MOSCOW — At the historic Moscow office of the newspaper “Izvestia” the mood is glum. Journalists and staff smoke sullenly on the worn marble staircases. Few are in the mood to talk.
Two-thirds of “Izvestia’s” staff are waiting to be fired after the paper’s owners, the National Media Group, launched an overhaul that aims to turn the venerable Russian broadsheet into a hip new tabloid they hope will vie for readers with popular business dailies like “Kommersant” and “Vedomosti.” The new version of the paper launched on June 7.
The National Media Group is seeking to build a media empire styled after the major British tabloids. The group wants to keep the “Izvestia” brand for its relaunch, but wants only 38 of its current 200 staffers to do the job. The rest will be let go.
“People are here, they are waiting to be fired actually — that’s what’s going on,” says Sergei Mostovshchikov, the paper’s deputy editor in chief. “They are just waiting to sign the papers and the agreement with the owners so they can leave the building.”
Sitting in an empty conference room at the end of a corridor lined with framed “Izvestia” front pages spanning the paper’s 94-year history, Mostovshchikov says he’s against the changes.
“I grew up at this newspaper. I worked here for seven years as a reporter. This paper isn’t just an empty name for me and I came back here a year ago,” he says. “I think that this paper being handed over to the hands of the yellow press is unacceptable.”
Glorious Past, Unclear Future
The fate of “Izvestia” is emblematic of Russian newspapers as they fight for market share in a rapidly changing media environment and navigate Russia’s complex and perilous political landscape.
Founded in 1917, “Izvestia” became the official mouthpiece of the Soviet government during the communist period and at its peak had a circulation of 8 million. It became one of the favorites of the Soviet intelligentsia after Nikita Krushchev’s son-in-law, Aleksei Adzhubei, took over as editor in chief in 1959 at the peak of the thaw.
Adzhubei transformed the paper, eliminating the texts of long-winded speeches from Soviet officials that had become its trademark and introducing photo spreads, first-person accounts, bold headlines, and high standards of design. The paper also distinguished itself with extensive coverage of foreign affairs.
After the Soviet break-up, the paper struggled to find its niche under a series of owners with close ties to the government, including Vladimir Potanin’s Interros Group and Gazprom Media. In late 2004, Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov was forced to resign because government officials were reportedly infuriated by the paper’s critical coverage of the Beslan hostage crisis.
Since Shakirov’s departure, the paper has seldom strayed from being a de facto mouthpiece for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party. Its circulation fell precipitously and is currently less than 250,000.
Death Of A Broadsheet, Birth Of A Tabloid
The National Media Group, a vast conglomerate controlled by businessman Yury Kovalchuk, a close ally of Putin’s, bought “Izvestia” from Gazprom Media in 2008.
Aram Gabrelyanov, the group’s deputy director and the mastermind behind many of Russia’s muckraking tabloids, says he is trying to raise the profit margins of the loss-making daily by switching to a tabloid format.
Aleksandr Kynev of the Foundation for Information Policy Development says that “Izvestia” has been in crisis for years. Describing it as “probably the best example of the degradation” of Russia’s modern print media, he says the paper has “a brand that is far from shabby and that was actually one of the symbols of the Soviet period and considered one of the best-quality broadsheets.”
But he tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service that recently the paper has become something with “little resemblance to its great past. It has become essentially a pure propaganda tool, a wallpaper newspaper for United Russia, publishing material that is strange, clearly politically slanted, and that at times reeks of politics.”
Viktoria Voloshina, a deputy editor at “Izvestia,” says the paper has changed beyond recognition since she began working there in 2000. She has opted to leave rather than make the switch to a tabloid format.
“I came to work for a respectable national broadsheet,” she says, adding that there’ve been six different chief editors since she arrived. “You can imagine what happens when there is a change of editor — the team changes, the themes change, and the views change.” While “any shake-up does not affect a newspaper very positively, she says that “there is very little left of the paper I came to work for. Now it seems what little that remained has left to publish a new paper under the old brand.”
Fleeing To The Web
“Izvestia” is not the only Russian newspaper struggling through a sharp drop in circulation and falling revenues. The weekly “Argumenty i fakty” remains Russia’s most popular paper but with a circulation of less than 3 million — only a fraction of its record-breaking circulation of 33.5 million in 1990.
According to Igor Yakovenko, general director of the National Circulation Service, which monitors newspaper sales and distribution, says the budgets for print media have fallen by 43 percent since the 2008 economic crisis.
Against this drop in demand, the Internet, which is less tightly controlled and counts almost 60 million users in Russia, has been seen as key forum for the free exchange of ideas. The concomitant rise of social-networking sites and blogging platforms has made the online transition imperative for newspapers.
Mikhail Melnikov of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations says this “definite drop” in demand was not “catastrophic” for newspapers that have managed to retool themselves for the Internet age.
“Serious managers at print publications are not worried by this trend. As a rule, really quality publications are produced electronically. Their readership simply comes here [to the Internet] for the information, which leaves the brand of the publication intact.”
RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report