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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Economics Also Count For the Press

Freedom of the press consists of a lot more than the right to say what you want. Unless you can print your message, distribute it to those who might want to read it and sell it at a price they can afford, your freedom amounts to no more than the right to mutter under your breath.

These facts are slowly seeping into the consciousness of Russian newspapers. Indeed, two prominent publications -- Pravda and Rossiiskiye Vesti -- have just been forced by economic difficulties to close.

Before that happened, attempts by the government to get newspapers to pay a more realistic price for printing produced a strike threat, a meeting with officials and a temporary reprieve. But the papers know that sooner or later their fantasy world of subsidies, cheap printing and other concessions will disappear. Suddenly, economic reforms are no longer an abstract concept to write about; they are a potentially painful experience.

And not a moment too soon, is the cry from the back of the hall. What makes newspapers any different from aluminum or vodka? Why should the press be inoculated against economic reality? Papers should pay a fair price for newsprint, ink, printing and distribution, pass it on to the consumer and let the market do its job.

Wrong, is the reply. Newspapers, especially in a democracy as fragile as Russia, are not just another commodity. Who will be searching after the truth when there are just three newspapers left, all costing the equivalent of $20 a copy and circulating to mere thousands? How can there be talk of market forces when the Russian economy is in such a state that the more popular a newspaper is, the more likely it is to fail?

There is something in both views. The press is too important to Russia's development as a free and democratic nation to be left to the immediate mercy of the market. But in the long run the only guarantee of a free press is profitable newspapers produced at a price that people can afford.

The Russian press does face serious economic problems. There are too many newspapers, too few printing plants, too few advertisements (and not enough attention paid by papers to putting this right), a totally inadequate distribution system and too many badly paid journalists.

These are problems that have to be solved -- but not by hit-and-run proposals that cannot survive the first strike threat, and least of all coming from a government that has yet to prove it is wholly committed to having a press beyond its control. What is needed is a concerted plan of action drafted by the press and government of how to move from subsidy to free enterprise. If this was done, it would be a major step toward a truly free press.