Wanda Rapaczynski, president of Agora, created a media empire in Poland.
Helena Luczywo and Wanda Rapaczynski are powerhouses behind one of Europe’s newest media empires, Agora. It owns a flagship newspaper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza, 17 radio stations, an Internet portal—and more. It also made millionaires of many of its workers with the largest employee stock offering in Central-Eastern Europe and now controls more than half of Poland’s advertising revenue.

When Luczywo attended a media conference in Prague in July 1990, there were dozens of wannabe media moguls then surfacing from the ruins of state socialism. Few made it. Some sold out to foreign media companies; others proved to be inept managers with a tin ear for what readers wanted. The success of Agora was by no means certain, either. Yet today it is seen as one of the best-managed companies in Europe, with a commanding editorial and financial clout. This spring, Rapaczynski made Business Week’s list of top 50 executives in Europe.

The Agora inner circle also includes Adam Michnik, a philosopher-writer who is the eloquent public voice of the paper, and publisher Piotr Niemczycki, Rapaczynski’s alter ego on the business side. Without the linkup between Luczywo and Rapaczynski in 1990, however, there is scant chance that Gazeta Wyborcza would have prospered as the first independent newspaper established from the former Soviet bloc—let alone that Agora would be an $800 million media empire now poised to expand beyond Poland.

Luczywo and Rapaczynski had known each other as children, but their lives took dramatically different turns in 1968. Polish Communists launched an anti-Semitic campaign blaming Polish Jews for the worker-student revolts against the regime. Luczywo’s family stayed put. Rapaczynski’s left. From that time on, both women honed their management skills—but on incredibly different turf. Luczywo edited underground publications, keeping one step ahead of the communist cops. After the Solidarity free trade union was banned in late 1981, she edited its underground newspaper, Tygodnik Mazowsze (Mazovia Weekly), which sustained the movement even after most leaders were jailed. She put out 80,000 copies a week on 20 printing presses on a monthly budget of $1,000 from overseas donations—“quite a lot in those days.”

Rapaczynski went to Italy, then Sweden, before settling in New York. She married, had a daughter, earned a doctorate in psychology and then an MBA. On her first trip back to Poland in January 1990, she was scouting virgin territory for Citibank as head of their new-products research team.

Gazeta Wyborcza had been created in April 1989 as a limited liability company. Solidarity negotiators at the Round Table Talks with the Communist government argued for a private newspaper to be started to report on the first partly free elections June 4. Lech Walesa asked Michnik to start the paper; he enlisted Luczywo, and she brought along her staff from the Weekly. The May 8 first issue of 150,000 copies sold out quickly. Three weeks later Solidarity candidates won every contested seat. Within weeks, the Communists had handed government over to them—the first step in the collapse of Communism itself.

Despite the paper’s instant success, Luczywo knew she needed help. She pleaded with Rapaczynski to find her pro bono experts to help shape a business side to the newspaper. Rapaczynski also was asked to find investors—and to develop an internal decision-making process to replace the chaotic socialist “egalitarianism.”

Luczywo and Michnik were training their own reporters and, even in 1989, sent foreign correspondents to Washington, then to Moscow. Today they have eight correspondents, none of whom are women. (At the corporate parent, Agora, men direct all seven departments; on the newspaper, one woman is among four deputy editors.) Reporters learned on the job how to cover “shock therapy” economic reforms and to tell readers who was buying up what from the ranks of ex-Communists. They reported on payback demands by the Catholic Church, which had provided safe haven to Solidarity dissidents. And they supported the 1990 reforms, even when it meant a showdown with Walesa, who was running against Solidarity economic reformers in the November 1990 presidential campaign on a plank to give every Pole an ownership stake in socialist enterprises. (A similar voucher privatization program was subsequently tried in the Czech Republic with disastrous results.) Gazeta Wyborcza backed the reformers, not Walesa, and he later demanded that the editors remove the Solidarity logo.

In retrospect, that was the start of the paper’s real independence—even if they were not out of the woods financially. Luczywo and Rapaczynski agreed they needed a foreign investor to help finance rapid growth. “Our goal was to get ‘clean’ money that wouldn’t be a political obligation,” said Rapaczynski. This was easier said than done. Poland’s reforms today get much praise, but back then the country was seen as a black hole and investors didn’t want to be around for factory-floor showdowns over layoffs.

Agora had been created as a parent for the paper. Owners of The New York Review of Books loaned them $300,000 in 1990 for printing supplies. But most banks and venture capitalists turned them down. Rapaczynski’s daughter wrote 400 letters to U.S. foundations but got back mostly questions—including “how long will this freedom last?”

Foreign media magnates wanted control with their investment. One rebuffed investor was Italy’s current president (and media baron) Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest media. The breakthrough came in 1993, when the Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises Inc. took a 12.3 percent stake in Agora, paving the way for eight million dollars in debt financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). They paid back the 1990 loan, built a $21 million printing plant, and computerized the newspaper. By 1995, they started buying radio stations and proved the skeptics wrong by successfully adapting a “golden oldies” format used by Cox.

Today, the newspaper has 19 local editions and 11 special sections including two quality magazines: Magazyn and High Heels (Wysocki i Obcasy) targeted to the interests of women. Rapaczynski has a $340 million acquisition pot. Luczywo left editing two years ago to prepare the Agora Internet portal, which was launched in early 2001.

Agora’s 1999 public offering raised $93 million with part of the money going for stock options to 1,500 of the 3,000 workers, based on seniority, who could buy shares for one zloty (about 25 cents). When they could sell two years later, the shares had gone up to zl 104 (about 25 dollars).

But the Agora saga is not just about money. Many promising startups from 1990 fell apart because of the “culture” inherited from state socialism. “It was really difficult for many of us to switch from working in informal groups, as members of the underground, to learn to work in big organizations and then a big corporation,” said Luczywo. The challenge was “getting out of the fog, so to speak,” says Rapaczynski. “This organization doesn’t lack in intelligence, but if that translates into everybody talking, that’s a lot of wasted air.” Her mantra was “focus, focus.” She also imported Western solutions and scoffed at arguments that Poland was “different” and had to shape a home-grown remedy.

Rapaczynski was struck by the different “levels of self-confidence. One thing you will never hear from an American team and was heard here all the time [in 1990] was ‘this can’t be done’—‘nie mosliwa.’ I finally said I wouldn’t stand for that phrase. And let’s think about how it can be done.” This approach paid off when tabloids and fancy magazines began to siphon off customers. At Gazeta, they’d established a framework for correcting mistakes. And there were plenty of them, from too-high newsstand prices to passive “order-takers” on the advertising staff. Then there was the two million-dollar “image advertising” campaign that Rapaczynski concluded “was a total waste of money.” Circulation didn’t go up. “We learned the hard way,” she said.

The editors also got wake-up calls. As Poles put together “normal” lives, their overriding passion for politics waned. However, in time, Gazeta Wyborcza learned to connect with readers on issues far a-field of Luczywo’s passion for politics—on such mundane issues as finding jobs, cars, homes and the accoutrements that the “acquisitional” Poles insisted on having. They also learned to listen better to core concerns of readers about this transition.

The turning point was a groundbreaking series on maternity hospitals. A male editor (and new father) suggested that readers tell them their “birthing” experiences. An outpouring of horror stories resulted about poor facilities and demeaning attitudes. There had been reports of this before—feminists had had a seminar on “totalitarian practices in maternity hospitals”—but the Gazeta Wyborcza series made this a national issue the policy chiefs had to address.

Has this media empire run by two women made a difference for women in Poland? Opinions differ. Poles probably underestimate the impact of a commitment of resources needed to produce a high-caliber women’s magazine. Few Western papers have done this. Rapaczynski wanted to snare more women readers but, even more, to give advertisers a vehicle to reach women, “specifically for beauty and fashion.” And, she says, “we see a very nice fit.” High Heels, the magazine supplement, boosted Saturday newspaper sales by eight percent its first year.

High Heels is far more than a fashion magazine, however. Cover stories feature women with wrinkles, not just under-30 beauties. Feminists write columns. Cutting-edge issues get explored at length, along with health and fitness pieces that advertisers prefer. But Rapaczynski says “we finally are beginning to show our feminist face—which is long overdue.”

Maybe. Women’s rights groups say the newspaper is unpredictable and ignores many key issues, for instance the reasons why far more women are unemployed than men (including women who held 80 percent of jobs in the decrepit textile garment industries that have disappeared with the loss of the Russian market and influx of Chinese imports) and the formidable work and family issues. Rapaczynski contends that Polish feminists are “much more focused on politics versus bedrock issues…. They are Warsaw University feminists who are class oriented—who have an outflowing of rage on behalf of cleaning women who want an earlier retirement age. It is extremely irritating.”

The paper’s editorial stance on the key hot-button issue of reproductive rights stops short of being pro-choice, and there is not a lot of attention paid to the ramifications of illegal abortion in a country where underground abortions flourish. Luczywo says she is “very, very uncomfortable” with a “completely pro-choice position,” partly because of abuses under Communism when contraception was not available; the state promoted abortions—and woman had an average of 20.

In many ways, “women’s place” in society was up for grabs in the new Poland. The Catholic Church urged women to go home, as full-time wives and mothers. Women who took demanding jobs in the new economy faced irate husbands who still wanted meals on the table—at four in the afternoon. And early reporting in Gazeta Wyborcza was spotty. A story about a 1991 march by the Polish Feminist Association quoted an unnamed man as saying, in essence, that the activists were so ugly they needed “a better sex life.” A Polish-American woman, who had donated to underground Solidarity, wrote Luczywo to congratulate her on the success of the paper—and to express dismay at the slurs in that story. Subsequent news stories did a better job of tracking “women’s place” incidents. Some examples:

  • An Exxon billboard used a “dumb broad” message to sell motor oil, complete with a smirking husband next to his distraught wife at the wheel. Fledgling feminists took umbrage and substituted their own message, an incident that was written about in Gazeta Wyborcza. Few advertisers made that mistake again.
  • When a high school principal limited a new computer class to boys, parents of girls sought out a Gazeta reporter to complain. Girls were admitted.

Under Communism, many special privileges were given to mothers and not to women in general. With capitalism, it’s become more expensive to hire these women; taking away the benefits is politically risky. Maternity leaves are paid for 24 weeks and employers must retain a woman’s job for three years if she takes a full maternity leave. Western-type pay disparities also exist since women held many top professional jobs at hospitals and universities, which today are among the lower-paid jobs in Poland—much lower, for example, than the pay for jobs in male-dominated professions such as financial services.

These are complex issues related to the nation’s transition and are, in many ways, more difficult stories to cover than those from earlier times when women might have been barred from universities or top jobs or from receiving credit. Gazeta Wyborcza covers these issues, but women’s rights leaders often complain that they don’t do it well enough.

Wanda Nowicka, director of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, is a critic of the paper, but she is glad that High Heels has proven a success despite “writing serious stories.” That, she concedes, will help legitimize those issues across society.

One can hardly ask for more praise than that.

Peggy Simpson, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, has been working in Poland as a freelance journalist.

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