How Press Freedom Can Grow in Russia

(59th World Newspaper Congress, World Association of Newspapers, Moscow, June 2006)

By William Dunkerley

Freedom of the press is an implicit and essential right of the people. It is not just freedom of speech for journalists. If a democracy is going to work, citizens have got to make informed political choices. The media are the people’s primary means for keeping informed.

Many believe that press freedom exists if the media are free of governmental control and that pluralism prevails. That view misses the main point. A good share of the media has got to be free to serve the people.

Why hasn’t Russia been able to achieve this? I’ve seen how propaganda masquerading as news is so prevalent here. It is paid for by oligarchs and other business concerns, by mayors, governors, and other politicians, and even by natural resource monopolies controlled by the presidential administration. They’ve conscripted newspapers to advance their own interests.

Is it possible that the press could be both subjugated and free at the same time? Of course not. That is oxymoronic.

So, how could this perplexing state of the media have come about? I know that right from the start of the Russian Federation, the constitution has said that there shall be press freedom. But then you get down into the tax laws. They said that the press shall not have the financial independence to be free. They prescribed disincentives to the ad market developing enough strength to support the media. What’s more, newspapers weren’t allowed to carry enough advertising to be truly profitable. That’s what thrust the media into the clutches of those who want to pay to color the news. Euphemistically, this is called hidden advertising.

Someone once said that with freedom of the press, the people own the news. It’s not owned by the government, nor by the powerful elite. But, in Russia, most of the media are beholden to financial overlords. They own the news. There’s a Russian expression, kto platit, tot zakazivaet muzuku; he who pays, calls the tune.

Russian consumers are so outraged over the state of the media that most favor imposing censorship to end the nonsense. The level of dissatisfaction has reached as high as 76 percent. There is little doubt that the current media sector is an abject failure in consumer terms.

If the news is to serve the people, the people have got to pay for the news. Then, they will own the news. But if they were to pay the full cost, it would probably be ten times the present price of a newspaper. People aren’t going to pay that. For most of the world, that’s why we’ve got advertising in newspapers. Indeed, in the West, almost 60% of newspaper content is advertising.

Post-communist countries that have made the greatest strides in press freedom are ones where the commercial success of newspapers is assured by sufficient advertising. I mean legitimate, display advertising, not phony, paid-for stories.

The Russian Media Fund, a private sector initiative, and Sreda magazine successfully advocated for the removal of the constraining tax regulations. Russia’s ad market now is booming. Newspapers can carry enough ad content to be profitable. But, most existing media companies have been unable to respond to the new media landscape. They remain mired in corrupt alliances with financial overlords. As a result, there is little value placed on developing consumer-responsive news and information products.

Pity the unfortunate readers. Pity also the advertisers! They are getting shortchanged by the current system, too. The people who pay to distort the news want to reach voters. Advertisers need to reach buyers. These two audiences are not one in the same. Presently, only around a third of the population has the financial means to buy that which is advertised. Pensioners have perhaps the lowest disposable income. But, they have a high propensity to vote. Newspapers actively seek them as readers. The consumer base is not being targeted.

There’s a Russian saying that always makes me laugh. It goes, pivo bez vodky, dengi na vyeter; beer without vodka is money to the wind. For advertisers, two thirds of the money they spend in Russia is money to the wind. It’s even worse than that. Advertising works best when it is presented within a framework of trust. Russians are smart, literate people. They know the media is trying to bamboozle them with all the paid-for stories. That’s no way to create trust.

If things are to change, the hidden advertising has got to go. To me, the persistence of this system is actually astonishing. It embodies an enormous cognitive disconnect. It is the idea that misleading the people is a good way of influencing them, even though the people know they are being misled.

I realize that my remarks may sound quite negative. But, actually, I believe that the Russian media market now offers enormous promise. Indeed, foreign publishers are flocking to the market, companies like Sanoma, News Corp., Naspers, and others.

Russia itself has a lot of very capable, intelligent, and honest newspaper managers and journalists. Some of them have been successful in choosing a path away from the hidden advertising system. But not enough of them. Not enough to move the entire media industry in a different direction. The growth of press freedom in Russia depends on these people. I hope that more will find the strength to choose a new course.

William Dunkerley is the founder and principal in William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, a U.S.-based firm that works extensively in Russia and other emerging media markets. It specializes in all aspects of starting new publications and reengineering existing ones. Mr. Dunkerley served as a regular columnist for Sreda, Russia’s first media management magazine. He also was the originator of the Russian Media Fund, a project backed by Sreda and the International Center for Journalists. It successfully advocated for lifting the Russian laws that had impeded the possibility of press freedom developing in the country. He is also the editor and publisher of Editors Only, a monthly for editorial professionals.