Polish-American Paper Fighting a Different Kind of Battle
Daily founded to champion democracy in Poland during Communist rule struggling to survive, as U.S. economy sours and some emigrants return home
Tanks barreled into Warsaw before Christmas in 1981. Overnight, the government rounded up pro-democratic leaders, cut telephone service and enforced a curfew.
Since the end of World War II, Poland had been a Soviet satellite, marked by economic depression and frequent unrest. Opposition to the government had gained momentum by the end of the 1970s, when Poles felt energized by the election of a Polish pope, John Paul II. The 1981 crackdown was the apex of oppression in Communist Poland.
And in a midtown Manhattan office, a newspaperman typed furiously.
Boleslaw Wierzbianski had founded Nowy Dziennik, a New York-based Polish-language newspaper devoted to the democratization of Poland, 10 years before. As martial law besieged his native country, Wierzbianski’s news sought to provide New York Poles with information about home they were famished for, and to encourage them to fight for independence from the Communists.
Today, Nowy Dziennik – which means the New Daily – is fighting again, this time to stay afloat. As the Internet and the sluggish U.S. economy kill off newspapers of all sizes —and because some emigrant Poles returned home — the paper’s once-robust readership has dwindled.
“It’s not easy,” said Nowy Dziennik President Tadeusz Kondratowicz, during an interview in the paper’s three-story office in Manhattan’s garment district. “The mission of Nowy Dziennik was to fight for the independence of Poland. It’s been 20 years since already.”
The emergence of Polish democracy, and Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004, reversed the trend of Poles emigrating to the United States. But the U.S. Polish Diaspora’s “paper of record” is still printed every day.
When Nowy Dziennik published its first 12-page, black-and-white issue, the number of Polish immigrants in New York City was nearly double what it is today, according to a New York City Department of Planning Report, “The Newest New Yorkers.” About 800,000 people of Polish descent live in New York City, Long Island and Northern New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The New York Times in 2003 estimated Nowy Dziennik’s circulation at 25,000. It claimed readers from New York to Los Angeles — and also abroad, in Great Britain and Israel.
“Because of a free Poland, a lot of Poles went back, who were our readers,” said Kondratowicz. “And people who started this newspaper in 1971 are slowly leaving this world. So you can see the shrinking of the traditional base of readers.”
Poland has one of Europe’s most vibrant economies and, post 2008, has yet to experience economic devastation on the same scale as the rest of the continent. Foreign investors are still arriving – as computer maker Dell did in 2009 – lured by cheaper rent and Polish government incentives.
“With jobs shrinking here, and Poland registering as the only country in the European Union with growth, this for us is harder competition,” Kondratowicz said.
It also competes with two other Polish-language tabloid dailies: the local Polska Gazeta, and Super Express, a Warsaw paper distributed in New York.
By 2008, with revenue unable to sustain the paper, the retired Kondratowicz, who had worked on Wall Street, and Malina Stadnik, a former Nowy Dziennik staffer and prominent presence in the Polish community, stepped in to lead. They immediately strategized.
“Our readership totally changed. We decided that we’d write less about Poland; we don’t have to support groups there any more. We changed our focus to Polish-Americans living here permanently,” said Stadnik, who served as president and publisher until October 2009. She is now starting up Nowy Dziennik’s My Poland Foundation, a venture intended to promote Poland’s image in the United States.
Recent stories have covered prominent Poles living in Congo and Chile, churches in New Jersey and fencing schools in Brooklyn, and have profiled local members of Congress.
“Our readers like to read about themselves, their parishes, their city, their politicians,” Stadnik said.
“They say money is the blood for business. A newspaper is blood for a community,” Kondratowicz added. He said he has read Nowy Dziennik every day, even while on vacation, since arriving in New York 33 years ago.
While in the past, some Poles saw New York as an escape from a suppressed Poland, “now people think of their country as something to be proud of,” he said, lurching forward in his chair and raising his voice. He wants Nowy Dziennik to be a unifier for the Polish community.
Kondratowicz launched Nowy Dziennik’s website in April 2009. It receives a half a million clicks per month – as many as 30% of them from Poland. It is also in the budget stages of creating an English-language website. But there have been cuts in staff, as well.
“I’m not going to tell you we’re comfortable. I think we’re pretty much struggling – like every paper – and fighting for our position on the market,” said metro reporter Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska. She added that she takes on more than she did six years ago, when she started at the paper. Over the last year, the metro team has shrunk to just Jedrychowska and one other reporter, who also writes for other sections.
“But I think with the quality we try to provide – even though we have less pages and less staff – people value our stories.”
Thomas Pniewki, the director of cultural events at the Kosciuszko Foundation, praised the paper’s quality. While he’d read other Polish papers “at a laundromat,” he said, “Nowy Dziennik writes to a high standard. The Polish is good, the journalism is good, and there is a cosmopolitan aspect to it. It’s like the Polish New York Times.”
“To produce a daily at that level, in Polish, is quite astonishing,” said Pniewki, who is Polish-American.
Barbara Andersen, a Nowy Dziennik reader in Washington D.C., misses the streaming Polish news broadcasts the newspaper featured on its website until about a year ago.
“Now I have to rely on Internet searches to find news broadcasts. It’s hard to remember, when it’s not all in one place,” said Andersen, a director at the Polish American Congress. “Being here, it’s difficult to stay connected to Poland.”
But a copy of Nowy Dziennik sent to the office every day helps supplement her quest to be on the pulse of Polish news.
“It’s not a perfect solution. It’s like a band-aid on an open wound, but it helps,” she said. “I appreciate that Dziennik is a reliable source of information.”
Sitting at her desk, piled with recent 20-page issues of Nowy Dziennik, Stadnik said advertising is beginning to reflect the paper’s shift towards more established Polish-American communities. Classifieds for house cleaning and child care have dwindled, while larger displays for degree programs or real estate developments are becoming more common. On a mantle behind her are pictures of Stadnik with Bill and Hillary Clinton, taken at a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Poland’s NATO membership.
It is pride – a resurgence, according to Stadnik – that keeps Polish-Americans buying Nowy Dziennik.
As she worked on a story about the Pulaski Day Parade in New York, to mark October as Polish-American heritage month, Kern-Jedrychowska seemed to echo Wierzbianski’s legacy. She reports with “a sense of a mission,” she said. “It’s not only writing, it’s also participating in people’s lives.”
“People need it. If they didn’t need it, they wouldn’t buy us,” she added. “As long as there is a community and people want quality information, I think we have a chance to survive.”
Roxanne Emadi studies journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.