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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Streetwalking Newspapers Do Disservice

As I was eating dinner recently in the half-empty restaurant of a hotel in the Moscow region, I happened to overhear the following conversation. "Why are there so many of them?" a middle-aged woman asked with annoyance, referring to the waitresses standing along the walls twiddling their thumbs. "They're better off standing here than walking the streets," her companion replied, clearly implying that the proprietor of this thriving establishment might be carrying surplus personnel in order to save these young girls from a terrible fate. Both interlocutors were right in their own way.

This everyday collision of deterministic and paternalistic logic provides a useful symbol of what's happening today on the Russian media market.

Consider some figures released last week at a meeting of the Press Ministry collegium. In dollar terms, the newspaper advertising market grew by 23 percent in 2002 as compared with the previous year, while the magazine ad market grew by 31 percent. Total revenue from print-media ad sales amounted to $590 million. In the first six months of 2003, ad sales in newspapers increased by 16 percent and in magazines by 40 percent. By the end of the year, print media advertising is expected to exceed earlier predictions of 27 percent to 30 percent growth. According to Press Ministry figures, nearly half of all ad revenue in 2002 was scooped up by seven major Moscow publishing houses with predominantly foreign ownership. Bear in mind that 23,446 newspapers and 13,849 magazines are registered in Russia.

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These figures brought to mind a recent conversation between two Russian magazine publishers. "The foreigners have big money, experience and know-how," one said of his Western competitors. "We're all amateurs by comparison." "But it's not our fault that we're lagging behind," said the other. "We're fast learners. I'm sure we've got a chance." Both publishers are doing very well by Russian standards. They are losing out to their foreign competition not because they are producing inferior magazines, but because they are trying to build their businesses from the ground up in very difficult conditions. Say what you like, but on this issue I'd probably side with the protectionists, not the liberals.

Then again, we're talking here about the magazine segment, which is largely depoliticized and functions according to the laws of the market. This explains the segment's dynamic growth, and the injection of foreign capital. By comparison, the newspaper business is in dire straits, despite the fact that it outstrips magazines in terms of publication numbers, circulation and ad volume. When it comes to growth rates, the newspaper industry is falling farther behind every year.

The Press Ministry classifies no more than 10 percent of all newspapers as purely self-sustaining enterprises. "For the most part, these are specialized publications about health, dachas, gardens, the tabloid and entertainment press, as well as weekly newspapers." When you do the math, you realize that this enormous country actually has only a handful of serious newspapers that generate enough revenue to stay afloat without relying on infusions of cash from other sources. The rest of Russia's newspapers are, so to speak, walking the streets. The widespread disgust with politics in this country arises in large part from the coverage of politics in these publications.

At times you get the sense that Western capital alone is capable of establishing serious newspapers in this country. With foreign investment comes a powerful managerial culture, professional journalism and significant immunity from local political pressure. But market relations have not taken root in this segment, so no foreign investment is flowing in. Cruel shock therapy is what is needed. It is a tricky segment, but the demand certainly exists.

In the meantime, pity the Russian reader, being pulled in two directions at once. On one side, Western magazines are stoking his enthusiasm for consumer society, while domestic newspapers, financed by the state, oligarchs or hidden advertising, are trying to turn him into a political cretin.

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