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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media as Truth or Political Weapon

Deep in the heart of cranberry country, a Russian publisher has built a small media empire guided by market forces rather than politics. But he is worried that the long arm of Moscow, where the free press is under attack, may soon reach into the provinces. Sarah Karush went to Vologda to meet with Roman Romanenko, the driving force behind the Premier Information Group. Photographs by Igor Tabakov.

VOLOGDA, Northwestern Russia f "JEEPOMANIA!" screamed the headline. "Our officials got themselves some cool wheels."

Complete with photographs of the governor's brand-new Mercedes jeep and his deputy's Toyota Land Cruiser, the front page of a recent issue of Premier newspaper caused a small stir in Vologda, a sleepy town of 300,000 in cranberry country, about 400 kilometers north of Moscow.

To anyone picking up Premier for the first time, it might look as if the feisty weekly had it in for the governor. After all, most of the country's media can be roughly broken down into those loyal to the authorities and those in the opposition.

But Premier's publisher, Roman Romanenko, a mustachioed chain-smoker with a mischievous grin, says he's got no political agenda. His only goal is to create a newspaper that sells.

In the continuing debate over freedom of the press, participants ranging from President Vladimir Putin to respected media critic Alexei Pankin have pointed out that journalists often serve political interests to the detriment of their readers. According to Pankin, only 10 percent of publications are valued enough by readers to be economically self-sufficient. Even papers that claim to have no links to major financial or political interests often see their job not in terms of providing balanced coverage, but rather as a moral crusade.

Scattered around the country, people like Romanenko f who says he has nothing against Vologda Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalyov and will happily report on his positive achievements as well as his new cars f are trying to break this pattern and turn the media into a business that is guided by market forces rather than politics. In Romanenko's case, the experiment seems to be working, though profits remain slim and the game is getting riskier.

"In Russia, the media is seen as a hobby or a political tool," says Romanenko, whose Premier Information Group unites the eponymous weekly, a radio station, a lifestyles and entertainment paper and a gardening magazine. "But if you approach a newspaper as a business, it will be maximally truthful, maximally interesting."

Certainly, this principle seemed to work in the report about the regional administration's new cars. Despite the attention-grabbing headline, the article gave government officials a chance to explain where the money for the new cars came from, why they were needed and why a Mercedes was chosen instead of a Lada ("We would be glad to support Russian manufacturers, but the quality of our automobiles is not yet up to par").

Romanenko, 33, began building his media group in 1996 with Radio Premier, now the city's most popular station, playing an eclectic mix of popular Russian and Western music and catering to listeners over 25. But he says it is the station's news service that has allowed it to capture 35 percent of the local audience. It is the only nongovernmental media outlet covering the city on a daily basis and is not shy about providing "news you can use" f such as announcements about lost pets.

"If you take radio, we have no competition when it comes to news," boasts Marina Lipina, a reporter at the station. "People make a point of listening to us."

Romanenko says the secret to creating a news outlet people value is financial backers who never interfere in editorial content.

"Our relationship with our founders is that they see what we've written when they buy the newspaper on the street," he says. "I'm very proud of that."

But German Titov, commercial director of Stroiindustria, a construction and transport company that owns 74 percent of the shares in Premier, does not hide the fact that media holdings are politically advantageous. And unlike Romanenko, he is not too concerned about Premier bringing profits.

"In Russia, if you don't take an interest in politics, politics will take an interest in you," he says. "This is our bulletproof vest."

In other words, people assume that if they cross Stroiindustria, they will read about it in Premier. However, Romanenko contends that his news outlets would not get involved in Stroiindustria's business squabbles.

With the attack on Vladimir Gusinsky and his Media-MOST empire, the climate for commercial media of all sizes is less than hospitable. Some observers fear that President Vladimir Putin's plans to bring the provinces in line will extend to the regional media as well.

"Putin ? is striving to bring the press under central control, as opposed to the divided political power of the past 10 years, which was a little better," says Robert Coalson, a program director at the National Press Institute in St. Petersburg.

In his attempt to wrest power away from the governors, Putin has created seven federal districts with special representatives to keep him up to speed on developments there. Viktor Cherkesov, the most notorious of the new envoys, has been put in charge of the Northwestern District, which includes the Vologda region.

A former agent in St. Petersburg with the Fifth Directorate, the KGB arm responsible for keeping tabs on, among other things, the mass media, Cherkesov is well-known in the northern capital as a dissident crusher. More recently, he has been one of the most vocal advocates of Internet surveillance.

Cherkesov has gotten no special treatment from Premier, which published a rather unflattering article about his biography upon his appointment to the new post.

So Romanenko is preparing for the worst. "If they crush Media-MOST, they'll crush all the little Premiers in the regions without anyone noticing," he says.

In part because of the new threat to freedom of speech, Premier is expanding in directions that are less politically dangerous, such as non-news publications and subscription services.

"I don't want to do what they want me to do f that would be a step backward. But I need to protect my staff and the company's image," Romanenko says.

Certainly, the precarious position of the regional nonstate media is nothing new. But while previously regional journalists felt pressure from the governors, they now fear the long arm of Moscow.

Under the old system, Premier was at a distinct advantage compared to papers in other regions. Unlike many governors, Pozgalyov's media policy is to be tolerant and avoid antagonism, Romanenko says.

In some regions, a paper that wrote about the governor's new car could expect unpleasant consequences, such as a visit from the tax inspector or trouble with the printers.

Pozgalyov responded by approaching the reporter f not to scold him, but to tell him about other expensive cars the administration is planning to buy. It made for a nice follow-up article.

Romanenko says Pozgalyov is wise to be so open.

"If you're open, you can count on your opinion being represented," he says. "If they had tried to hide information about the cars, that article would have been a lot harsher."

Relations between the press and the government haven't always been so harmonious in Vologda.

In the early 1990s, another Vologda weekly, Russky Sever, uncovered widespread corruption in the administration of Nikolai Podgornov, who later beca me the first former governor to be convicted of corruption in 1998. After a second trial he was sentenced to seven years in prison in the fall of 1999, but he was later released under a general amnesty.

Russky Sever was rewarded for its investigations by a booming circulation f 163,000 at its peak f and violent attacks on the newspaper's journalists, including Romanenko, who was the paper's deputy editor.

"This struggle made us popular, but it also was harmful because it showed that a newspaper could be a political weapon," Romanenko recounts.

After that, he says, Russky Sever began dividing the region's political figures into friends and enemies f and styled its coverage accordingly.

Today, Russky Sever's circulation is down to 28,000 f perhaps in part because of the competition breathing down its neck. Just outside Russky Sever's window overlooking the city's central market, a giant billboard hails Premier Information Group. And last year another competitor arrived when Provintsia, a publishing house with 20 regional newspapers, brought the weekly Khronometr to Vologda.

Nikolai Chesnokov, the burly commercial director of Russky Sever, characterizes his publication as an "opposition newspaper" and says it has continued to feel pressure under Pozgalyov.

"Under the new governor, we have suffered an advertising boycott," he says.

It's not immediately clear why. A recent issue of Russky Sever appeared quite conciliatory and scandal-free. The front page was dedicated to Trade Workers' Day and featured the governor's congratulatory message. Chesnokov says officials are annoyed by the letters from disgruntled residents printed by the paper.

Despite their differences, Russky Sever and Premier share a common enemy: Krasny Sever, the official mouthpiece of the regional government.

"When a newspaper is practically free of charge ? how can the independent press compete as equals?" Chesnokov complains.

At only 1.50 rubles at the newsstand and 131 rubles for a six-month subscription, the daily Krasny Sever is the cheapest newspaper in Vologda. It also enjoys the highest circulation, of just under 40,000. The weekly Premier, in comparison, costs 2.30 rubles, and has a circulation of about 20,000.

Regional officials deny that Krasny Sever f the region's only daily paper f constitutes unfair competition.

"It's perfectly normal for each branch of government to have its own newspaper," says regional spokesman Vasily Vorobyov.

Leonid Iogman, head of the region's economic department, says a subsidized paper is necessary in part to help keep informed the region's poor, who otherwise cannot afford the commercial papers.

Coalson of the National Press Institute isn't buying it.

"My argument is that having no paper at all is better than a state paper," he says. "For the development of civil society, hunger for information is better than to be deceived into thinking you're getting information."

Unfortunately, Coalson adds, the vast majority of people are so deceived. The Union of Journalists and the National Press Institute estimate that about 80 percent of the media is state-controlled. After sorting out various sports, entertainment and adult publications, state-produced information in the social-political sphere is closer to 95 percent, he says. Government-subsidized papers also contribute to the high cost of paper f one of the key problems cited by editors and publishers of commercial papers.

But so far, there's no sign that regional governors f all of whom have their own newspapers, as do regional parliaments and mayors f are willing to give up their propaganda organs. In fact, Cherkesov has called for increasing the state presence in the media market by creating an official television station for the Northwestern District. In Vologda this would be the seventh source of official information f on top of national channels ORT and RTR, state-funded regional TV and radio, city-controlled local TV and Krasny Sever.

But, in the region's capital at least, people are no longer so eager to get their news from the state. Restaurant owners and trolleybus drivers pipe in Radio Premier, turning up the volume for the newscast. And Krasny Sever f which proudly displays its medal of honor next to its founding date, 1917 f is out of fashion.

"I haven't read it since I left the Party," laughs Nikolai, a pensioner. "That was back under Gorbachev." He says he'll continue reading Khronometr f as long as he has a choice.