The English Language Press
Text by Vladimir Kozlov
Over the last year, the English press in Moscow has been facing major challenges coming from a lack of finance in the midst of a crisis and growing competition from online media. All major English publications in the city are still in business; maintaining that the challenges haven’t had a major impact on the quality of journalism and that they are still providing readers with independent news and entertainment coverage.
“The economic downturn hit us just as anyone else,” said Ekaterina Son, the publisher of The Moscow Times. “However, the impact on us wasn’t as bad as on average in the market. Our revenues from advertising declined by 20 to 25 percent, while the average figure for the newspaper segment is higher.”
“We’ve seen our advertisement revenues drop considerably,” said John Harrison, editor of Passport magazine. Consequently, we had to cut back on everything: on journalists, on photographers, on travel. But we are surviving and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We are facing the same problems as other publications and publishing houses,” said Anna Semida, editor in chief of Where Moscow. “The biggest one is a decline in ad revenues. Steps we are taking to cope with the crisis are more or less standard: cutting the number of pages and saving by preparing the majority of articles in-house. On the other hand, right in the midst of the crisis, we revamped out design and the magazine looks better now.”
At the same time, some publications say they have only benefited from the crisis. “The number of advertisers who appreciate getting the best value for their money has increased,” said Polina Pushkina, publisher of Element magazine. “In addition, hiring became easier as there are more qualified professionals with reasonable demands available in the market now.”
Another publication, The Moscow News, was re-launched in the midst of the crisis.
Meanwhile, at a crisis time, the issue of editorial independence becomes especially important, as lack of finances due to declining ad revenues pushes publications to struggle for survival. “There are more advertorials in the Moscow English language press; this affects all the English language publications if we are honest about it,” Harrison said.
All the major English-language publications in Moscow insisted on their editorial independence, including The Moscow News, which is owned by the state-run wire service RIA Novosti.
“We are independent, as we don’t belong to any governmental or financial/ industrial structures,” said The Moscow Times’ Son. “The Moscow Times is published by a publishing house with 100 percent of foreign capital. Thus, not only external forces but also commercial divisions of the publication itself cannot influence the editorial policy. In addition, more than a half of the editorial team are professional Western journalists with experience in leading international publications, for whom independence of a journalist is the norm.”
“We are 100 percent independent,” Pushkina said. “No one controls us and we publish whatever we want. And we have never had any problems with that.”
“The only limits to what we can and cannot write about are the limits of what is interesting for English language readers in Moscow. And that, believe me, is not always an easy thing to figure out, as there are as many interests out there as there are people,” Harrison said.
Despite speculation that the English press in Moscow may be subject to censorship, no evidence to prove that has been produced so far. “The English language press in Moscow is in some respects as independent than in many Western cities I’ve lived in,” Harrison said. “I don’t believe it when people tell me that the English press is censored here. Show me some concrete evidence, please, we’ll publish it! Why isn’t the English press being censored? I think, the answer is because we overrate our importance.”
Meanwhile, one major issue that printed media have been facing in the last few years all over the world, Moscow not being an exception, is competition from online media.
“It’s a big question whether printed newspapers can compete with the Internet,” Tim Wall of The Moscow News said. “The problem for newspapers is that they haven’t worked out how to make enough money from the Internet, and that is killing the newspaper industry. I have no doubt that eventually some new form will be found because so many people are working on this, trying to find a commercial balance that works. There are dozens of cities in the United States, for example, that have lost their newspapers or are threatened with closure, and the same is happening in the UK and other countries around the world.”
Meanwhile, most editors and publishers of Moscow’s English-language publications agree that they should develop their websites, using the Internet rather than trying to compete with it. “English language readers, Russian or foreign alike, can and do receive information from the Internet, and the future belongs to the Internet – that is obvious,” Son said, adding that a newspaper in its current form will soon cease to exist, replaced by editorial teams focused on collection, processing and organization of quality information that would be distributed online. “Everything is moving towards the Internet and mobile devises, so we actively develop services for selling our content in mobile formats, such as RSS, smart edition, i-phone and kindle,” she added.
“Competition from the Internet is serious, but instead of getting depressed about it, we have to learn to use the new media ourselves more effectively,” said Harrison. “On the commercial front, I don’t personally see much chance of getting readers to pay to access materials online but I don’t see why advertisers shouldn’t pay for exposure on the Internet, and more than a token amount. One thing for all of us to fight though will be the attitude that online ‘content’ is somehow not as good as printed material.”
Pushkina said that the development of her publication’s website is one of the priorities, although she doesn’t envisage substantial competition from online media in the immediate future. “We are just taking preventive steps,” she said, “so that if the situation changes a few years from now, we could be able to turn into an online publication.”
Another important issue that English publications in Moscow are facing is whether they should continue to be distributed for free, a practice introduced back in the 1990s by The Moscow Times. The newspaper itself, however, denies that it is distributed for free.
“The Moscow Times’ distribution model is not free,” Son said. “If a reader picks up a copy of the paper at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, that means that the hotel paid for that copy. In addition, we have a sizeable base of corporate subscribers that pay for a copy of The Moscow Times and The International Herald Tribune to be delivered to their offices by 8am. We have retail distribution as well and for obvious reasons we are focused on sales points at airports. On the whole, our proportion of revenues from paid distribution is no smaller than that of [the Russian business daily] Vedomosti.”
“The future belongs to free distribution,” Element’s Pushkina said. “We will certainly continue to distribute our publication for free.”
According to Semida, the situation when the English press is primarily distributed in Moscow for free is unlikely to change. “The English press in Moscow, with few exceptions, gives an impression of marginality and insularity,” she said. “It’s no surprise that the English speaking community buys Western newspapers and magazines to follow the news. And local English language media is just a nice bonus that it is good to get for free.”
Meanwhile, for some publications, a combination of free and paid distribution, or even a complete switch to paid distribution is not out of the question. “The problem always is that if you turn into a paid newspaper, how much of your circulation will you lose and how much of your advertising will you lose?”| said Wall. “It’s not easy to find your English language audience in Moscow. I think, a combination of free and sold is a good way to go. We’re planning to launch a subscription service that would include delivery to people’s homes and offices, plus other benefits, such as discounts for our readers’ club evenings. Of course, it’s also a good idea to sell the newspaper at airports and kiosks at prominent places like Pushkin Square, so that people can go and buy a copy of the newspaper if they miss the free distribution.”
“We would like to move towards a situation when we would be selling our publication,” said Harrison. “But we can’t make the step unless other publications make the same step at the same time, otherwise we will continue to bury ourselves alive, collectively.”