Ulman: I started visiting the New York Estonian House when my New York-born son turned three. I started teaching at the New York Estonian School and was thereafter invited to join all sorts of organizations, about whose activities I began writing articles for the paper. And when longtime editor-in-chief Airi Vaga retired, she recommended me to take her place. This was in 2005.

When did you move back to Estonia, and did the VES move with you right away? How was this decision reached?

I didn’t actually move back to Estonia. Much to my own surprise, we just didn’t return to New York with our son in the fall after our summer vacation in Estonia, but rather decided to stay here for a period of time so that he could attend Estonian-language school.

The VES has come with me everywhere all these years anyway, namely on my laptop, and since I write the paper online and send it to press via the internet, then really all I need is a good internet connection in order for the paper to be published. I know that this concept may be somewhat incomprehensible to the older generation, however for younger people there is nothing unusual about working remotely thus.

Throughout the years and decades, the amount of local Estonian-American content has declined. Who else does the VES collaborate with in sharing content, and what is the ratio of the paper’s own news to news from Estonia, for example?

Cooperation is great between all the publications of Estonians abroad, with whom we exchange materials as needed. Estonian media hasn’t shown much interest in the existence of Estonian media abroad, however this has changed somewhat recently.

We currently might have a bit more news from Estonia than local news in our paper. Of course we would like to put more emphasis on local [diaspora] news, but unfortunately it is difficult to get our hands on materials from across the large US — and there aren’t any more local correspondents who could regularly send us content. We are very grateful for all kinds of contributions!

Is a physical newspaper still necessary when everything today is available — and much faster — online?

We have our own loyal reader base, most of which belongs to the older generation, who specifically want to receive a paper copy of the newspaper in their mailbox. There are also Estonians living outside of Estonian communities and people who don’t use computers for whom the weekly VES embodies the entirety of their Estonian-speaking world — this is where they get their news and information. This generation once built up the entire Estonian community in the US, and out of respect for and a sense of duty to them, we will continue offering them their physical newspaper for as long as they would like to keep receiving it.

Who is the average VES reader? Besides Estonia, what is the furthest corner of the Earth to which the paper is sent?

The average reader is an Estonian-American of the older generation whose parents were already readers of the paper before them. Most subscribers are located in North America, however one paper is sent to New Zealand, and papers are sent to Hawaii and some countries in Europe as well.

What is the VES’ current readership, and how does it compare to previous numbers over the decades?

Current readership is approximately 1,000 — the paper’s circulation is approximately 800 but we know that multiple people will read a single copy, and not always even members of the same family!

During its heyday in the 1960s, the paper’s circulation reached nearly 5,000, however it has seen a steady decline since sometime during the 1980s — the older generation disappears and we don’t get new young subscribers because unfortunately many young third- and fourth-generation people’s Estonian language skills are not good enough to read the paper anymore.

Can you describe the typical weekly cycle of the VES — from content aggregation to press and distribution?

Preparations for the paper’s next edition begin just as soon as the previous edition is sent to press. I check online newspapers, news portals and social media daily and make note of stories that might interest our readers. On Monday or Tuesday I begin to slowly put the paper together — first I make a new template and then begin positioning material on it. Stories involving the Estonian-American community are usually submitted via email; on very rare occasions we still have printed articles sent to our [New York] office, which then need to be typed up on a computer. Printed articles used to arrive in the mail for us every week.

Estonian news I often have to rewrite myself, compiling multiple articles in order to provide context for our readers, and often simplifying the language used, as Estonian media loves using complex language in their writing. Tracking down and piecing together the content for a short, 6-7 paragraph article can take hours sometimes. Articles written by foreign-born Estonians need to be edited for grammar; I try not to change their unique writing style, but I make sure that the text is linguistically correct. All stories that I include in the paper need to be looked over — I proofread as well as fix any mistakes involving layout.

The majority of the time spent on the paper is spent on searching for and compiling content. Once I have all the texts, I begin positioning them on the paper, i.e. work on its layout. This is technical work, but it takes time to make sure that the proportions of all the headlines and texts are all visually in place. I always leave photos for last; editing and positioning them in the layout also takes a bit of time.

I then send the paper via Skype to our editorial office in New York for proofing — we are in constant contact via Skype from Tuesday through Thursday every week — and it gets sent back to me the same way. Once I have completed any final corrections, I draft the technical conditions for newsprint and delivery note and upload the newspaper’s PDF directly to the printers’ servers. Our newspaper is printed on Thursday afternoon and mailed out to our subscribers on Friday morning.

Has anything changed a great deal due to the fact that you are now managing this remotely?

Working remotely from Estonia has not actually changed anything in my daily life; putting the paper together takes exactly the same amount of time no matter where I do it. Thanks to the time difference [between Tallinn and New York], however, I have gained extra hours in every day.

Of course there is less communication with both colleagues and readers alike; I miss that. But every now and then I “go to work” in the New York office in order to help renew interpersonal relationships.

Are reader submissions involving Estonia and Estonians welcome? For example, say, from American expats living in Tallinn or Estonian-Americans living in Alaska.

Of course! We are very grateful for all kinds of contributions! We have always stressed the fact that contributions can be submitted to us in English; in the case of enough material, we have considered expanding the paper’s English-language section, which is currently just one page.

Who or what pays for the publication of this newspaper? Does VES pay for itself or does it receive financial assistance from diaspora-Estonian organizations for example?

VES finances itself from reader subscriptions and paid advertisements. As its readership continues to decline, however, and the number of advertisements decreases — the sale of obituaries isn’t known to be a particularly sustainable business — VES has been running a deficit for years already. Our financial reserves have also run out and multiple times in recent years we have come very close to ceasing print production.

Our biggest sponsor is the Estonian American National Council (ERKÜ) and a considerable amount is also raised in small donations from readers. We have also received a few inheritances which have helped us continue. We have tried raising the issue with the Estonian side multiple times — that the state should help support Estonian diaspora media the same way it supports the diaspora’s other cultural manifestations — but without luck thus far.

What is the future of the VES? Digital? Have you considered joining forces with other Estonian diaspora news portals such as the Canadian Estonian World Review?

I cannot say what the future will be. One possibility would be to just stop publishing the newspaper which has been in continuous publication since 1949. It seems a bit senseless to interrupt such cultural continuity, doesn’t it? Another possibility would be the VES going online-only, though I personally don’t see a future in this — the Internet is full of websites that nobody reads.

A printed newspaper, particularly a regularly published paper, is an asset! It is living history, recorded weekly into a time capsule together with its fonts and advertisements of its day — an authentic imprint of a time which cannot be changed retrospectively. So it was, and so it happened.

We have discussed future prospects with a number of Estonian diaspora publications, but have thus far been hampered by administrative and technical issues. We will not, however, rule out any cooperation, and we are thankful for any ideas that would help us to go on.

Editor: Aili Sarapik

The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters

Message forwarded to the editor

This Ip-address has limited access

See also

There are no comments yet. Be the first!

Reply to comment

Reply to comment

Laadi juurde ({{take2}})
The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters
Add new comment
  • foto
    2017 Grammy nominees include multiple Estonians

    The nominees for the 59. Grammy Awards were published on Tuesday, and upon closer inspection the list included both better- and lesser-known Estonian names and involved an Estonian music label, a number of Estonian musical ensembles and works by an Estonian composer as well.

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Dec. 5-11

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at "Places to be, things to do, exhibitions to enjoy, concerts to attend and dances to dance. Keep warm and take in all the great experiences!"

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Nov. 28-Dec. 4

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at It seems as though the Christmas spirit is nearby, because this week offers plenty of music and merry gatherings.

  • foto
    Estonian choir's concert series focuses on life, work of poet Lydia Koidula

    130 years following her death, the award-winning Youth Mixed Choir Vox Populi will be giving a short series of concert-lectures dedicated to the life of the famous Estonian poet Lydia Koidula at schools and cultural centers across the country in an alternative to more typical holiday-themed Advent-season performances.

  • foto
    'A Quiet Heart' wins international award at Estonia's Black Nights Film Festival

    Eitan Anner's "A Quiet Heart" ("Lev Shaket") was awarded the Grand Prix of the 20th Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF) at the festival's awards ceremony in Tallinn on Saturday night.

  • foto
    Interview with Yaniv Berman, director of PÖFF film 'Land of the Little People'

    Helina Koldek of interviewed Yaniv Berman, director of 2016 Israeli film "Land of the Little People," one of the films featured in the 2016 program of Estonia's Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF).

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Nov. 21-27

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at Here is a diverse and bold choice of events for the ongoing week. Open your minds and have a great time!

  • foto
    10 recommendations for Black Nights Film Festival

    The 20th annual Black Nights Film Festival, better known by Estonian acronym PÖFF, is already in full swing, with a rich program of screenings at various locations in Tallinn and Tartu. As the number and variety of films on offer may be overwhelming for festivalgoers, Helina Koldek of has shared her top ten picks for this year's edition of PÖFF.

  • foto
    Renovation of Song Festival Grounds to start after 2019

    The Riigikogu’s Cultural Affairs Committee on Monday supported a plan to renovate the stage of the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn as well as the surrounding buildings. According to MP Laine Randjärv (Reform), who chairs the committee, construction could begin after the next Song Festival in 2019.

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Nov. 14-20

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at November in Estonia is always associated with the Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF), but in addition to this wonderful event, there are plenty of others as well. Have a great week!

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Nov. 7-13

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at We have a busy week ahead of us! In addition to the annual film festival PÖFF, there will also be another interesting film program, lots of stimulating music, a big fair and even an international poetry slam. Stay warm and enjoy!

  • foto
    Benno Schirrmeister: Do Estonians dream of electric sheep?

    On a journalist exchange in Estonia, Benno Schirrmeister of Bremen’s TAZ is highly informed, yet a blank slate as far as a foreigner’s experience of Estonia is concerned. In his first op-ed about Tallinn, he spots something beyond IT that Estonia could advertise — but doesn’t.

  • foto
    VIDEO: Kristjan Randalu Trio performs with American guitarist Ben Monder

    On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, the Kristjan Randalu Trio played four concerts over two nights with American modern jazz guitarist Ben Monder, who has both released solo albums as well as been featured on hundreds of other albums, including David Bowie's final album "Blackstar" (2016).

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Oct. 31-Nov. 6

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at A great week lies ahead filled with interesting performances, dazzling dance acts and cinematography.

  • foto
    Estonian art magazine's 2016 issue to be celebrated with public launch party

    Estonian Art is an English-language art magazine published by the Estonian Institute since 1997; its 2016 issue, the launch for which will be celebrated at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia in Tallinn on Friday night, focuses on art publishing in Estonia.

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Oct. 24-30

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at This week’s picks once again feature some fascinating art, films and music. Enjoy and check out for more!

  • foto
    Council of Europe film co-production fund holds fall meeting in Tallinn

    The Eurimages Board of Management, which meets four times per year in different cities around Europe, is holding its 2016 fall meeting in Tallinn from Oct. 17-21, having brought with it over 50 top-level decision-makers to the Estonian capital.

  • foto
    15th contemporary music festival brings European talent to Estonia

    The AFEKT International Contemporary Music Festival brings European composers to Estonian audiences for the 15th year running, along with "Multimedia Composition: Fine Arts and New Technologies," a dynamic and engaging two-day conference that will cross-reference works and composers from this year’s festival.

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Oct. 17-23

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at This week offers fashion, lights, lots of music and even an improv festival. Sounds great!

  • foto
    Italian cinema in Kumu: Ever been to the moon?

    Giulia (Liz Solari) lives and works in Rome and Paris. She’s in her thirties and has already had a successful career working for a top fashion magazine. Giulia is quite convinced she has everything she could ever wish for — until she meets Renzo (Raoul Bova).

  • foto
    The Cap and Bells: William Butler Yeats in Estonian music

    On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Eastern Rising in Ireland, a group of Estonian artists decided to make a piece of Irish culture the centre of their efforts this year. Their project, "The Cap and Bells", is the third great effort to bring the work of W. B. Yeats closer to an Estonian audience, and a voyage through Yeats' poetry as well as contemporary music, dance, and film.

  • foto
    The unbearable emptiness of pretending

    Vallo Toomla’s debut film “Pretenders” tells the story of Anna (Mirtel Pohla) and Juhan (Priit Võigemast), who spend a holiday at the country house of their rich friends to mend their relationship. However, the situation is far from an intimate idyll and, as if this wasn’t enough, they take in a couple caught in a storm, who think they are the owners of the house.

  • foto
    Kertu Saks appointed new director of Cultural Endowment of Estonia

    The Supervisory Board of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia has appointed Kertu Saks its new director; she will assume office on Nov. 14.

  • foto
    Minimum salary for culture, arts employees with higher degree to rise to €942 in 2017

    Following a decision of the government, the minimum salary of employees in the culture sector that have a higher education degree will be raised to €942 in 2017. To compensate for the step, the Ministry of Culture will reallocate more than a million euros.

  • foto's weekly recommendations: Oct. 10-16

    Weekly recommendations for cultural events taking place in Estonia this week as curated by and published in the Culture critics’ blog at This week will be filled with different sorts of music, art and great films.

  • foto
    Authors find penal code section prosecuting Kender should be reworded

    Members of the Estonian Writers’ Union (EKL) issued a public statement in which they found that the wording of the section of the Penal Code on the production of child pornography, which led to the prosecution of author Kaur Kender, should be changed.

  • foto
    The chair of happiness: Italian film cycle in Kumu continues

    Bruna runs a beauty salon, but is chronically strapped for cash. When a dying client confesses to her that she has hidden a small fortune in jewels in the seat of a chair, Bruna decides to go for it.

  • foto
    Film production complex to be built in Tallinn by 2018

    Estonian movie makers have established a joint venture called Tallinn Film Wonderland to build a film industry hub in Tallinn’s Kopli district by the end of 2018.

  • foto
    Elmo Nüganen awarded Baltic Star in St. Petersburg

    Estonian actor and director Elmo Nüganen was presented with the International Baltic Star Award for the development and consolidation of humanitarian links in the Baltic region. Nüganen received the award at a ceremony in the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Oct. 3.

  • foto
    Where did all the euros go?

    The Museum of Estonian Architecture opened its “Where did all the euros go?” exhibition on Wednesday. It looks at the different projects funded with contributions by the European Union between 2006 and 2015.