100th anniversary of the Czech News Agency

On October 28, the Czech News Agency (ČTK) celebrates its anniversary. On that day - October 28, 1918 - not only the independent Czechoslovak Republic was founded, but also the Czechoslovak News Agency, which exists under the ČTK brand until today.

That day, 100 years ago, a small group of journalists began publishing current news on the revolutionary events in Prague and Czech countryside in room number 88 of the Prague Municipal House. On Oct. 28, ČTK published information on taking power in the capital city, but also, for example, situation reports from Jablonec, Karlovy Vary or Ústí nad Labem. Journalists, appointed by Czech journalists' associations, switched to two-hour shifts, and their news coverage filled the pages of Prague newspapers the next day. Just a single telephone was available.

News offices

Although ČTK news were first published in Prague on October 28, 1918, British and American expatriate and exile press, used the name Czech or Czechoslovak News Agency several years before. The "Press Office" asi it was known in Czechwas often referred to as press departments of the associations of exiles of (first Czechoslovak President) Masaryk and (his Foreign Minister) Beneš in Allied countries. The Prague „Četka“ (a colloquial Czech term for ČTK) officially started operating only on October 31 at Harrachov Palace in Jindřišská Street and the Prague office of the Austrian-Hungarian news agency was taken over by the newly formed state on November 13.

The term "office" is a historic relic today and no other major press agency in the world has it in its name. After a hundred years, it is a reminder of both the terminology and the political circumstances in which the institution for collecting and distributing news texts was perceived more as an office rather than an agency.

“Royal” (C.K.) agency

News reports in the countries of the Czech Crown, however, were written long before the birth of Četka at times of the Austrian monarchy. They were first published from 1849 by a private agency Österreichische Correspondenz, secretly funded by Interior Minister Alexander Bach, and since 1860 they were published by the official State Austrian Press Agency of the Telegraphen-Korrespondenz-Bureau, called „Korbyro“ among Czech journalists. The end of the Österreichische Correspondenz and the rise of Korbyro was associated with the Battle of Magenta in June 1859. The Austrian army lost the battle but some of the media in the monarchy presented it as victory, so the State decided to take control of the news. Korbyro, founded on January 1, 1860, has become the world's first state-owned new agency. Agencies like AP, Havas, or Reuters were private companies or cooperatives.

In February 1867, Vienna's Korbyro opened the first regional branches. First in Prague, followed by Trieste, later in Brno in 1894. In 1906, the Czech language department of Korbyro was established in Prague, and first Czech language news agency text saw the light of the day. But Korbyro was not very popular among Czech journalists. Its news were official and centralistic and not cared about the fate of the Slavic element, which was a national priority in then Austria-Hungary.

From 1867 until January 1906, the Prague branch of the Vienna Agency was leased. It was not unusual at the time, also mail service, railway and bridge fee authority were rented to private businessmen at the time. For forty years the lessees of the agency were the Grossmann family, first father Leopold and then his son Rudolf. However, after expanding the agency service into Czech language the operating costs increased greatly and the operation of the agency did not pay off. This is why the state took over the agency, which was still lead by Rudolf Grossmann until the revolution.

Official news was perceived by Czech press as insufficient and often hostile. From the 70's of the 19th century, self-help efforts were made to remedy the Czech press issues. News exchange centres were created in Prague pubs, where Czech and German journalists exchanged news from police stations, hospitals and fire brigades. The court and sports editors also established their news exchange centres.

Politically perhaps more generous, but in practice certainly less effective was international news cooperation with respect to Slavic reciprocity. Since late 1890s Slavic journalists have been trying to found their own multinational press agency. Conference of Slavic journalists, convened between 1898 and 1912 by Czech newsmen, regularly called for the establishment of a Slavic press agency, but to no avail. The reason was not only the persistent reluctance of the Austrian government to give the organizers the necessary business license, but also the disagreements among Slavic nations and little will to fund such an expensive operation as a news agency. Calls to joint co-operation of Czech, Polish, Croatian, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, and Ruthenian journalists did not bring much effect, and so the Korbyro remained the backbone of the news exchange in Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy until the end of the First World War.

First reporters

The Austrian agency gave rise to the first Czech reporters. The pioneer was a bilingual Czech journalist Josef Grafnetter, who worked in Korbyro Prague branch until 1911, when he was succeeded by Klaudius Běhal. He then worked in post-revolutionary ČTK. Journalists from Czech lands also successfully worked in large global agencies and newspapers: Sigismund Engländer, native from Třebíč, became a longtime, effective and highly valued assistant of Paul Julius Reuter, the founder of the world's most famous news agency business. Sigmund Kolisch from Koryčany in Kroměříž region became the right hand of Havas French agency owner. Today, both the German-Jewish journalists are considered to be the founders of European agency news.

The most famous European news reporter of the 19th century was certainly Henri George Stéphane Adolphe Opper de Blowitz, a longtime reporter of London Times in Paris. He was born Jindřich Oppenheimer in 1825 to Jewish parents in Blovice (near Pilsen) and had lived in Czechia for the first 15 years of his life.

Two directors

But let us go back to ČTK. While the news agency emancipation of Czech journalists was difficult, establishment of Czechoslovak new agency was even more chaotic. Between 1918 - 19 the agency had two directors in parallel - Vladimír Weinerek and Jan Hajšman – while at the same time the third (and the first "real") director has actually been getting ready in the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Emil Čermák.

Weinerek was the director of Czech section of Prague Korbyro branch, which after October revolution started work for the new state - including all members of German section with the exception of their director Mr. Grossman. Mr. Hajšman was a member of anti-Austrian resistance forces, linked to the highest circles of the country, while Mr. Weinerek was a professional expert in news agency work. During the post-revolution mess both were appointed agency directors but none of them eventually stayed - Weinerek became the founder of the parliamentary reporting service and Hajšman became the director of Czechoslovak counter-espionage.

Emil Čermák had nothing to do with Czech political situation at that time, because he just returned to Prague after more than twenty year Bulgarian exile. This competent journalist, who was the first editor-in-chief of Lidové noviny in Brno and a great patriot emigrated to Balkans to flee from persecution by Austrian authorities and frustrated fiancées. There he became a respected correspondent to major European newspapers and press agencies and he is still recognized as one of the founders of modern Bulgarian journalism.

The founder

Mr. Čermák became the director of ČTK in September 1920 and was the head of the agency for ten years. He was its de facto founder, and under his leadership ČTK has undoubtedly had its happiest period in the pre-war history. This renowned, internationally experienced journalist - in co-operation with his colleagues Richard Kalman, Miloš Novotný and Karel Kraus - turned ČTK into an established and recognized European news agency. In spite of its status (it was under governmental rule, similar to old Korbyro in Austria-Hungary period) ČTK has developed modern principles of honest and accurate reporting, created first news posts abroad and established a rich and respected Czech and German domestic news service. Since the second half of the 1920s Czechoslovak newspapers received from ČTK not only text news, but also image news and the news services were expanded into sports news and extensive parliament news service. Technical equipment was gradually completed by modern teletypes and wireless telegraphy. A significant source of revenue was advertising where ČTK performed the role of sole broker of governmental advertising contracts.

In 1924 Emil Čermák significantly contributed to the creation of the Alliance of European agencies, which still exists today. A real jewel of Čermák's activity was establishment of radiotelegraphic stock exchange news service called Pragoradio, probably the most successful commercial project in the history of ČTK. Building of proprietary "news palace" in Lützowov (today Opletalova) Street was just the culmination of successful work of Emil Čermák as the director of the state news agency.

Still, Čermák left the agency in disgrace. After ten years of hard work, he was dismissed at the urging of Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš, who did not like the news reporting autonomy of ČTK, its competing to news service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its unwillingness to fully submit to political will of Minister Beneš.

Čermák's departure ended the relative prosperity of ČTK. Pragoradio was hit hard by the economic crisis and due to an increased security threat to the State and new anti-Nazi propaganda tasks, the budget of the agency became extremely strained. The tragic death of Čermák's coworker, Mr. Kalman, who froze to death in 1929 on a ski expedition in Giant (Krkonoše) mountains, caused a lack of personnel in the agency management, which was solved by the arrival of journalists close to the Agrarian Party - Zdeněk Schmoranz, Arnošt Bareš and Ladislav Tvarůžek. The agency remained under the influence of the Agrarian Party until Munich agreement and German occupation.

Occupation and resistance

In the second half of 1930s the management of ČTK moved to right-wing policies, but despite widespread concern in the pre-Munich period, ČTK did not give way to defeatist mood. Even before March 1939 full German occupation of the remainder of what is now the Czech Republic Zdeněk Schmoranz with Ernest Bareš organized an anti-Nazi information network abroad, which was linked to Czechoslovak Embassies and news bureaux of ČTK. Schmoranz himself tried - albeit unsuccessfully - to link the anti-Nazi activities of the exile groups of Prime Minister Milan Hodža and President Beneš. Domestic resistance activity in ČTK were organized by so called press officers, former intelligence officers of Czech army, assigned to Czech and Moravian districts with officially censorship tasks, which was in fact an anti-Nazis spy mission. However Gestapo managed to break up the network and arrest most of its members even before the invasion of Wehrmacht to Poland. Schmoranz was executed with two of his closest collaborators and Bareš was - until the end of the war - imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile the news headquarters of ČTK became an instrument of the German occupation power. The office of SD security policy, branch of Nazi press agency DNB and the head of press service of the “Reichs Protektor” Wolfgang Wolfram von Wolmar made their headquarters in ČTK premises. The Gestapo had its main office in the Petschkov Palace, i.e. just around the corner. The agency, which changed its name to the Czech news agency, was first formally managed by the Office of the Government and later its management was transferred under the hated Ministry of People's Education chaired by Emanuel Moravec, the architect of Czech collaboration with Nazis.

Liberation, fire and purges

The May 1945 revolution brought recognition to agency resistance forces, freedom to agency journalists and destruction to ČTK building. On May 8, ČTK caught fire for reasons that are still a mystery. Some possible causes of the fire might have been air bombing or shelling of grenades from nearby Petschkov Palace, which was held by Nazis until the last moments or politically motivated arson. The whole news archive and document testifying to collaboration with Nazis were destroyed.

While lots of evidence was probably missing, the agency still underwent the post-war purge. Several agency employees were not allowed to enter the ČTK building, others were forbidden to publish, others had to change their jobs. Same as in a number of other companies, some ČTK employees were punished not for their collaboration with the Nazis but rather for their pre-war right-wing attitudes. One of the punished persons was Arnošt Bareš, who could not return work to ČTK after returning from the concentration camp. One of the leaders of the resistance, executed Zdeněk Schmoranz, could not avoid attacks for his Agrarian Party support.

Reconstruction of the building took two and half years and during this time ČTK had to operate from provisional premises in Stalin's (today's Vinohradská) Street. In the meantime, however, ČTK acquired the building at Opletalova 7. This building used to be rented by Austrian Fénix insurance company and ČTK first wanted to rent it, too, but then a decision was made to acquire it so that both neighbouring buildings could be linked together and old facades renovated. ČTK therefore acquired both buildings at Opletalova 5 and 7 and owns them till today.

After the war, the agency actually needed a lot of space. The number of its employees - as a result of new tasks – gradually increased many folds. With the growth of staff the economic deficit increased. Although ČTK never generated profit, even in times of Emil Čermák, the deficits were in millions of CZK. After February 1948 deficit financial management grew dramatically and annual deficit exceeded 50 million CZK as the business spirit completely vanished. After several waves of purges, the agency turned to sort of a branch office of the Soviet news agency with carefully scrutinized personnel.

February and reorganization

There were no major conflicts in ČTK in February 1948, when the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia. The Communists were supported by the majority of the members of powerful Czech Social Democratic Party, the National Socialist Party was dismissed and the People’s Party had no branch in ČTK. Followers and supporters of the first republic order, including Karel Kraus, the editor in chief and one of the founders of pre-war ČTK were dismissed and could only work in less important non-news related posts.

February revolution also led to an extensive reorganization. Its valuable image archive was stored outside the main building during the war and was not destroyed by fire. From protectorate times, subordination to the Ministry of Education and a cumbersome reporting system subject to content and political control remained.

Otherwise, everything changed completely. ČTK took over Centropress, a huge pre-war propaganda apparatus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was reduced to article service for domestic and foreign magazines called Pragopress. A monitoring office was set up, which published confidential news bulletins for political and state leaders and so called Political Secretariat, which vouched for ideological sterility of published news. Their contents were mainly information about efforts to build socialist economy, peace policy and development of the Soviet Union and satellite countries.

A system of confidential reporting, present in the information system of the Austrian Korbyro and pre-war ČTK, was transferred to post-February period. Gradually, two separate editorial lines were created at the agency, which separated news for media and public from news for “nomenclature cadres” (e.g. politicians and country leaders). Since 1970s, confidential news were divided into three categories, according to security classification. The content of classified reports was mainly the activity of Czechoslovak exile, foreign press reports on Czechoslovak and Soviet dissidents and other information that did not fit into the concept of socialist propaganda. Formally ČTK reported to the government, but in fact it was managed by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Since 1957, ČTK has been a state budget organization.

After February 1948, foreign news broadcasts fully relied on the reports of the Soviet agency TASS, which in the early 1950s virtually led to liquidation of network of ČTK's foreign correspondents. However, the change in tactical preferences from the beginning of 1960s brought the Agency to the opposite extreme, when ČTK - together with the East German news agency ADN - took an offensive news role in the third world countries. ČTK opened new branches and created an extensive news export system in English, French, Spanish and Russian.

Short relief

While from the end of 1940s the Agency worked under the influence of political party secretariats, 1960s were years of its dynamic technological and business development. Political "thaw" allowed the Agency to move into new directions and improve its bad economic situation. ČTK founded Pressfoto editorial house, promotion agency Made in .... (Publicity) and started to publish a popular 100+1 magazine about foreign countries in 1964.

The Agency and its editorial offices were fully opened to the reform process in 1968. The flow of fresh air has influenced the form of news and its content, and the majority of the reporters supported Dubček's leadership of Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ). But the August invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops brought drastic end to all this. Still, these days in the end of August 1968, marked one of the few famous chapters of the Agency in the era of socialism.

When a so-called "invitation letter" arrived at ČTK building to justify the invasion of the international military troops to international public, it was not distributed and published by ČTK and did not leave its offices. This was the first crack in the in the occupation scenario and the message of the invitation letter had to be published from Moscow. A number of ČTK staff moved to a secret workplace in Bubeneč in the next days, where they supplied Prague newspapers with free news.

The normalization and further purge

However, “normalization” began soon, and at the end of the Prague Spring, there was another purge at ČTK, even more dramatic than that of 1948. Tens of people were forced to leave the agency, many reporters and managers emigrated. The Communist Party's opposition was removed during the scrutiny, and young editors and reporters were employed, who did not carry the “burden of the past” in the opinion of the new management. Just as after 1948, twenty years later, part of editorial staff was punished and forced to work in less important or non-editorial posts.

The news routine of the 1970s and 1980s brought improvements to the confidential reporting system, stronger top management, systematic communist party training, and often also management bullying. The symbol of this period was Otakar Svěrčina, the managing director of the agency, who was a convinced Stalinist with police methods of management and a man, who was as capable as reckless. Editorial work, partly thanks to him, was revived by the advent of computers, which ČTK acquired as one of the first Czechoslovak media. In ČTK computerization was largely self-made but thanks to it the Agency handled a quick arrival of modern communication technologies, as well as the later advent of the Internet. In 1980s the culmination of this trend was the news database, which became the basis of the later digital information assets of ČTK.

During the normalization (in 1970s and 1980s) ČTK produced constructive news, published information provided by officials of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, used self-censorship, verbatim translations of speeches by Soviet statesmen, produced confidential. However ČTK could not avoid scandals e.g. with respect to its foreign news reporters, who decided to leave the country.

Freedom and the crisis

Editorial offices of ČTK promptly responded to the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. ČTK worked hard to get rid of a totalitarian organization stigma and began to be seen as a professional supplier of impartial news coverage. Aleš Benda, shortly succeeded by Petr Uhl, became the directors of ČTK. ČTK became a public organization, for the first time in its history not controlled by the state authorities and since 1993 its activities have been supervised by ČTK Council.

Tomáš Kopřiva was appointed a provisional managing director in September 1992 but agency employees rejected his appointment in a dramatic conflict about unsatisfactory economic results. What is more, at the time the number of employees decreased sharply – by up to forty percent, as a result of reorganization, dismissals due to collaboration with Communist secret service and attempts of reporters to pursue other journalistic challenges in the free Republic. The campaign of staff members against the director Kopřiva, resulted in a series of job termination notices and the agency fell maybe into its deepest existential crisis. The Union of Daily Press Publishers, unhappy with ČTK production, started to create a new private news agency ČTA.

The solution was brought by the newly established Council of ČTK, which started a selection process for a new Director General and in June 1993, Milan Stibral was selected as agency’s CEO. In the history of ČTK his name and names of his closest co-workers marks long period of personnel, editorial, technical and business stabilization of the Agency, including commercial and economic success, activities in the field of international cooperation and consistently promoted fidelity to conservative news procedures: objectivity and impartiality, professional workmanship and top level technology used in the process.

However it was not easy to achieve these goals. When the dramatic post-revolution period was over (a part of which was short-lived change of ČTK abbreviation to ČSTK and renaming of the agency from Czechoslovak News Agency to Czech News Agency in the end of 1992), the agency deepened its transformation efforts under the leadership of Mr. Stibral.

The prosperity and development

In the mid-1990s, ČTK successfully dealt with its first competitor (ČTA) and its efforts to work on market principals brought first fruits. Although consideration of privatization did not find sufficient support in political circles, ČTK has undergone a fundamental transformation and got rid of the perpetual deficit operation. In 1996 it rejected state subsidies and since 1997 until now (except 2008 - 2012) it has been a profitable business.

Thanks to technical expansion the Agency started to process image service digitally and executed image transfer via satellite. It expanded its offer of documentation databases, started creation of infographics and in the late 1990s launched ČTK Infobank.

ČTK significantly strengthened its regional and society news service and began to develop new activities. It became one of the first Agencies to start a news website (since 1995), bought a 50% stake in the company Newton Information Technology (media monitoring service) in 1997. In 1999, ČTK established its subsidiary Neris, a company focused on Internet and new media services. In the same year, ČTK bought the Czech Capital Information Agency (Čekia). This led to creation of a group of ČTK companies, which has operated in this form for almost 10 years.

The beginning of the new century was connected with large-scale multimediatization in ČTK. ČTK sold its stake in Čekia company as well as its stake in Newton IT and focused its attention to its own agency news and activities in the field of new media. It set up an audio news service, and in 2003 built a new, connected, multimedia, fully digital editing room. Three years later it launched video news service and deployed a multimedia content management system, developed in-house, which is one of the most advanced content management systems among news agencies worldwide. In 2017, ČTK started a direct streaming service of Internet video from events throughout the country and Liveblog on-line text service.

ČTK also became known internationally. In addition to the traditional activities as a member of the European Alliance of news agencies, which was headed by director Stibral in 1997-98, ČTK, as the only post-communist news agency became a founding member of a new international agency organization called MINDS.

Difficult times

A period of prosperity and financial stability was compromised by the economic crisis after the year 2008, supported by robust onset of freely available Internet news. Due to severe impact of the economic crisis, certain clients stopped subscription to paid agency service of ČTK.

What is more, this troublesome period was complicated for ČTK due to a new agency competition from Mediafax, a Czech branch of a Romanian news agency, which was greatly supported by Nova TV Group, of which it which was a part. However, ČTK succeeded in such a fight once more.

The volatile market at that time complicated the life of ČTK. The Agency reacted to the new situation not only by budgetary restraint and decrease of human resources but also by changing the organizational structure and joining the editorial departments into one centrally controlled unit. Even in this difficult period, when Jiří Majstr succeeded Milan Stibral as the managing director in 2011, the agency did not stop its development. It continued working on multimedia projects and products for mobile media and founded ČTK Academy, a training center.

A major achievement was the sale of the multimedia content management system to German DPA agency. An internationally valued tool for creating agency news, developed in-house by ČTK, is now also used by one of the largest European news agencies.

100 year old and independent

Despite the economic crises, changes in the political and media environment, and financially more and more demanding professional reporting, ČTK has retained editorial independence, which it considers to be its most valuable asset, and which has long been promoted by not only director Stibral, but also by Petr Holubec, a long-time editor-in-chief. For the past twenty-two years the agency has not been subsidized from state or financed from other public sources, and has been politically and economically independent.

One hundred years of ČTK is the image of not only deep editorial and technical changes which accompanied the development of the news genre throughout the past hundred years and will undoubtedly shape it in the future. It is also a reflection of the power and political revolutions of the Republic itself that the Agency has served for many years. Today, as an important pillar of Czech news industry, ČTK wants to faithfully and effectively serve the media, which are its major partners.

If you are interested in our services and would like to learn more, please contact us:

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