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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Small Timers Move to Media




We've been reading for years now about the oligarchs of the Russian media - Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Gazprom's Rem Vyakhirev and the like. These were the guys who turned the cynical observation - if you don't like the news, buy some of your own - into the credo of Russian journalism.


In the last 12 months or so, however, an interesting undercurrent has been developing that has garnered considerably less attention. I call this phenomenon the emergence of the Russian media's "little oligarchs" - a group of publishers that just might represent the wave of the future.


Among the little oligarchs, one should mention Aram Gabrelyanov, head of the Vedomosti-Media group. Gabrelyanov, who began his newspaper career in Ulyanovsk, has quietly created a chain of 19 newspapers across European Russia, with the paper Moskovskiye Vedomosti as its flagship. Including Moskovskiye Vedomosti, the group claims a total circulation of 585,000.


Unfortunately, Vedomosti-Media is taking the low road to profitability, filling its pages with insipid, often disgusting yellow journalism. A recent issue of their publication in Nizhny Novgorod reported as front-page news (with an appropriate photograph) the story of how a beauty-contest entrant accidentally popped out of her evening gown for a moment. The same issue features a stomach-churning morgue shot of a woman who had been murdered with a circular saw. Not surprisingly, advertisers are staying away from such garbage in droves - this 16-page issue sports less than half a page of display ads.


A far more promising and intriguing "little oligarch" is Boris Giller, head of a newspaper chain called Provintsia-2000. In little over one year, Giller - who once owned the leading newspaper in Kazakhstan - has turned Provintsia into a chain of 16 newspapers, including one published in Germany and one in Israel. The company plans to expand to 25 papers by the end of this year and to 40 by the end of 2000. Provintsia claims a total circulation of just over 500,000 in Russia.


Provintsia's technique involves creating entirely new newspapers in the cities where it operates, each one having its own name and striving for an entirely local identity. At the same time, Provintsia has a stable of national journalists who write columns and features for all of its publications. The group's growth has been breathtaking - between March 24 and April 15 it started new papers in Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Bryansk and Vologda. Provintsia also plans to open private newspaper printing plants in Yaroslavl, Oryol and Omsk by the end of the year, and Giller insists that each paper in the group develop its own distribution system. Observers can track Provintsia's startling expansion on its very professional web site at www.province.ru. Despite the rosy picture the web site presents, Provintsia seems to be having some difficulty. The overall growth of its circulation is driven entirely by the new papers it is opening. Of its six oldest papers, four have seen declining circulation in recent months, perhaps due to belated counter measures taken by threatened local competitors.


Journalistically, Provintsia has a leg-up on the competition. Its papers stress local news, but they neither pander to nor despise their readers. Giller claims that his chain is politically independent and financed solely by the money he made from his media empire in Kazakhstan.


It is too early to tell what Provintsia's ultimate impact will be. Since the main enemies of regional newspapers are local administrations, the emergence of a strong, well-financed newspaper group may provide journalists the leverage they need to really cover local events.


On the other hand, Giller's headlong expansion during the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections at least suggests that he may have less than noble intentions. The Provintsia group is already positioned to have more impact in the regions than almost any of the national papers. Media watchers should pay close attention to the group's election coverage.


Radio Free Europe announced this week that Giller's old newspaper in Kazakhstan and the broadcasting company that he owned there had been purchased by none other than Boris Berezovsky. The stage is set then for a complete role reversal: Perhaps in a few years Giller will be the great Russian media baron and Berezovsky will be just a big fish in a much smaller pond.


Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. His e-mail address is rcoalson@snpi.org.ru