The Power to be Free and Prosperous

(Conference on Newspaper Management for the Independent Press, Russian-American Press and Information Center, Moscow, November 29, 1999)

By William Dunkerley

Since 1992, I’ve been working as a consultant to newspapers in Russia. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common problems. Most of them are quite clear to all Russian newspaper publishers. They include problems like the high cost of paper, the inefficient distribution systems, the typographias that offer poor quality and poor service.

But there is more.

You know, back in 1992, I never dreamed that the Russian newspaper business would be in such bad shape now as we approach the year 2000.

I hoped that by now, there would be true press freedom. I don’t mean that there simply would be a range of opinions expressed in the media. To me, press freedom is when newspapers have the strength and independence to be able to tell the truth.

I hoped that by now Russian journalists would be able to work without fear of threats or intimidation, and without having to exercise the selfcensorship that is unavoidable in today’s climate of sponsorship and ownership.

I hoped that by now Russian newspapers would be profitable in their own right, without having to take money from powerful financial, industrial, or political forces in exchange for subverting editorial content.

I hoped that by now Russian journalists would be paid good wages, commensurate with their knowledge, education, and value to the community.

I’ll bet many of you have shared in these visions, too.

However, I am afraid that we will enter the year 2000 without many of those expectations being fulfilled.

Most of the Russian newspaper executives with whom I’ve talked say that there is little they can do to make these visions a reality.

Well, I am here to disagree — and to say that there are practical ways for you to achieve the freedom and prosperity that you deserve.

In that regard, perhaps you can explain for me something that is an apparent paradox. I have heard from many Russian journalists and editors that your newspapers are poor, weak, and financially dependent.

Yet, I have also heard that the newspapers are so powerful that political, financial, and commercial forces all strive to control them.

How can it be that the newspapers are so powerful and so powerless at the same time?

Actually, I think I know the answer to my own question. It is that the newspaper industry has not yet realized its own power, and has not yet understood how to use this power, the power of the press, to achieve its own freedom and rewards. I would like to make a few suggestions for your consideration on how and where to find the power to be free.

I think Russian newspaper executives deserve a lot of admiration for their tenacity and craftiness at survival. Few American newspaper counterparts, I dare say, would have the skill and forbearance to succeed while facing the challenges that you see daily.

But while hidden advertising, sponsorships, or other techniques may have helped you to survive from day to day, they have not done anything to assure a certain and stable future for the Russian newspaper sector. They have not established a truly free press, i.e., one with the strength and independence to be able to tell the truth. The Russian newspapers still languish at the mercy of those who seek to subjugate them.

What can you do?

There are a number of concrete steps that any newspaper can take to improve its own circumstance. They all need further explanation for which we don’t have sufficient time here. But let me give you a preview:

1. Practice strategic planning

2. Implement a consumer-responsive approach to doing business

3. Utilize effective management systems and practices

4. Create an efficacious organizational structure for your business

5. Develop better personnel skills and knowledge

6. Master advanced sales and marketing techniques

While undoubtedly these steps will be helpful, there is more that you must do to address the core problem that interferes with press freedom.

What is this core problem? It is economic. Consider who pays for the newspapers, anyway. Generally, newspaper operations cost too much for the end users, the consumers, to pay all the costs through subscriptions or single copy sales. Additional revenues must come from somewhere. When a government provides money, office space, etc., the newspapers acquire an indebtedness to something other than truthfulness and other than the interests of their readers. The same thing happens if major sponsorship comes from commercial, industrial, or political organizations. Press freedom becomes a casualty to such forms of support. The newspapers become subjugated by their financial overlords. At best, any pretense of press freedom is merely at the largess of those who are paying the bills. As they say, kto platit, tot zakazyvaet muziku.

There may be no perfect way to support the newspapers, but advertising revenue seems to provide the best alternative. That is because no single advertiser is consequential enough to seriously sway a newspaper from a position of editorial integrity. In a typical Western newspaper, for instance, no more than about 5 percent of revenues come from any single advertiser. This multiplicity of revenue sources is what gives newspapers the strength to resist requests for coloring the news, and to see their readership as their primary constituents.

But if media organizations are to be supported by advertising revenue, where is all this advertising money going to come from?

An insufficient level of commercial competition in local economies across Russia is one of the greatest retardants of newspaper advertising growth. After all, advertising is only needed when there is competition in the sale of products and services.

On top of that, readers may even have an antipathy toward the advertising content of the newspaper.

Any newspaper, however, can use its power of the press to influence the community’s commercial culture and actually create more of a demand for advertising. You can do much to create the kind of commercial culture that will spawn greater advertising expenditures.

Publish articles that highlight whenever possible, instances when readers have benefited from advertisements: buying a product at a lower price, finding a place that sells a hard-to-find product, learning about a new and useful product, etc. At the same time, have your advertising sales staff promote competition among sellers and advise advertisers how to effectively compete through advertising. For example, if one were to sell advertising space to a shoe store, after the advertisement appears, go to another shoe store and show the owner the advertisement and say, “Do you see what this guy is doing? Do you want him to get all the business? You need to advertise, too! Then you will get more business, as well.” When companies learn better how to compete through the use of advertising, and when consumers are able to see advertising in a more favorable light, a positive economic effect will result.

As companies compete, they will be forced to become more efficient. Prices will drop. People will benefit from the lower prices and will buy more things. The companies will make more money, will hire more people, and will infuse more money into the local economy.

This certainly will benefit the local economy and a generally upward economic spiral will ensue. Everyone benefits: the companies, the consumers, the newspaper.

You, as a newspaper publisher, can do a lot to improve Russia’s economic plight — and create a more hospitable environment for the success of your newspaper.

The Russian newspapers have persevered through many years of working under extremely difficult circumstances. Now it is time to face the fact that the newspaper sector still has not found its own greatness.

In the wake of last year’s economic collapse, in the face of calls for reimposing press censorship, at a time when more and more average Russians are concluding that political and economic freedoms do not work in Russia, and in this pre-election period when political recidivism is in the air, it is high time for the newspapers to dramatize their own appalling condition.

This is no time to continue hoping that gradual change will be sufficient, or that doing more of the same thing will make a difference.

Now is the time for the newspaper industry to rise from its current unfortunate, difficult, and precarious position. Now is the time for Russian newspapers to finally realize their own potential.

The upcoming parliamentary and presidential election periods will be particularly perilous for moving in a more helpful direction. I know that a lot of newspaper managers have long been salivating over the money that is and will continue to be going into political media campaigns. Despite the election frenzy, however, it is not too early to begin planning for where your revenues will come from after the elections.

What can be done? Your power is in the fingertips and keyboards of your writers and editors. Your power is in the power of the press.

Do your readers know that they would have better newspapers if there were more economic competition in your society and thus greater advertising revenues to support the media? They should.

Do your readers know that greater competition in local and national commerce will mean lower prices and better products for them? They should know that also.

Do your readers know that laws and economic structures that impede or obviate advertising result in things being more expensive for them and provide them with fewer choices? Again, they should. You should tell them, dramatically!

Do your lawmakers know of the need to create a hospitable legal and macroeconomic environment for a free press? They should. Do your readers know the positions of their legislators on these consequential issues? They should, too.

At the same time that public sentiment is being stirred on these issues, your professional organizations should be advancing concrete proposals for appropriate reforms: changes that would create the legal and economic environment for a free press. Through these same professional organizations you should present a united front to the foreign organizations that seek to provide media assistance. Insist that there be a coherent, long-range plan, one like that proposed by the National Press Institute, that will target the things that will really make a difference. Insist that the help will actually be helpful in resolving the underlying problems.

This then is your challenge. To use your talents, your capabilities, and indeed your power of the press, to make a better environment for the newspaper industry - and a better newspaper sector and indeed a better economic situation for your country. You have in yourselves the power to be free and prosperous!