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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Whither Russia's Media Industry?

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The media industry has lived through more than 10 years. Together with the whole country, it took part in all its national and regional cataclysms. It has been friends with the powers that be and fought against them. It has chosen them and overthrown them.

The media told people about the minutiae of corporate battles that were probably of little interest to them. And often this was all done with ulterior motives. Perhaps not for money, but -- as they say in Odessa -- "out of personal interest."

But throughout all this, we were building an industry. And finally it has been built.

The country now has quite a well-developed but peculiar system of mass media, which, overall, is not as bad as people often like to present it.

Russia has about 3,000 broadcasting companies, some 33,000 print media outlets and an actively growing Internet media segment. If two years ago there were only 18 Internet-based publications registered, now there are more than 800.

As a rule, every large city with a population greater than 200,000 or 300,000 has 10 to 12 television stations, as many radio stations and dozens of newspapers and magazines. The majority of people have no problem getting access to information.

Regional television is extremely diverse. There are major regional market leaders that actively compete for viewers with the national channels and often win in that battle. There are network partners, regional and city stations set up by local authorities and state broadcasting companies. Satellite systems for pay television have cropped up, cable networks are being developed and experiments with digital broadcasting are being undertaken.

The public is still trying to trust the printed word, and the subscription market is dominated by local publications, which have 60 percent to 65 percent of the market. However, a significant portion of this segment will not be able to survive if they are cut off overnight from the subsidies they now receive.

Soviet-era leaders of the mass-circulation press have adapted to the new conditions and either focus on a particular audience or are published with regional supplements. A new segment that has appeared is totally market-based newspapers and glossy magazines, which have survived from the outset only on advertising and retail income.

All of this instills optimism and keeps us from adopting tragic, funereal tones. But a slew of problems do exist.

The first concerns the size of the advertising market when one considers the number of mass media outlets that exist.

It is precisely the lack of "normal" sources of revenue that forces media companies to search for additional sources of financing among regional and federal oligarchs, governors, lawmakers and mayors. Everyone has got used to this already and many clearly like it.

The division of the advertising pie must take place on the basis of level and healthy competition.

Legislation must contain clear provisions for investing money in new media outlets. Without this, it will be impossible to achieve the transformation of the media from an "informational truncheon" into a fully fledged commercial business.

We have on numerous occasions discussed the topic of federal budget subsidies. Part of this funding will disappear as the advertising market grows. We understand that directly funding 2,000 district and town papers is senseless. But we also understand that otherwise, under current conditions, they will either die out or will go knocking on the doors of local feudal lords. We cannot abandon the small-scale press, with its readership of tens of millions of people, especially since sometimes it is the main source of information for these people. This is why we adhere to the principle of choosing the lesser evil.

We hold exactly the same position on fixed-wire radio, the Kultura channel, state-funded broadcasts abroad and support for public-service publications and television and radio programming.

We agree that funding mechanisms must be more clear-cut and open. Representatives of the public must be more actively involved in the process of distributing funds.

Another important problem concerns the state's position as the main player on the media market. Here, our position is unchanging: The state must drastically reduce its presence on the market and cease to be the main player. The most acceptable formula, from our point of view, continues to be "one newspaper, one news agency, one television channel, one radio company."

However, the state's desire to divest itself of the majority of its media assets does not mean a panic-struck, lightning-fast sell-off. We must organize this as a gradual, well thought-out process, where the vessels that float out to sea are not the icebreakers of state property that are capable of destroying the market's fragile balance, but compact little sailboats whose sale might even bring funds into the budget.

I am convinced that the majority of the state's interests in the areas of information and public service could be realized not just through state-controlled media but with the help of earmarked support to, and direct encouragement of, socially important programming -- such as children's and educational programs -- on non-state media. At the same time, when it comes to covering and helping prevent such acute problems as drug addiction, crime, child neglect (and many others), we naturally expect the mass media to be socially responsible even without financial incentives.

Taking a broader look at the "denationalization" of the media, it is clear that the role of the Press Ministry will also have to change in a cardinal way.

Since my deputies and I come from an environment where the most important thing is clear and distinct rules of running a business, and as we were successful in our "past" lives, we know full well what is needed to optimize the development of the industry. Our confidence is based not on our proximity to the powers that be, but on our deep knowledge of the sector.

It is precisely for this reason that I can say with confidence that in two or three years, when, I hope, solutions have been found for the majority of the industry's problems, I will be prepared to raise the issue of disbanding the ministry and will be ready to leave.

The ministry's successors could be two federal commissions or an agency responsible for ensuring the state's main needs -- awarding frequencies and overseeing the enforcement of media-related legislation.

The source of many of the industry's current problems is a deficit of professionally trained specialists -- journalists and managers. In our opinion, it is imperative not only to modernize the system of training media specialists but to enhance communication between existing managers from different regions and areas of specialization.

We also need new legislation.One of the most important tasks here is to introduce the legal concept of a "media owner." The positive results of such a move are self-evident. Current media legislation makes no mention of owners and their rights and obligations. However, owners not only exist, they are often the main people determining the informational, ideological and social format of their media outlets. Considering that owners play such a role, the public has the right to hold them responsible for their actions.

There are other lacunae in the existing legislation also, and the range of problems needing to be resolved is broad. Professional associations should participate more actively in this and demonstrate that they are ready to take on some responsibility. We are ready to work with them as equal partners, but they must be strong partners.

Unfortunately, until now, the Press Ministry and the media community have often acted out of sync. We were doing the same thing, striving toward the same goal -- the creation of a viable market. But we clearly lacked synchronicity.

Indeed, relations within the media community itself weren't always balanced either.

Nowhere in the world will you find a model of ideally functioning media. Everywhere in the world, the media and the state have numerous conflicts. And we are not setting any quixotic goals. But we do believe that we have a chance to jointly develop the rules of the game and create a stable balance of forces. Let's not miss out on this chance.

Mikhail Lesin is minister for press, television and radio broadcasting. This comment is excerpted from a speech he gave on Wednesday at the "Mass Media: Directions of Reform" conference in Moscow.