Remembering the Little Paper That Couldn't
Velvet magazine, January 1996
The night I was supposed to fax this to Prague I was quite literally writing terrible poetry in the closest approximation to a rock club I could find in Budapest. Then a guy walked over to me.
"Excuse me, uh, you probably don't know me, but uh, you're Matt, and you used to work for Prognosis, right?" he asked nervously, before continuing.
"I used to live in Prague. In fact I once wrote a book review for Prognosis, but it didn't run because some staff writer was already reviewing the book."
His name was Michael Olson, he was a graduate student at CEU, he was well on his way to speaking four languages, and planned to use his degree and his language skills to land a damned good job. "I know it sounds kind of boring," he said.
History and weird luck have conspired to make a guy like that -- obviously smarter than me and destined for money and interesting commerce -- nervous and slightly deferential upon meeting me.
That's the legacy I encounter, more often than not, of the weird little paper we published in Prague for four years. No one ever really read it, or remembered much of anything beyond John Allison's columns, but everyone knew about it. "Yeah, I read about you guys in Details," is the typical comment, even from those who lived in Prague during our run.
But by virtue of fortunate timing (it was the first post-commie English-language paper in the region), its iconoclastic publishing style (the oldest owner was 24, everyone was drunk, and no one within vomiting distance of the place ever had a clue about running a business), and its prominence in the Young Americans in Prague media cabaret, Prognosis became weirdly famous, a symbol of an undeniable and perhaps non-existent phenomenon.
It also became the great progenitor of English-language media in the region. Lisa Frankenberg split off early with an investor to pursue her lifelong dream of servicing the business community. A Prognosis non-hiree became her famous chin-in-hand editor at the Post. The yuppie business partner who defected with her from Prognosis soon began re-routing Post job applicants to start The Budapest Post behind her back. In a coup led by former Prognosis job applicant Jim Michaels, the BP staff quickly toppled the hapless swine and changed names to The Budapest Sun. The Sun soon faced competition from the Budapest Business Journal, which was founded by a guy who allegedly once sent Prognosis a resume. Three years after, the BBJ has sprouted to Warsaw and now Prague, where it competes with about 73 other publications, all staffed by various Prognosis dropouts.
It's all a bit smelly, and it proves nothing.
But, fortunately for us, Prognosis failed in March 1995, providing ample opportunity for Creating the Legend. Yes, we were conceived in a pub. Yes, we hit up the Santa Monica Mafia for funding, selling shares to Stanley Sheinbaums, Oliver Stones, Norman Lears, and Barbra Streisands. Yes, we blew it all on alcohol and bad management. No, the lying yunker who started that other paper was not a co-founder. Yes, we had humor so refined ("Don't shoot, I'm Canadian!" in the handy Czech phrase box) that thousands of "serious" expats flipped past the provocative analysis and in-depth coverage and declared us nothing more than a college paper. Yeah, we morphed into a bitingly funny tabloid weekly with 11-year-old drug dealers on the cover and unattributed cheap gossip. Hell yes, it was occasionally the best-written and best-designed newspaper in the fucking world and a testament to the resilience and creativity of the human spirit.
"History will be kind to me," Winton Churchill once said. "Because I intend to write it."
Indeed. Even if it is two weeks late and 270 words too long.
Matt Welch, Legend, was a founder of Prognosis, and is currently the managing editor of the Budapest Business Journal.