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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Another Hungry News Year




Well, better luck this year, is what I am telling myself and the rest of us Moscow hacks now that 1998 and the two-week drinking binge that followed it are over.


Last year, more journalists stopped being paid than there were of us in Moscow when Gorbachev's perestroika broke out. One daily newspaper, Russky Telegraf, closed. Others moved to different printing presses where they could get credit. I have a feeling many news outlets still exist only because they are counting on some manna from heaven in the form of handouts from campaigning politicians who will need the media's support for this year's parliamentary and next year's presidential elections.


Kapital, the weekly I edited for most of 1998, shrank to half its pre-crisis size. The Mass Media News bulletin said Kapital's main problem was that it "was not sure of its market." That is something of an understatement: Advertisements for job opportunities, which used to supply about half of the newspaper's revenues, have all but disappeared because there are no more job opportunities in this town.


At least the foreign press had some fun in Moscow, unlike in 1997. An economic collapse always generates good copy.


Paradoxically, 1999 is likely to be a good year for the Russian media. Not financially, because, God knows, the economy can only get worse. But some of the anomalies that have plagued the news business here for several years are finally going to go away. Here is what I think is going to happen.


1. Foreign media magnates are finally going to move into this market. The fact that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Boris Berezovsky set up a joint-venture advertising agency to sell airtime on Russia's biggest TV channel, ORT, shows Murdoch is interested in Russia. He is just waiting for the right opportunity to come in. I will not be surprised if Murdoch soon acquires one of the existing daily newspapers here.


Other foreign publishers are also seriously talking about deals in the Russian print media business. Foreign newspapers may write that Russia is the pits, but their publishers know an opportunity when they see one. And Russian oligarchs will no longer be strong enough to keep the foreigners out.


2. Television stations will give up any hope of being profitable as businesses in the next couple of years. They can only stay alive on political money that will miraculously appear out of nowhere once the State Duma election campaign starts in earnest in about six months' time. That, however, is better in a way than having the stations fight economic wars for the business tycoons who controlled them until recently. Politicians, for all their sleaziness, are more relevant to the average viewer than feuds between Vladimir Potanin and Vladimir Gusinsky.


Sure, business tycoons will be involved in politics, too, but at least the voter in the end has a chance to choose a political agenda he likes in an election year. When you are supposed to choose as a viewer whom to back in a business dispute, your interest can only be purely academic.


3. There will be fewer stupid, inexcusable forays into the media market by people who are not professionals in it and who do not see the reporting of news as a business. Putting together an economically functioning magazine or newspaper in these days of crisis is doubly difficult and it requires expertise. No more Russky Telegrafs then, and no more weekly magazines like Kompania, which were set up by banks simply as prestigious playthings.


4. With the weak ruble, there is finally an opportunity for quality printing to develop here in Russia. A new magazine printing press is already functioning in Moscow, and Independent Media, a leader of the glossy magazine market, has moved the printing of some of its titles to it. More such ventures will almost certainly follow this year. Ultimately, this will make Russian weekly news magazines better in terms of the timeliness of their coverage. When you print in Finland, your news is at least a week old when your magazine comes out. Printing in Russia will make analytical magazines follow news events more closely and cover them more topically.


5. Journalists will have time to forget about the unrealistically high salaries they used to be paid in the last two years. Work costs as much as it costs, and snobbery should no longer be part of a journalist's outlook. We are living in lean times, and being a little hungry helps you report the hell out of them.