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New Hard Times for Russian Journalism

On November 12, one of the RuNet's biggest bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, posted a letter [ru] from Yevgenia Albats, the chief editor of The New Times, one of Russia's most prominent weekly magazines. In her letter, Albats announced a new subscriptions initiative, the fate of which will decide the journal's future. According to Lenta.ru [ru], each print edition of The New Times currently sells about 50 thousand copies — precisely the number of annual subscriptions Albats calculates the magazine needs, if it's to stay afloat. Yearly subscriptions are priced at 3,600 rubles (roughly $120), half of which pays for postage alone.

Freedom ain't free?

The New Times has also unveiled an updated layout and a new motto: “Free speech has a cost.” Renovations like these are the work of Filipp Dziadko, the former editor of Bolshoi Gorod, another Moscow-based magazine. Earlier this year in June, the eldest of the three Brothers Dziadko (who together host a television show) left BG [ru] after alleging government interference. Others, like the BBC Russian service [ru], faulted Dziadko for transforming BG into a “mouthpiece of the ‘angry urbanite’ class.” Indeed, in the aftermath of last winter's street protests, Bolshoi Gorod grew increasingly political, even publishing protest slogans on its cover [ru].

Yevgenia Albats, Russian investigative journalist, political scientist, writer, & radio host. Moscow, 12 June 2012, photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

With the release of The New Times’ revamped layout this week, Albats and Dziadko launched a public relations campaign to raise awareness about the magazine's financial troubles. They blame the journal's lack of advertisers and investors on the Kremlin, insisting that there's no shortage of interested readers. “Everyone reads [us],” Albats explains, “but [people] are afraid to buy advertising because they think the Kremlin will interpret it as a declaration of opposition to Putin personally.”

In an interview [ru] with Coltra.ru (another failed journalistic project that will cease operations [ru] on November 19, due to insufficient funding), Dziadko repeated Albats’ line about advertising almost identically, saying, “Everyone reads The New Times, but they're afraid to buy advertisements. I've personally heard from a few businessmen whose ‘handlers forbid it.'”

Not buying it

The New Times is promoting subscriptions on the central claim that it is “one of only three or four” remaining Russian print publications that offer uncensored political reportage. Indeed, Albats’ journal is widely recognized as the country's most daring, and the magazine seems to have seized on a sensible publicity strategy. That, however, has not stopped many on the RuNet from criticizing and ridiculing the notion that free speech in Russia hinges on the financial solvency of The New Times.

Yekaterinburg blogger Viacheslav Bashkov highlights [ru] the irony of a campaign founded on freedom from censorship, given a scandal [ru] that erupted between Albats and Boris Stomakhin earlier this year. As it turns out, Albats barred her writers from even mentioning Stomakhin, who spent five years in prison for inciting extremism against ethnic Russians. Earlier this year in August, the two exchanged criticisms on Facebook [ru], wherein Albats confirmed that she did indeed censor Stomakhin's name from Valeriya Novodvorskaya's column. (In a classic example of RuNet absurdity, Stomakhin responded to Albats with an anti-Semitic threat, despite the fact that Stomakhin is himself Jewish [ru].)

Other reactions were more lighthearted, but no less disparaging. Anti-opposition Twitter personality Lev Sharansky wrote [ru] sarcastically:

Если все свалят по совету Альбац из этой страны, кто же будет оформлять подписку на The New Times? Навальный?

If everyone ditches the country on the advice of Albats, who will there be to sign up for subscriptions to The New Times? [Alexey] Navalny?

Filipp Dziadko, 18 February 2011, self-portrait, CC 3.0.

Jokester Dmitri Olshansky mocked [ru] the idea that Russian capitalists have apparently abandoned their biggest cheerleaders:

Вот интересно. Видные либеральные журналисты – в том числе авторы Нью Таймс – всегда оправдывали русский капитализм, приватизацию, экономическую политику 90-х. ”Другого пути не было”. “Создан класс рыночных собственников, эффективных и прозрачных”. “Иначе вернется совок”. “Денег нет”. “Реформы”. Ну и прочее. Неясно, почему бароны, которых так защищала либеральная пресса, не поддержат теперь своих верных вассалов.

Now this is interesting. Prominent liberal journalists — including The New Times’ authors — have always justified Russian capitalism, privatization, and the economic policies of the 1990s. ‘There was no other way.’ ‘A capital-owning, efficient, and transparent class was created.’ ‘Any other way and it's back to the USSR.’ ‘There's no money.’ ‘Reforms.’ And so on. What's unclear is why the barons, whom the liberal press have so defended, don't now come to the aid of their loyal vassals.

Igor Karaulov, a freelance legal translator (according to his Facebook page), was the first to respond to Olshansky's post. In a comment [ru] that went on to attract 23 “likes,” Karaulov tried to shed light on the “unclarity,” writing, “It's because liberal journalists always taught these barons not to support inefficient producers.”

Life as a Moscow journalist

With all this talk of struggling magazines, yours truly wondered what the job market for reporters actually looks like in Russia's capital city. Yandex features a job sites amalgamator [ru], which calculates journalists’ average monthly salary to be 39 thousand rubles (about $1,200). For comparison, Moscow police officers earn an average of 37 thousand rubles a month, janitors make 17 thousand, and “engineers” bring in roughly 49 thousand rubles.

According to msk.job-mo.ru, a Moscow jobs search engine, The New Times is currently trying to fill six different vacancies [ru], with salaries ranging from 34,500 to 42,000 rubles per month. Reading over the postings, which include an advertisement for a new personal assistant for Albats [ru], one is struck by applicant requirements that would be illegal in countries that prohibit discrimination by employers on the basis of sex or age. In the United States, for example, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act would not allow The New Times to demand that Albats’ assistant be “a female between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five.”

As of this moment, the city of Moscow has room for another 96 journalists; that, anyway, is how many job vacancies Yandex lists. Multiplying this number by the industry's average salary estimates that over 3.7 million rubles are waiting to be claimed by Moscow's aspiring journalists every month. If The New Times can't soon find 50 thousand paid subscribers, one expects many of its reporters to take aim at that 3.7 million.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rayfin3 Ray C. Finch III

    Nice post. Globally, print journalism is struggling with figuring out how to stay profitable in a digital environment. Even for an American, $120 per year is pretty steep, and Albats and crew ought to figure out how to provide a less expensive option. As in much of the rest of the world, the Russian aphorism is applicable:
    ‘he who pays for the song, orders the music.’

    • agoodtreaty

      It’s a little strange that they seem to have rejected the idea of an online paywall, especially since half the $120 subscription fee goes straight to postage expenses. I guess digital journalism is no more promising than its print relative. I wonder if the music is doomed to end, unless a friendly (and hopefully not too intrusive) oligarch steps forward to foot the bill. If the magazine is asking the public for money, though, I assume the deep pockets weren’t interested. Thanks to Kremlin pressure or it being an unprofitable money pit? I don’t know.

      • http://twitter.com/larussophobe La Russophobe

        What’s strange about it? You can count the number of publications that get away with paid content on the Internet on the fingers of one hand. Don’t have to pay to read the LA Times or the Washington Post online, and that’s in the USA where online funding is far, far more developed. I’d say what ‘s strange is that your entire lengthy piece does not mention ONE of the significant pieces of journalism published by Albats in New Times, but it does choose to dwell on a particular incident that was regrettable. One-sided coverage of this kind, which would please the Kremlin mightily, is as Albats correctly states the main reason her paper cannot get financial traction. The editors of the New York Times had to go to paid content to keep their pathetic rag afloat, but they don’t have to contend with threats from the White House (entirely credible threats) to jail or kill their editors and anyone who supports them. If they did, they’d likely have gone belly up a long time ago. Albats is a journalistic lion, a true Russian hero, and your post doesn’t come close to giving her the credit she deserves. Shame on you. And shame even more for failing to directly condemn the Kremlin for its outrageous attacks on journalists, including most recently two draconian laws that expand the definition of treason to include them and allow the Kremlin to shut down websites at will (New Times could fall under that axe at any moment). This article is totally inconsistent with the goals of Global Voices, being of more assistance to the Kremlin in its war on the values Global Voices espouses than to the defense of those values.

        • agoodtreaty

          Kim, RuNet Echo’s focus is on netizen culture and politics. Your response about pay walls doesn’t really answer my question. It still seems like it would be worth a shot, if the alternative is closing shop altogether.

          • http://twitter.com/larussophobe La Russophobe

            That’s not the alternative. The alternative is to give the New Times the credit and support it needs so paywalls are not necessary. And such support would begin with pressing the Kremlin to stop harassing and seeking to destroy publications like New Times and Novaya Gazeta. If you’ve never tried it, how do you know it wouldn’t work?

          • agoodtreaty

            Kim, you’re confusing RuNet Echo with GV’s advocacy branch (http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/). We don’t advocate policies or positions here.

        • Mark

          Listen; I think I hear Aerosmith in the background, playing “Same Old Song and Dance”.

          “One-sided coverage of this kind, which would please the Kremlin
          mightily, is as Albats correctly states the main reason her paper cannot
          get financial traction.” Bla, bla, bla. As far as you are concerned, anything that does not incite immediate mustering at Bolotnaya for the issue of pitchforks and torches, followed by a march on Castle Putin, is licking up to the Kremlin and would please it mightily. In fact the post is quite balanced, pointing out “Some say this, based on this incident or article” while “others say that, based on what happened here or something else the author said” rather than “Masha Lipman at the Carnegie Moscow Center says Putin is an authoritarian baboon, while Lilia Shevtsova from the Carnegie Moscow Center argues he is more of a Stalinist ape”. That’s the only kind of free-speech journalism you like to see.

          “Everyone reads us” is obviously a crock; the paper does a print run of as many papers as it can sell. So long as it does not hand them out as giveaways in hotels and transit points as the Moscow Times does, there is little leeway for camouflaging or inflating a tiny readership. What’s the point of paying for advertising in a paper that only reaches about 50,000 people when you could stand on a street corner downtown shouting your message for an hour and reach nearly that many? Roping in more readers is a distant possibility when the message is unrelenting “Putin must go”. Putin is not going to go, he is the duly-elected leader of the country by a majority of voters from that country, and a newspaper that continues to argue for a desired endstate that anyone can see is never going to happen is not going to expand its readership much unless the attitude in the country changes. I don’t see that happening, either. You might as well argue, “the earth must rotate in the opposite direction”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that in the New Times, either.

          Maybe what Albats and others like her need is the return of a real Stalinist authoritarian leader, and some real crackdowns. They’d soon see the difference, if they have forgotten so soon. Putin would look pretty good then, but as soon as people are comfortable and secure, some of them start bitching.

          Every newspaper that is both print and online has seen a decline in print readership because people are lazy and would rather read it for free from their living room than go out and buy a copy, or even wait for it to be delivered and go get it off the doorstep. You can still sell advertising in a successful online paper. The New Times is not a successful paper from any standpoint.

          • http://twitter.com/larussophobe La Russophobe

            You should ask the families of Galina Starovoitova (shot dead soon after Putin became head of the KGB) and Anna Politkovskaya (shot dead on Putin’s birthday) and Natalia Estemirova and Stanislav Markelov and Sergei Yushenkov and all the other Putin critics murdered since Putin took power (http://larussophobe.wordpress.com/putinmurders/) whether Putin is a real Stalinist authoritarian leader or not. They will tell you that words like yours are the words Putin uses to keep the world off his back and continue with his murderous rampage. If they can get the words out, between their tears.

          • Mark

            Oh, spare me; you’re at your worst when you try pathos. Have you any evidence – any shred of evidence at all – that Putin was personally involved in any of those deaths? I mean, I’m sure we’re agreed Putin didn’t actually kill them himself; but have you anything that rises to the standard of evidence – even motive – beyond the stipulated fact that all of them died while Putin was alive, that suggests Putin was involved? Did you kill everyone in the United States who died on your birthday? Come on.

            Putin had absolutely no reason to kill Politkovskaya, or even to wish she was dead so she would shut up. She wrote for a small paper with a tiny circulation, and mostly about issues in the Caucasus. She was critical of government initiatives or lack thereof, but not venomously so – like Latynina, for example, who is still very much alive despite being within easy reach and not heavily guarded – and often not even unreasonably so. There is plenty of evidence that Putin’s government can take constructive criticism without flying into a blinding rage and looking around for a handy journalist to kill in reprisal. Hurtling back into the Soviet abyss, bla, bla, you can read that sort of thing every day in Novaya Gazeta or the Moscow Times. In fact there is nothing to connect Putin and Politkovskaya except Putin’s birthday. I imagine a lot of people die in Russia every year on Putin’s birthday – did he kill them, too?

            There is no reason to believe Politkovskaya was “onto something”, or any of the rest of them, either, that was going to “bring down the regime”, and for which they must immediately be killed. All of them had been reporting more or less the same shopworn stuff for some time without any interference, in some cases for years. Politkovskaya plainly earned no debt of gratitude among the Caucasians she was always advocating for, or they would have danced into the streets to surrender to her when she attempted to act as negotiator in the Moscow theatre hostage crisis; that was a failure. Again, look at Latynina, or Albats herself, or Alekseeva; all venomously critical of Vladimir Putin, day in, day out, for years, and <Latynina even regularly makes stuff up, such as Putin's plan to invade Georgia as soon as he began his third term as president. That kind of thing takes a fair amount of planning; he'd better get started. Of course there is no such plan. But all of them are very much alive despite their nonstop yelping.

            Yes, it's very sad about the families of dead journalists, just as it's very sad about the families of dead construction workers or the families of the dead soldiers sent to die uselessly in Iraq. In fact, you should call up some of those journalist's families, see if you can arrange an interview, and see how many say Putin killed their mother or sister or brother or whatever.

            Besides – what has any of this to do with the current state of journalism in Russia? Is the New Times faltering because Putin is trying to kill Albats? Is he ordering people not to subscribe? You didn't believe that twaddle about merchants' "handlers" telling them not to advertise there, did you?

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