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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Looking for Stealth Papers

Every week, up to 20 new magazines and newspapers are registered by the Russian Press Committee. According to various sources, there were between 1,700 and 2,200 magazines in Russia last year, compared to just 765 in Germany. But where are they all? Not at your local kiosk, and certainly not at provincial newsstands.

In Moscow, and especially outside the capital, it is hardly possible to find a newsstand offering even 100 publications. There are basically the same old papers and magazines everywhere: the sexy SPID-INFO, the sensationalist Top Secret, Megapolis Express and Express Gazeta, a bunch of papers that only publish crossword puzzles or stories about UFOs or black magic, the cheap weekly magazines published by the German Burda publishing house, the monthly glossies put out by Independent Media and Hachette Filippachi. Maybe a couple of dailies here and there, although, even in Moscow one can say with certainty that only Moskovsky Komsomolets, with its colorful local coverage, will be at every newsstand.

There are plenty of highbrow explanations. They say the Moscow press is too absorbed in the capital's political intrigues and big business deals to interest local readers. They say only yellow journalism and crosswords have a chance in a land where entertainment is short and squalor is the norm.

All of this is true to some extent.

Yet the main reason for the poverty of the Russian newsstand is more or less technical -- distribution.

"As soon as you're 200 or 300 kilometers outside Moscow, in small cities with a population of 30,000 to 50,000, you will find out that each city gets about two copies of Megapolis Express and four copies of [Burda's] Liza, which people pass around till the paper wears out," Dmitry Martynov, president of the Press Distributors' Association, told a recent conference.

"You will not find a single copy of [the dailies] Segodnya, Russky Telegraf, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Noviye Izvestia."

Many distributors blame this on publishers. Distribution companies would like publishers to sell their products to them on the condition that unsold copies can be returned for a fee. That, the wholesalers say, will allow them to experiment with new publications and niche products. But publishers are reluctant to work on these terms, because they are not sure retail vendors will have enough incentive to sell their publications and because, by Russian law, they cannot write off unsold copies as a tax-deductible loss. Some distributors lobby the government so that publishers would get that right, but they do not have a powerful enough lobby when everyone, from the military to the hospitals, is clamoring for funds and not getting any.

Politicians generally dislike the press between elections, and now is a bad time to ask them for tax concessions.

In the end, distributors only carry the titles they are sure they can sell.

Since, according to their practical experience (no reliable research exists), the market is sure to snap up UFOs, crosswords and fashion, distributors rarely stray from this mix.

Apart from this, in many cities local post offices charge distributors huge delivery prices. Since the post office is a monopoly, there is no fighting its demands. In Arkhangelsk, the local transport monopoly charges distributors so much for a five-kilometer delivery run from the airport to the warehouse that the price of every newspaper goes up by 50 kopeks. In the case of more expensive publications, like glossy magazines, prices can get so high few people in impoverished provincial cities can afford them.

Few publishers are wealthy enough to offer distributors the chance to return unsold copies. Even fewer have the wherewithal to fight the transport problems and build regional distribution networks. Some do not even particularly want to distribute their products -- that is the case with the "inside-the-Beltway" PR "newspapers" financed by major banks and with the regional dailies published by the local authorities.

So in practice, out of thousands of titles, the reader gets access to several dozen, very few of them new ones. Many publishers are devoid of the chance to compete among themselves in certain niches: niche publications hardly ever get onto newsstands, unlike in Europe and the States. I mean, if I made a magazine for the aficionados of, say, old German cars, and someone else had hit on just such an idea, we would not be able to fight it out unless we worked out good direct-mailing strategies.

And what is the use of abundance if the only people who notice it are registration officials at the Press Committee?