BUDAPEST -- During the decades of drab rule by the Socialist Workers Party, Hungarians dutifully subscribed to the party newspaper, Nepszabadsag, because they had little choice.
Now, they can choose from nine competitive national newspapers and hundreds of weeklies, magazines and provincial daily newspapers. Street kiosks are draped with new publications, including a splashy tabloid, a satirical magazine and get-rich publications with titles like "Cash Flow" and "Private Profit." There's even a Hungarian edition of "Playboy."
So which publication is the most popular? Nepszabadsag, of course.
While its political parent withers, Nepszabadsag is flourishing, even though its staff remains much the same and the masthead carries the slogan "Socialist Daily." The newspaper's circulation is nearly double its nearest competitor and it expects to report a fourth-quarter profit of about $515,000.
Journalists at competing newspapers said the reason is simple: once-boring Nepszabadsag has turned itself into the best daily in Hungary. After severing its ties to the Communist Party, Nepszabadsag now offers aggressive, professional reporting on the center-right government and the liberal opposition.
Since the fall of communism, the Hungarian print medium has undergone a vibrant burst of change symbolized by the startling metamorphosis of Nepszabadsag, which means People's Freedom. In Eastern Europe's most advanced market economy, the print medium has turned into a showcase -- and test case -- of free enterprise, privatization and foreign investment.
While foreigners nibble at other industries, they have pretty much sliced up the press pie. The major European publishers -- Bertelsmann Group of Germany, Robert Maxwell of Britain and Robert Hersant of France -- have bought interests of about 40 percent in the leading national dailies for prices ranging from $1 million to $2 million. Rupert Murdoch has set up his own tabloid, and the German publisher Axel Springer has bought provincial newspapers.
This influx of money has set off a competitive scramble to modernize archaic newsrooms -- out with the pencils, typewriters and tractor stories and in with computers, color presses and breathless journalism. It is a textbook example of what foreign money is supposed to accomplish in Eastern Europe -- refurbish a backward industry.
But doubts already are surfacing about the staying power of the foreign media barons. According to journalists and business managers involved in the transactions, the initial investments need to be followed up with more money and hard work.
"They may withdraw," fretted a Hungarian representative for one of the foreign investors.
The story of Nepszabadsag tells a lot about what any publication, or any company, must do to survive during Hungary's path-breaking transition to capitalism. A key ingredient, according to business executives and foreign diplomats, is finding and promoting Hungarians exposed to Western ways of running successful businesses.
The man largely responsible for Nepszabadsag's turnaround is Managing Editor Andras Kereszty, a former party member and Washington correspondent who paces around his office in a sweat shirt and baggy pants. Promoted in 1989 after five years in America, he admits the newspaper failed in the 1980s to budge from its political orthodoxy.
"I hated to read it," he said.
Kereszty describes his experience in Washington as crucial. He returned home convinced that Hungary needed a newspaper based on the U.S. model.
He ran a seminar for young journalists, showing them the film "All the President's Men," which stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal.
"It shows journalists how to go after the news," Kereszty remarked.
His longtime membership of the Socialist Workers Party, and the newspaper's longtime status as its official organ, are not fatal handicaps because the party's rule was relatively benign over the past two decades.
It was perhaps the only Communist Party in the Soviet Bloc that promoted people for competence rather than ideological loyalty.
"In Hungary, there is not as strong a feeling against the former regime as in the other countries," said Ferenc Koszegi, a deputy editor of Pesti Hirlap, one of Hungary's new newspapers. He said many of Nepszabadsag's writers are well-trained journalists who were compelled to orient their talents and opinions around the party line.
Quality is not going to guarantee success next year. Nepszabadsag faces strong competition and the kind of crippling problems that are endemic to all Hungarian enterprises operating in a free-market environment that rests on the foundations of a command economy.
The plant that prints the newspaper, now that it is freed from state price controls, is demanding exorbitant payments -- knowing that no other printer in Hungary can do the job. Just like its competitors, Nepszabadsag is distributed by the post office, which is unreliable and sets limits on the copies that it will deliver.
"We are trapped in the old structure," Kereszty grumbled, vowing a few seconds later to find a way out.