Free-Wheeling Paper Falls To Free Market in Russia

The only true success of Russian democracy is the free press. But if papers don't take bailouts from businesses, they may not survive

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

RUSSIA'S free press and the market economy, two of the most important experiments in its transition from communism, are clashing head on.

The influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper), considered a maverick leader of the democratic press, claimed bankruptcy and stopped printing this week.

Russia's first truly independent publication, started after former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began his landmark policy of glasnost in the late 1980s, printed what could be its very last issue on Wednesday -- with a large mail-it-yourself coupon asking for reader investment.

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''We faced a cruel fight for survival,'' editor in chief Vitaly Tretyakov said in an interview with the Monitor. ''And so we had a choice of either closing down, selling out, or changing our financial system.''

A relatively independent media is one of the few achievements of democracy in Russia. But no Russian newspaper, except for advertising bulletins and the new breed of tabloids that rely on sensationalist reports, can survive these days without outside subsidies.

Unlike the early days of democracy, production costs in Russia now equal those in the West. But the advertising market is very small, the state still has a monopoly over distribution, and only about 1 in 10 families can afford a daily newspaper subscription.

Most publications can survive only by relying on support from the government or major commercial institutions, primarily banks. Some media organizations use proceeds from completely unrelated businesses -- such as a brick factory, in one case -- to finance their losses.

Under pressure to take sides

But government officials, big businesses, and organized crime rings are increasingly tied together in Russia. Journalists are constantly under pressure from different interest groups that control printing presses, advertising revenues, and sponsorship money. Their tools range from respectable investment to petty bribe to murder.

Mr. Tretyakov, who is critical of other newspapers for supporting political parties, always claimed his paper was the only truly nonpartisan publication in Russia, with no ties to anyone.

Striving to live up to its title, the Soviet Union's first ''non-Soviet'' newspaper became a major resource for the Russian political and cultural elite soon after it was founded in 1990.

But perhaps because of Tretyakov's reluctance to associate Nezavisimaya with any major interest group in order to guarantee its editorial freedom, the newspaper's financial situation was always precarious.

Tretyakov received offers from various groups to bail out the newspaper, but he remained unbending in his struggle for control of the publication, claiming it was impossible to maintain editorial independence without financial freedom.

Dear readers: Send $10 million

He now says reader investment is the newspaper's only chance for salvation, and hopes to raise at least $10 million in order to resume full publication by Sept. 1.

Tretyakov was ''like an overly finicky girl who finds fault with all of her suitors,'' former deputy editor Igor Zakharov told the daily Moscow Times yesterday. He now runs a training course for journalists, the daily said.

In the Soviet era, the Kremlin controlled the press, and the bulk of newspapers were edited in Moscow and printed and distributed throughout the country. Some say the major change today is the collapse of that central press.

''The regional press has now risen again, but the situation today in Russia is not unlike in the United States in the 1940s to '60s, when there were a lot of daily newspapers in large metropolitan areas,'' says Nicholas Pilugin, who coordinates a US government program to assist independent Russian media. ''The market for them is shrinking. So many newspapers in Moscow cannot survive.''

But others say that with the era of democratic romanticism over, survival depends on whether publications can carve themselves a niche from which to draw both readership and financial support. About 10 major dailies still run in Moscow.

''In both the West and in Russia, all publications reflect a certain political spectrum, either due to economic reasons or the personal leanings of the editor,'' said Dmitri Ostalsky, editor in chief of the popular Segodnya newspaper.

''The freedom is that ultimately the whole spectrum will be represented on the media market,'' Mr. Ostalsky says. His paper sprang from Nezavsimaya in 1992 with generous financial support from the powerful MOST financial group, which is believed to have ties to Moscow's city government.

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