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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Regional Press Rides Storm




Crisis for some, Russian life as usual for others. The press in St. Petersburg and other Russian regions took the financial blow of the crisis with much less hysteria than the pampered Moscow media, even though regional newspapers were probably hit harder than big publications in the capital.


Wages at the St. Petersburg weekly Peterburgsky Chas Pik were paid in September in plates, jeans and eggs. The staff accepted them cheerfully. Payment of salaries in kind is a widespread practice in the Russian provinces. Journalists at other St. Petersburg publications, including the Swedish-owned Delovoi Peterburg, are getting the same ruble salaries as before the Aug. 17 devaluation. They are not happy, but they are not planning to go on strike and they are not writing stories about the end of the world.


True, newsprint prices have jumped up 70 percent in St. Petersburg f and they've risen across the country, doubling in Vyatka and Nizhny Novgorod f but some newspapers have got printers to agree to price cuts. After all, the St. Petersburg media world is small, and the printers don't want their clients to fail. Deals are being cut with paper suppliers and landlords, too, in the true St. Petersburg spirit of good-neighborliness. No newspapers have folded and few have cut their volumes.


"There is more calm here than in Moscow," says Grigory Kunis, managing director of the St. Petersburg Times. "People are down, of course, but not as globally stressed-out as our Moscow colleagues. I guess it's just that the soap bubble was bigger in Moscow and when it burst, people had more to lose."


He is right, of course. The Moscow soap bubble with huge salaries and expectations of a media boom was a huge, brightly colored spheroid enclosing most of the capital's media community. In St. Petersburg, the boom talk was secondhand. Some reporters in Russia's second capital talked wistfully of Moscow's modern newsrooms and noisy journalistic gatherings over expensive pints of Guinness. But it was outdated computers (in some cases even typewriters) and Baltika beer all the way in St. Petersburg. So the fall was not as steep.


Advertising in all St. Petersburg publications has dropped by about 40 percent. Kunis expects things to get worse in November with drops as steep as 60 percent from pre-crisis levels. But then, according to the National Press Institute, 75 percent of all money spent on advertising is spent in Moscow. Again, the drop was painful, but not as painful as in the capital. Kunis fears many newspapers will resort to dumping, lowering their advertising rates to draw clients. Delovoi Peterburg is already doing that, offering huge discountsto anyone bearing new business.


If a newspaper is run as a business, not a PR instrument, the decline in advertising makes survival difficult in Moscow or in the provinces. But in St. Petersburg, there are only two or three newspapers that are run as businesses. The rest are either city-owned or subsidized by the city government or banks associated with it. In August, four local newspapers received a 1 billion-ruble loan from BaltUneximbank. The city authorities are not going to allow newspapers to start folding because of a mere financial crisis.


That is the case in many other Russian regions, too. In some of them, local authorities are using the situation to tighten their control of the media. They are also putting pressure on independent publications. The National Press Institute reported several such cases in a recent survey of the regional press.


But the pressure is nothing out of the ordinary for provincial publishers and editors. They've learned to deal with it over the years, some by bending and others by maneuvering deftly.


According to the NPI survey, only one regional paper, in Novosibirsk, has suspended publication since Aug. 17. There are other casualties f the printed edition of the English-language Vladivostok News folded recently f but it is not as if a wave of newspaper closures has been sweeping across Russia.


Just like Russia itself, the regional newspaper market will survive the crisis somehow. Of course, the papers' dependence on the authorities may strengthen and the press is likely to be thrown back a few years in terms of commercial development and reporting quality. But that has happened time and time again in this country, and provincial journalists are no less stoic than other people in the regions.


It's just time for everyone to start chanting this universal pessimist's personal mantra: "If you don't expect too much, you do not freak out when the worst happens."