My guest in One on One this week is respected Prague-based journalist Erik Best. Erik came to Prague from the US in the early 90s after completing degrees in foreign relations, the Russian language and business. Shortly after his arrival, he founded the Fleet Sheet – a serious daily bulletin published by him and his staff highlighting important business and political stories for subscribers. Later, he added Final Word - a widely-read, often pointedly witty but also critical opinion piece. Both are discussed in our interview. But first, we began by talking a little about Erik Best’s initial decision to settle in Prague.
“You know the Russians see the Czech Republic as a kind of the Switzerland of Central Europe and I kind of saw it as that as well. Having been here a couple days when I first arrived, I knew that I could live here and the culmination of that, what I considered to be very good living conditions, coupled with knowledge of a Slavic language, was for me a very good selling point. Once I get here, within a year I came up with a business idea that happened to make the most use of everything I had studied. But it just worked out that way: it wasn’t part of a ‘plan’.”
That idea – that was already the Fleet Sheet?
“Yes, that was the Fleet Sheet. It all came together within about two to three weeks, based on the idea that business people were starting to come into town and they needed business and political news from the standpoint of another business person. There were no marketing studies at the time and I had no idea whether it would be successful. I thought if I had four or five people signed up by the end of the month that it would be worth continuing and I had 15 [ed. note: the number since has stayed steadily at over 7,000]. It was something that we put together very quickly but that started out quite well and has been going for far longer than I ever expected. Originally, I thought I might be doing it for five or six years and then that all the foreigners would leave and I’d have to find something else. But it’s still going strong after 17 years.”
What were some of the basic principles in putting The Fleet Sheet together?
“Well, the basic principle of the time was the combination of presenting the news as the business people wanted it, in language they could understand, and then actually getting it to them. Because, back then, it was possible to sometimes fax a page across the street but that second page almost never made it through! It seems incredible now, but the phone system was so horrible back then it was difficult. So the one-page format was almost self-determined because that second page almost never went through. Speed and the ability to choose the stories people needed was really the key.”
“It does. The other thing that hasn’t changed is that you have other outlets (The Prague Post, Radio Prague) but they are more focussed on a general audience. Our product is very specific really for people who are really very, very serious about what’s going on here. And that we have stuck to and that is a model which has worked.”
Another of your activities that was added later was Final Word, an opinion piece which is a free service people can sign up to have sent to their Inbox. Tell me a little bit about getting into that and why it was important for your organisation.
“We actually started that because The Fleet Sheet itself, our paid product was going well and we needed a little something extra to liven things up at the office to keep us busier. Plus, by going through the newspapers and following the news we were learning things that we weren’t able to express through our regular format, and the idea of having a small opinion piece came about partly because of that. The other big factor was that we had an advertiser who was pushing us for more space to advertise.
“The original idea was more for it to be an advertising means but then I ran into a bit of a problem because one of the advertisers pulled out quickly after we wrote a particular political story or about one of his customers and I had to make the decision whether it was an opinion piece meant to have fun and impart some knowledge to readers or whether it would be a money-making venture. And I decided regardless of whether we would make any money on it or not it was worth doing and that was a big moment in terms of the business. It really changed our business model and it really freed us up to not really think about what advertisers were saying about our writing.
“You know, we don’t see a lot of political censorship in the Czech Republic but there is still a fair amount of commercial censorship, where the advertisers try to dictate what can’t be written. By making the conscious decision not to allow an advertiser to determine what we were going to write – even if it meant making no money on the product – was a difficult decision but it freed us up. Of course, we have a responsibility about what we write but we are free of worrying about what anyone else says about it, and that’s a very free feeling.”
One of the things often mentioned is the sheer size of the English-speaking community here. Over the years the estimates have ranged wildly from just a few thousand to 25,000 in Prague. How do you see that community as having changed over the years? In the early days, you would see a lot of people coming over to teach English, people who had been inspired by the old Beat poets coming to read over at the Globe bookstore, but those times are long gone…
“They, I think, are to a large extent because the value of the US dollar has gone down, the crown is strong, things are more expensive. You know, I was never really quite part of that ‘young’ crowd so I can’t comment on it, I always targeting a different audience. In terms of the numbers I’ve always gone by those registered to work here which has been around 2,000. Together with family members, I’d say that there were about 8,000 Americans here. Ten or 12 years back of course there were many more backpackers but that is something, I think, which has gone steadily down. Otherwise, I think that the number has remained relatively stable.”
How do you look back on your decision to move here now?
“It’s one I’ve never questioned. I feel very happy about it and wake
up everyday that there’s something more to learn and I am very happy that
I have been accepted here and very grateful for the reception I have been
given. That is something that is not a given. I think that the Czechs have
done very well and that they are very open to foreigners for the most part,
very open to tourists. It used to be almost strange speaking English in
Prague but now you think nothing of it because the Czechs are so open.
It’s been a fantastic place to be and a fantastic place to grow.”