The Digital Journalist
Finland Story

by Lucian Perkins

"Finland! Why Finland?" That was the typical reaction from friends and colleagues when they found out that reporter Bob Kaiser and I were planning to spend three weeks there filing entries for a daily diary for and producing half a dozen stories for our paper. We had already completed a number of similar diaries in the past - the first being the Siberian Diary back in 2001. That was our initial attempt to use the Internet to allow our readers to join us as we explored an exotic part of the world. The diary format provided them with a way to interact with us during our trip and share their questions as well as their experiences about Siberia. Some gave us very good suggestions about places to go and people to meet. We were pleasantly surprised by the success of our first venture. Even today schools and institutions use that diary as an educational tool about Siberia and Russia.

3 June 2005, Helsinki - Pete Niskanen and Eija Penttila with their dogs and 1958 convertible Corvette. Speaking of the hobby of old American cars, Pete said, "This is our life, and our dogs love it too." During the summer the first Friday of each month is Helsinki Cruising Night where "rodders," as they are called in Finland, cruise the streets and hang out in several parking lots to show off their cars, drink beers, and have a good time.

Perkins/Washington Post
Four years later Kaiser hoped that a Finland diary would generate as much enthusiasm as the Siberian Diary had. At first I wasn't quite convinced about Finland. I posed the question that later became so familiar: "Why Finland?"

For Kaiser, Finland had been in the back of his mind since he first traveled there 40 years ago as a college student, and again in the early '70s, when Helsinki was a pleasant retreat from the then-dreary Moscow where he was based as a correspondent for the Washington Post. Although Finland was a bit of a "backwater" then, it exhibited some potential. For example, it had a relatively good health care system. Bob went there for dental care and liked the results. In the decades since, Finland had transformed itself. Thanks to Nokia, it had become a technological powerhouse. The Finns had developed a terrific educational system too. When he proposed this trip to our editors, Kaiser wrote: "The Finns appear to have the best educational system in the world. All younger Finns speak and read English. Finland has more students in post-secondary education than any other country in Europe, per capita, by a margin of 12 percent. And they are clever. Linus Torvalds, who invented Linux, is Finnish. Nokia of course is Finnish, too - and one of the most interesting companies anywhere.

1 June 2005, Katiharjun Sauna - The Katiharjun Sauna uses wood to heat its sauna. It is Helsinki's oldest public sauna, which opened in 1928.

Perkins/Washington Post
"The Finns have figured out competitiveness; they have, by the World Economic Forum's (Davos) reckoning, the most competitive economy in the world. Finland and Ireland are, lately, the two fastest-growing economies in the E.U. The Finns are also highly adaptable; they have the largest number of cell phones per capita of any country, and one of the highest rates of Internet connections. Finns have embraced high technology and incorporated it into their daily lives.

"Which country has won the most Olympic medals, per capita? Not the U.S. (ranks 16th with 8.3 Olympic medals per million residents). Not the Swedes (number two, 56.3 per million). Yes, the Finns-106 Olympic medals per million residents, summer and winter games, throughout modern Olympic history.

"Which country trains the most musicians? Again on a per capita basis, Finland, by far. The conductors of the symphony orchestras of Los Angeles and Toronto are Finns. Music is a central part of the curriculum for all young Finns. The Finns are also gifted architects (the Saarinens) and designers (Marimekko).

19 May 2005 - Arabia comprehensive school also has daycare. Here preschoolers take turns whispering a "Golden Thought" to Minttu-Maija Lehto during a birthday party to celebrate her 3rd birthday. Birthdays are a big deal in Finnish schools. Whispering a "Golden Thought" is part of the birthday tradition.

Perkins/Washington Post
"The Finns are serious environmentalists, and rank first in The Economist's table of 'environmental sustainability.' They build the most energy-efficient buildings, have the best systems to preserve clean water, manage their forests better than anyone else, and more.

"And life in Finland is good, except for the climate. Helsinki is the second-safest city in Europe (after Luxembourg). Health care is excellent, and the number of physicians in the country has doubled in the last 20 years. Finns visit their libraries more than any other people. They love nature, and by law, can hike or walk on anyone's land in the country. They love the tango, and the sauna-there are more saunas in Finland than cars."

That memo persuaded both me and our editors to do the Finland diary. We took what we had learned from our previous diaries and - with terrific support from this one to be more interactive and multimedia-based. Our colleagues at proposed that we use new blogging software so readers could make their own observations as well and generate further discussions on the topics we wrote about and photographed.

24 May 2005 - At the Hotel Kareilia in Joensuu tango dancers enjoy Ladies Night, where the women ask the men to dance. Tango was popularized in the early 20th century by Finnish sailors who came from Argentina.

Perkins/Washington Post
Within a week after the first appearance of our diary appeared on most of the Finnish newspapers had written about our trip, which stirred enthusiasm as we traveled from city to city. (Finnish newspapers enjoy huge readership-about 70 percent of Finns read a paper every day, compared to less than 50 percent of Americans.) When I identified myself as a photographer for the Washington Post doing a project called the "Finland Diary" people immediately recognized who I was. We had not only Washington Post readers following us, but also Finns and Finnish-Americans. This provided our readers with a wealth of additional comments from our blog format.

During our travels, which lasted for three weeks, I was impressed by the progress the Finns had made in areas that we are still struggling with: education, the environment, and health care. It reminded me of what I had learned during my previous travels in other countries: Americans don't necessarily have as good a quality of life as many of us are led to believe. In Finland, for example, employees have from a month to six weeks of vacation every year; health care and education are more accessible to everyone and very cheap (though taxes are high); environmental safeguards are practiced by everyone, from the man in the street to big business and the government. All of this provides a very healthy environment for most Finns. No doubt Finland has its own set of problems, but I left feeling convinced that we could benefit greatly by exploring their successes.

On a personal note, I left Finland with many cherished memories. The saunas I had and wrote about were not just fun; they were a way of life for Finns that I was able to encounter firsthand. I fondly remember some magical walks, for example in the city of Kuopio, which is almost surrounded by a lake. Along the city's edge I took in the majestic view of the lake and scenery, breathing the fresh air, and watching the couples and families enjoy every minute of the long-lasting sunset that edged on until 10:30p.m. And then there was the performance put on for us in the small town of Kuhmo by five teenagers in the most beautiful concert hall I had ever seen built from local pine trees.

A comment we heard often was, why would the Washington Post devote so much of its resources to a place like Finland when we have bigger, more immediate problems, such as the war in Iraq? It's a fair question, and one that I appreciate since I had been to Iraq. But in my mind these are two separate but important issues. Places like Finland may not be immediately as important as the war in Iraq, but our media and we as a people would be foolish to disregard the successes of other countries around the world. Those successes may not always provide the answer for ways to improve our society, but an awareness of them can act as a catalyst, and open doors to ways we may not have even thought of. What I fear is that if we don't investigate other options we may find ourselves left behind merely by our sheer ignorance of what is happening beyond our borders.

Please take a look at our Finland Diary at and enjoy the trip with us.

© Lucian Perkins

Lucian Perkins, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and World Press Photo of the Year recipient, has been a staff photographer for the Washington Post since 1979. Perkins has covered many of the major events that occurred over the last 20 years, including most recently, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has also covered many of the daily and political events in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. In October of 1998 Perkins' first book, Runway Madness, was published by Chronicle Books.

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