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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Regional Media Have Got to Get Act Together

Over the past few weeks just about all I have been doing is offering up praise for the revolution that is taking place in the mentality of the state, the oligarchs and the media industry. Everyone seems to have finally realized that a free press is not just a propaganda instrument for some and the freedom of self-expression for others, but that it is also about the ability to conduct business profitably and honestly. This process culminated in the recent Media Industry: Directions of Reform conference.

But what does it all mean for the regional media? Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, in an interview with Sreda magazine, formulated one of his main impressions of the conference as follows: "The national media treat the regional media with great contempt and regard them not simply as younger brothers, but as something that hardly exists."

So what is provincial Russia's reaction?

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A few days ago, the editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper based in a major regional center told me that his newspaper had recently been purchased by a local industrial group. When the group offered him the post of editor, it set the following conditions: It would not interfere in the running of the business and would not give handouts -- the paper had to sink or swim on its own merits. And, the editor told me, they have stuck to their word.

"Why then did the industrial group need the newspaper in the first place?" I inquired.

"Just in case," was the response. There are no "information wars" being waged in the city at the moment. If a war blows up, then everything will change, but meanwhile the newspaper is making a profit. By Moscow standards it is peanuts, but by local standards it is quite good money.

The editor did not conceal the fact that his business is not entirely transparent -- both payment in cash off-the-books and zakazukha are a part of daily reality, but this stems less from the journalists' and advertisers' vices and more from the fact that it is not yet possible for media companies to be profitable and run their operations totally above-board.

So, how does our editor-in-chief view the incipient reform of the media industry? "We only need one thing, that is to be left to our own devices. We can sort out all our problems by ourselves," he said.

This response gives a pretty accurate reflection of attitudes toward Moscow prevalent in the regions, i.e. you can pass whatever measures you like in Moscow, but at the end of the day we are going to do things our own way. It's a kind of provincial snobbism in reaction to Muscovite snobbism.

Moscow, however, can allow itself to be somewhat snobbish: 80 percent or more of all advertising budgets are spent or divvied up in the capital.

Lesin believes that no more than 10 to 15 percent of media companies know how to operate in a market environment and views them as the real motor for transforming the country's media sector.

I would venture to add that, judging on the basis not of turnover but of the quality of the management team, a considerable portion of this figure is located in the regions -- which makes perfect sense. Regional-based media companies, which have had to eke out an existence in much tougher conditions than their Moscovite counterparts, realized much earlier on that running one's business properly is the best means of preserving one's independence.

In other words, regional-based companies could well turn out to be more competitive than Moscow-based ones. And regional companies should have a major interest in media industry reform, if only to tackle the problem of the glaring imbalance between Moscow's media market and those in the rest of the country. Thus they should be doing their damnedest to influence the reform process.

Alas, only a few individuals understand this while the majority only dream of being left to their own devices. If this mentality persists, they will be condemned to living off the crumbs from the Moscow media's table for the foreseeable future.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)