Freed from Soviet grip, major newspapers struggle to survive rising costs

February 19, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The years of strict government supervision have ended, and now the press is discovering that freedom carries a high price.

Just as many of them are beginning to develop robust, independent voices, newspapers across the former Soviet Union are being suffocated by rising costs and falling revenues.

One of Moscow's most popular daily papers says newspaper finances are so seriously threatened that the new Commonwealth of Independent States faces an "information crisis" that endangers the economic and political reforms now under way.

"Major mass media organs will stop being published," the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote last week, "and small publications will not be able to replace them."

The void could well be filled by extremist papers financed by unsavory special interest groups, the newspaper suggested.

"This means that a silent, creeping coup has been started already, and the way is well known: from the curtailment of the independent press to the curtailment of reform," the newspaper wrote.

Some editors assert that Komsomolskaya Pravda is being somewhat alarmist, but they agree that newspapers face a difficult adjustment in the new market economy and that many of them will not survive.

"Now we are in the market everyone wanted," Igor Zakharov, deputy editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said last week.

"The costs of paper, printing and distribution will go higher, higher and higher," he said.

Last year, a ton of newsprint cost 900 rubles, said Anatoly F. Repin, foreign editor of Trud. Now it costs 9,000 rubles, and it may well reach 19,000 rubles by the middle of the year, he said.

In the United States, what the reader pays for a newspaper usually doesn't even cover the cost of the paper it is printed on. That's where advertising comes in.

Newspapers here are trying their best to get some, but they have problems. In the United States, many newspapers have long relied on department store ads as a major source of revenue.

Here, of course, the department stores have nothing to sell and thus no reason to advertise.

The ads are coming from companies that really have nothing to sell to the average reader. They are companies selling computers, or they are ads for new commodities exchanges. Yesterday's Trud had five ads, measuring a total of 3 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches.

Last week, Trud reported that readers have started complaining about "a whole ocean of advertisements." One reader said that he had subscribed to the paper "to read about misfortunes similar to mine."

"Instead," he said, "I just see lots of advertisements. It seems I have to pay for the advertisements of our new Rothschilds." The edition of Trud that carried the story had no advertisements at all.

Classified ads -- the help-wanted and for-sale ads -- are now relegated to weeklies that exist mostly to run the ads. "Many of the dailies consider it's not right to run them," Mr. Zakharov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta said.

"We still have a rule against them. We are highly intellectual, and we don't deal with these kinds of things," he said in a self-mocking voice.

"It's something we need to start doing," he added.

The newspaper's name means "independent newspaper," and it is a scrappy, 1-year-old publication that has a good chance for survival. The circulation is 200,000, and Mr. Zakharov said the editors have been considering starting a livelier evening paper that would carry classified ads.

Other newspapers are setting up businesses to subsidize themselves. A paper in Minsk, for example, is running a company that makes amusement park rides.

Mr. Repin blamed much of today's problems on monopolies. He said newspapers are caught by several unyielding forces. There are only three paper mills in all of Russia that supply newsprint, he said, and there is one organization controlling distribution.

Most newspapers don't have their own printing presses. They are printed on three presses owned by the government -- previously, by the Communist Party.

Newspapers have tried to pass the increasing costs on to readers.

Trud now costs one ruble on the newsstand; last July it cost 10 kopecks (there are 100 kopecks in a ruble).

Trud has lost readership as a result of the increase, with circulation falling from 21 million last year to 13 million now.

"Many of our readers are low-income people, pensioners and workers," Mr. Repin said. "They can't afford it."

While the paper was profitable last year, he said, this year it may go 1 billion rubles in the red -- a term that has exchanged its ideological connotations for financial ones.

"It is dangerous," Mr. Zakharov said, "but no one is starving yet. They won't all have to close, but they will have to change."

In Moscow last Thursday, a confederation of journalists' unions urged journalists to try to force the government to intervene.

They suggested that papers refuse to print any government news for a day.

The union leaders suggested that "the frozen assets of the former Communist Party be used to help the press survive," creating a fund to subsidize papers through 1992. Journalists planned to discuss the proposal today.

Mr. Zakharov predicted that half of Moscow's two dozen dailies might not survive. "It's just more rough times, like for any individual," he said.

As bad as it is, Mr. Zakharov said, he would choose the new way -- no censorship and financial independence -- without hesitation.

"Now we have regular problems," he said happily.

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