“It was an incredible period”: 1991 launch of Prague Post remembered

First edition

On 1 October 1991 the first edition of The Prague Post hit the newsstands. Though now defunct, the newspaper remains the most significant publication of its kind in the country’s post-communist period. Ahead of the 30-year anniversary, I spoke to Lisa Leshne (nee Frankenberg), who was its first general manager and later publisher. Leshne co-founded the weekly after receiving feedback from advertisers while with Prognosis, which was a monthly paper.

“The first [piece of feedback] was, Wow, it is so great to have an English-language newspaper in Prague – but it would be even better if it were more than once a month.

“The second thing was, It’s great to have an English-language newspaper, but this paper is missing business news.

“There was no business or economic news in Prognosis at that time; I would say it was really more focused on culture and the arts.

Lisa Leshne's official journalist's ID,  issued by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs | Photo: archive of Lisa Leshne

“And the really ties into the third piece of feedback that I consistently heard, which was, Wow, it’s great to have an English-language newspaper, but you know, it feels a lot like a college newspaper.”

So you decided to take a left turn and do your own thing and set up The Prague Post as a more serious newspaper?

“That’s exactly true.

“One of the things that I often think about is, I didn’t set out to do this – it wasn’t like my goal was to start my own newspaper.

“I think if Prognosis had taken this feedback and kind of evolved, I would have been perfectly happy to stay at Prognosis and be part of that.

“But I did grow frustrated when it was clear that they didn’t want to go in that direction.

“And I felt like, Wow, there really is a market for this.”

When you actually did start the Prague Post, how complicated was it? What kind of bureaucratic hoops did you have to jump through?

Alan Levy | Photo: archive of Lisa Leshne

“Well, I resigned from Prognosis July 4, 1991, and we published the first issue of The Prague Post on October 1, 1991.

“When I think back on that timeline, it seems absolutely insane and crazy that we were able to accomplish launching this newspaper in just those few short months.

“Of course, there were a lot of challenges.

“The great news is I already had some of the learning curve, in terms of being part of Prognosis.

“I would say the first big challenges, and probably the most complicated ones, were really just navigating all the red tape in Czechoslovakia at the time: all of the legal and accounting and tax and finance.

“The second one was hiring and retaining of great staff.

“I would say the hiring of the staff was surprisingly easy back then.

“I think that we were a lot of good will and luck and timing.

A momentous issue | Photo: archive of Lisa Leshne

“Because for young and even older journalists at the time, in the early ‘90s, the opportunity to come and be a part of a new newspaper in a country that had just overthrown communism, and was sort of at the centre of some of the most exciting stories in the world – especially if you’re a foreign correspondent – was a chance that a lot of people were very eager to take.

“We were also lucky in that there was this whole wave of Czech Americans or Czech Brits – the children of people who had left in the 1968 exodus – who had grown up speaking Czech and speaking English.

“And for them this was a great opportunity, to come and to be part of this newspaper.

“So we were able to operate with that.

“However, retaining that staff was another big challenge.

“Because for a lot of people coming and living in a foreign country was not so easy.

“We had a lot of people who would come, they were terrific, they would get trained, we would put a lot of time and effort and money into getting them up to speed – and then they would leave, something would happen.

“So that was a big challenge.”

How long do you feel it took for The Prague Post to hit its stride and really succeed, I suppose?

“When I look back at it, I’m actually shocked and surprised at how quickly we hit our stride.

Prague Post staff celebrate Thanksgiving | Photo: archive of Lisa Leshne

“I would say it happened pretty fast.

“A big part of that was Alan Levy, our founding editor-in-chief.

“He had actually lived in Prague from I think 1967 to ’71, so he had lived through the Soviet invasion and occupation.

“He had written 17 books, he was a foreign correspondent for The International Herald Tribune, so he brought a certain level of experience – and also connections within the country – that really helped us get off the ground.

“So I think we hit our stride pretty quickly.

“Also in our second year we hired Martin Huckerby as our initial managing editor.

“Martin came from the UK, from The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and he was a wonderful, professional journalist who was able to, again, train and oversee our staff of journalists.”

My final question is, How do you personally today, 30 years later, look back on that period of the foundation and early days of The Prague Post?

“Oh my gosh – I look back on it so fondly!

“I really spent my twenties in Prague and those were very, very formative years.

“And I met probably the most incredible people that I’ll ever meet in my lifetime: Czechs, Slovaks, Americans, Brits.

“Our staff has been incredible; we’re scattered all over the world but thanks to social media we are all really in touch and connected.

“We have a series of reunions that are going to happen around the October 1 30-year anniversary being hosted in person in the UK, in San Francisco, in LA, New York, D.C.,

“And I think we’re going to have a big Zoom call with everybody.

“So yeah, it was an incredible period and I’m just so grateful to have been a part of it.”