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New Hard Times for Russian Journalism

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Citizen Media, Economics & Business, Freedom of Speech, Law, Politics, Protest, RuNet Echo

On November 12, one of the RuNet's biggest bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, posted a letter [1] [ru] from Yevgenia Albats, the chief editor of The New Times [2], 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 [3] [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. [4]” 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 [5] [ru] after alleging government interference. Others, like the BBC Russian service [6] [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 [7] [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 [9] [ru] with Coltra.ru (another failed journalistic project that will cease operations [10] [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 [11] [ru] the irony of a campaign founded on freedom from censorship, given a scandal [12] [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 [13] [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 [14] [ru].)

Other reactions were more lighthearted, but no less disparaging. Anti-opposition Twitter personality Lev Sharansky wrote [15] [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 [17] [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 [18] [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 [19] [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 [20] [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 [21] [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 [22] and the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act [23] 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.