On 9 May 2007 Finland’s first English-language weekly newspaper was published. The idea was to fill a demand for news about Finland in English. Finland has always been an open nation, but in 2007 a fundamental change was happening. There was a surge of immigrants who needed news in an international language. Native Finns were more outward-looking than ever. There was interest in Finland around the world, thanks to success in business and sport and social issues. All of this contributed to a need for English-language news from Finland.
Helsinki Times issue 1 had articles about the Finnish band HIM, the national hockey team, new Nokia mobile phone models and the economics of hosting Eurovision. I wrote the Eurovision story. Since that time I have either had a column or news story in every single issue. It didn’t matter if I was sick or on vacation or had writer’s block: for more than seven years I never missed an issue. Over 390 issues I wrote about economics, investing, politics, social welfare and business.
Now the Times has applied for bankruptcy. There were interested potential buyers, but the owners of the newspaper were afraid of it being used for propaganda purposes by foreign owners and decided to shut it down instead.
I was only a freelancer, so can’t claim to have any real inside knowledge about the happenings inside the Helsinki Times offices. But I do know what has been occurring in the publishing business. Around the world newspapers are shutting down or cutting staff. The digitisation of the industry makes it hard enough on traditional newspapers, but the ongoing economic slump makes it worse. Sometimes I’m not surprised that the Helsinki Times had to fold, but that it lasted as long as it did.
There are other English-language sources for news in Finland. The national broadcaster YLE has several services in English and Finlandtimes is a new online publisher, for instance. There are also many specialised publishers, some of which I write for, like Good News From Finland and thisisFINLAND. In this day and age many people probably get their English-language news about Finland from social media. Yet none of these sources try to cover the same ground of traditional news reporting like Helsinki Times did. The demise of Helsinki Times will leave a hole which will not be filled, and we are all the worse off for it.
Writing for Helsinki Times has been good for me. It allowed me to go on and write books for major publishers. If I hadn’t written for the Times I wouldn’t have gotten to write my first book, Mohamed 2.0. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have written my next books. I probably wouldn’t be in such demand to write articles about Finland. All of this is directly due to writing for Helsinki Times.
Alexis Kouros, the main owner and editor in chief, has been particularly good to me. Writing books and articles for other publishers took my time away from his paper, but instead of discouraging me he has freely given me advice and support, proofread my work, gave me his opinions and wrote letters of introduction. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for Alexis. He is a class act through-and-through.
Helsinki Times was a small, specialised operation, but I am continually surprised at how many people read it. I have received letters and emails from people around the world. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met someone who knew who I was from my columns. Once I was even recognised by a person in Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
Helsinki Times may have been small, but it did have its share of successes. It reported about racism and social injustices, particularly those wrongs committed on the immigrant population. This will probably be its legacy.
The paper had some traditional investigative reporting triumphs, too. I was part of one scoop where we reported that Nordea Bank took emergency funding from the Federal Reserve during the height of the financial crisis. No, it wasn’t of the same calibre as the Watergate scandal or Edward Snowden revelations, but the activities of Scandinavia’s largest bank during the crisis were certainly newsworthy and in the public interest. A scrappy little newspaper on a shoe-string budget pulled it off while the big publishers missed it entirely. I’m proud of what we achieved over the past seven years.
Come to the Helsinki Book Fair on Friday, 24 October where I will be interviewed about my book The Decline and Fall of Nokia at 12.30.
The actress Jennifer Lawrence has breasts. This may not seem to be particularly newsworthy, but we, as a society, are more interested in her boobs than anything else right now.
I like to know what is going on in the world. To do this, I consume a lot of news – probably twenty different sources a day. I read Hufvudstadsbladet, watch the BBC, follow Bloomberg’s website, and I also use some other methods, like seeing what is trending on Google and Twitter. This does not only tell me what editors think is news, but also what people are interested in. And what we are interested in is Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs.
The hacking and distribution of celebrities’ private pictures has taken precedence over all other stories. We are twenty-five times more likely to search for Jennifer Lawrence than Ukraine on Google. We are seventeen times more interested in naked celebrities than the Ebola outbreak. This makes sense, in a way: people in the West are likely to have seen Kate Upton in Sports Illustrated or watched McKayla Maroney at the Olympics. We don’t have much experience with epidemics like the Ebola outbreak.
There were occasional scares over SARS or swine flu, but the last real threat that touched the West was HIV / AIDS. The fear of HIV has declined over time because of advances in medicine, so the younger generations don’t even have that same cold terror I felt in my youth when a blood transfusion or one night stand could kill me.
We tend to think that the threat of epidemics has declined in the developed world. We have innovative medicines and new equipment and the best procedures. While all this is true, sooner or later we will have another outbreak. It might be flu or Ebola or maybe something that hasn’t been identified yet. When it does happen Western society will hopefully reevaluate its priorities.
I wrote Dead Romans with this in mind. In my novel three characters have to deal with a plague outbreak in the city of Ephesus during the height of the Roman Empire. The characters are directly impacted by the plague and have to deal with its wider effects upon society. What happens if so many people die that it disrupts food supplies? I wrote about it in my book and unsurprisingly the exact same thing is happening right now in Sierra Leone because of Ebola.
It is newsworthy when a celebrity gets hacked and her private, intimate pictures are posted online, I guess. But I find it hard to believe this should be a priority. What happened to you is dreadful, Jennifer, but I just don’t think it is that important in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t remember how I first met Jim Thompson. I believe it was around the time his book Jerusalemin veri was published but before he burst upon the world scene with the first of his Inspector Kari Vaara novels, Snow Angels.
Jim and I weren’t buddies, but we were friendly. We had a lot in common. He was from Kentucky; I was from Indiana. We both had moved to Finland for love. We both were professional writers who had started with local Finnish publishers before getting international deals. It is odd how many of the same boxes were checked on our respective histories.
Help and bad reviews.
We were in touch with each other at regular intervals, like before our books were published or during various literary events. He would help promote my books and I would try to push his. He did a lot more for me, too. Jim was successful and experienced and spent hours giving me advice about the business of publishing. Sometimes I contacted him with a simple yes-or-no question and he wanted to spend an hour explaining his view of the situation. I would feel bad that he was wasting so much time on me.
‘That’s enough, Jim,’ I would say. ‘You have been a huge help and I really appreciate it. Please don’t waste all this time on me.’
‘It’s okay, Dave,’ he would reply. He always called me Dave. ‘It is not a problem. I want to help all I can.’
I wanted to help him, too. Jim was a rough and gruff and rude guy sometimes, but he was also surprisingly sensitive. Bad reviews ate at him. Once he was extremely nervous at a book fair because he was going to be interviewed in Finnish. He often got nervous in front of crowds anyway, and having to speak in Finnish made it much worse. When it was over Jim was visibly trembling.
‘That was great!’ I told him. ‘I understood every word, and I was standing way in the back. You did fine.’
‘Really?’ he kept asking, as if he was so insecure he couldn’t believe me. ‘Really, Dave?’
Finland in fiction
Jim became famous worldwide because of his Kari Vaara novels, in which he explored violence, racism, right-wing extremism and government corruption in Finland. Some Finns are touchy about how Finland is portrayed and they were not happy with Jim at all.
One woman in particular was a thorn in his side. She followed him everywhere he went online, posting terrible reviews and complaining about inaccuracies in how he depicted Finland. I thought the whole thing was ludicrous. Jim was writing novels, not travel brochures. Any person who complains about there being fiction in fiction is obviously out of touch with both reality and literature.
Jim saw it that way too, but for some reason this woman especially bothered him. Once he somehow got the idea that this woman had talked to me and he immediately gave me a call. He wanted to know what mischief she was doing now. I had never had any interaction with her and told Jim that she was doing nothing that I knew of and that he had nothing to worry about. He was relieved, but he wanted to keep talking about her. I spent the next hour listening to him and continually reassuring him. It was as if he needed to hear it again and again.
A screwed up book signing
Although I tried to help him out, one time I got him in trouble. We were at the Helsinki Book Fair and I snatched Jim away from his publisher’s booth for a quiet talk in a secluded corner. Unbeknownst to either of us he had been scheduled to do a book signing and there were about a hundred people waiting impatiently for him to appear.
Someone from the publisher was sprinting around the cavernous hall and finally found us.
‘You can talk later!’ he yelled, giving me a particularly dirty look and literally dragging Jim away.
I felt terrible for getting him in trouble and for causing all his fans to wait. I called Jim the next day and profusely apologised.
‘It was no problem, Dave!’ Jim laughed. ‘We were having a good conversation. It was too bad they found us!’
One of the last things Jim was working on was Helsinki Noir, a collection of short crime stories by Finnish writers. He had this grand idea on how to promote it and he wanted my help. The plan was to get three fantastic crime writers – Jim, Tapani Bagge and Leena Lehtolainen – in a room together. I would have the honour of interviewing all three of them at the same time and writing about their interaction.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out. Leena was stuck on a book tour in central Europe somewhere and Jim came down with one of his frequent illnesses. In the end I only got to interview Tapani in person and had to do Leena and Jim via email.
Jim’s agent, Penn Whaling of the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency, told me that Jim passed away before he was able to complete Helsinki Dead, the last Kari Vaara book. That means Helsinki Noir will probably be his last piece unless there are other unpublished manuscripts yet to see the light of day. I’m glad I was able to experience his excitement and enthusiasm for what will probably be his last book.
Sometimes Jim and I didn’t agree. He frowned over my writing style a time or two, and once conclusively declared ‘you need commas.’ For my part, I loved his prose which was as lean as a Victoria’s Secret model but sometimes scratched my head over awkward plot stumbles in his books.
If I was his editor I might have mentioned those plot stumbles, but I can imagine what his reaction would have been. Once I edited something for him and recommended a piece be cut. When I emailed him my suggestion I received in return a vehement, emotional, stream of consciousness text defending that passage. I remember the subject line in the email was a shout of semi-coherent outrage in all-caps. I had a good reason to recommend that passage be cut, but Jim was so passionate about including it that I backed down. Immediately he was conciliatory and tried to convince me that this was the right decision.
‘It is much better with this included, Dave,’ he said. ‘This was the right choice.’
Thanks again, Jim.
The last time I tried to contact Jim was a couple of weeks ago. Over time I was becoming uncomfortable with some of the things I was seeing and hearing so I wanted to see how he was doing. He never replied.
In a way I’m happy he didn’t. The very last time I heard from him was several months ago. I had a new book coming out and Jim remembered that he wanted to do something to help me but couldn’t remember if he had done so yet.
‘Yes, Jim, you already did that,’ I told him. ‘I really appreciate all your help. Thanks for everything.’
I’m glad that this was my last conversation with him.
Thanks again, Jim. Thanks for everything. May your books be read for a thousand years.
Are you curious about my new book, The Decline and Fall of Nokia, or anything else going on in the mobile device industry? Soon you will have a chance to ask me questions, because I will be doing a live online interview on Saturday 19 April on Reddit.
In the off chance you aren’t familiar with Reddit, it is a social networking and news website where members can submit content and interact with each other. It has a system where users can vote submissions up or down to organise posts and comments so that the most popular or useful information is prominently displayed.
If you don’t have an account, all you need is a username and password. No email is necessary. You can create an account by clicking the ‘login or register’ button in the upper-right corner of the main page on www.reddit.com.
Live, online interviews – called AMA for ‘ask me anything’ – are very popular on Reddit, with everyone from President Barack Obama to bowling alley employees answering questions from users.
Who: Me, or the username DavidJCord
What: A live, online interview
When: Saturday 19 April at 9:00 am Pacific, 12:00 pm Eastern, 7:00 pm Finnish time
(I will post a link to the actual interview thread when it begins.)
I hope to see you there!
Here is a collection of stories and interviews about The Decline and Fall of Nokia.
Aamulehti: Olisiko tämä mies pelastanut Nokian luurit?
Hufvudstadbladet: Elop var ett tredjehandsval
Online in English:
Online in Swedish:
Online in Spanish:
Online in Dutch:
Online in Finnish: