Cover Story -- Voices of the New Europe
ONLINE ORIGINAL: Wanda Rapaczynski/Poland: Seduced by the "Mystique" of News
In mid-1988, with perestroika in full swing in the Soviet Union, then 41-year-old Wanda Rapaczynski and several Polish friends gathered at her New York apartment to discuss the implications for their homeland. That night, Rapaczynski promised the group a case of champagne if the "evil empire" fell in their lifetime. A year later, Poland held its first partially free elections, but Rapaczynski's friends weren't looking for free bubbly. The fall of communism was more intoxicating, and many were headed home to take part in the transition.
Rapaczynski was soon part of the wave. She became the business brain behind Gazeta Wyborcza, the daily newspaper launched in May, 1989, to support Solidarity trade union candidates during those first elections. Now that newspaper is at the center of Poland's biggest media empire, Agora, which publishes Gazeta Wyborcza, has stakes in a popular pay-TV station, Canal+, and a digital-TV platform called Cyfra+. Agora's net profit was $14 million in the first half of 1999, on revenues of $82 million. Now president, and with a 2.3% stake, she took Agora public last March, raising $90 million on Nasdaq. Today, Agora boasts a market cap of more than $550 million.
Those early years were a part-time labor of love. Until 1992, Rapaczynski kept her job at Citibank's new-product development division in New York. Then she went home for good. Relocated in Warsaw, she learned the newspaper business and worked side-by-side with Helena Luczywo, a childhood friend and Gazeta's co-founder along with the noted journalist Adam Michnik. "We were doing what we thought was impossible," Rapaczynski says. "This company always had a mystique, a passionate element. It's not a 'job' job."
Once an opposition newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza developed its own identity and soon became a mainstream read. To improve quality, Rapaczynski quickly spent $20 million on a badly needed printing plant. But annual revenues, at $57 million by 1992, were still too small to allow for much growth. In 1993, Agora got an $8 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development. Cox Enterprises, a U.S. media company, bought a 12.5% stake at the same time. Since then, circulation has grown to half a million, making Gazeta the country's No. 1 daily.
Despite its commercial success, Gazeta Wyborcza still knows how to tweak the Establishment's nose. "Nobody loves us," Rapaczynski says of the readership. "Half say we're too far to the left, and the other half say we're too far to the right. We read this and think: 'We're exactly where we should be.'" So, it seems, is Wanda Rapaczynski.By Dawn Smith in Warsaw