Finnish version of Reader’s Digest opened window to the west
By Saska Snellman
In 1945 Finnish soldiers fought against Germans in Lapland. In the same year, Finns chose a new Parliament, feared a communist coup, and started to read Valitut Palat - the Finnish version of the American magazine Reader’s Digest.
"I remember, the early times right after the war, people were all humble in front of the reds", recalls Laura Herberz, 85, an avid reader of the magazine from the very beginning.
"In the news, people were bent over toward the east, but Valitut Palat was from the west."
The Herberzes had good reason to be concerned. In 1945 the family had just returned from Sweden, where Laura’s husband Albert Herberz had gone with other reconnaissance men of Operation Stella Polaris.
"We came to a poor and empty Finland to be hungry. At that time Valitut Palat was passed around from one hand to another. It had news from the outside world. Most of the stories were about America, but if they were propaganda, at least they were a different kind of propaganda than what they had in the other papers", Laura Herberz says.
Valitut Palat was not just any old magazine. Its mother publication Reader’s Digest was the world’s largest magazine. It had established a reputation by publishing articles from other newspapers, joke columns, and by what many feel is a questionable talent in turning 200-page books into condensed versions of just 20 pages.
Publication of the Finnish version was taken over by Eljas Erkko, the main owner of Helsingin Sanomat.
From the very beginning, Valitut Palat took on a political role. The magazine became a window to the west. It allowed people to gawk at the American way of life, admire the latest achievements of Western science, and read stories about life in dictatorships that were not published by many magazines.
After the war much thought had to be given in Finland to which articles in the original publication could be published, and which could not.
"There were plenty of things that we did not publish", said Aatos Erkko, the major shareholder of SanomaWSOY in an interview in June marking the 60th anniversary of the Finnish version.
Erkko said that in the 1960s and 1970s the head office in Pleasantville would have liked for the Finnish version to take a more courageous line. However, in spite of the caution, there were very critical stories in Valitut Palat about the everyday reality of the Socialist countries.
The most severe years of Finlandisation were over in 1982 when Raimo Möysä started out as the editor-in-chief of Valitut Palat.
"One learned very quickly, how closed the Finnish media was still then. We were defending ourselves like hedgehogs, with our eyes closed against the world."
Valitut Palat especially sought to avoid topics that were controversial within the United States as well. For instance, a story cheering the Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan was left out.
On the other hand, there were plenty of stories about people who had fled to the West from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany. After all they were the kinds of survival stories of little people that the magazine loved.
On the official level the magazine was completely ignored. There were no references to its stories in other magazines, and the editor-in-chief was not obliged to stand in line on Independence Day to shake the President’s hand at the official reception.
But the people sure know.
"We made very meticulous reader surveys, and I was proud that we had more readers who were supporters of the Communist Party than [the official Communist Party newspaper] Kansan Uutiset", Möysä smiles.
Now the publishing company is listed on the stock market and it cannot afford to go on unnecessary crusades.
"We are an absolutely apolitical magazine. We are not spreading Western culture to the world", emphasises Franz Müller, CEO of Valitut Palat.
Müller says that health is the most important concern that people have. Instead of socialism, Valitut Palat is fighting against fat.
"China is an important market area for us. When I worked at our office in Hong Kong, we did publish articles that were not very popular in China", Müller says, with a bit of contrition in his voice.
The magazine has not thrown itself into the conflicts of the West and Islam with the former vigour.
"The publication of an Arabic version stopped when the war in Lebanon broke out. There has been thought of a new magazine only this year, says Möysä, who now works for Reader’s Digest in the United States.
Möysä feels that the magazine should keep away from religious issues. This does not mean that the idea of individual freedom, which is important for Reader’s Digest, might not still change the world.
"The strength of the individual is the foundation of democracy. We can publish articles on the position of Muslim women, for instance."
Valitut Palat is still Finland’s sixth-largest magazine. People read it even though the political tension is history.
The Herberz family stopped subscribing to the magazine eight years ago.
"There’s so much information nowadays. My daughter brings us magazines by the armload", Laura Herberz says.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.11.2005
Reader's Digest web site: links to international editions