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

The front page of a June 1949 edition of Estonian-American newspaper Vaba Eesti Sõna (
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. Source: (Vaba Eesti Sõna)

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: Dario Cavegn

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