While the Anna Politkovskaya murder trial descends into farce, her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is cutting reporting staff. Is there more to the move than the financial crisis, asks Maria Eismont
Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper known worldwide for its opposition to the Kremlin and its investigative journalism, announced last week that it is shedding 20 editorial staff due to economic difficulties.
The announcement was made in a postscript to a news story on the effect of the financial crisis on the Russian media, and was not even translated for the English edition. It stated that Novaya Gazeta’s shareholders had decided to cut 25 per cent of its funding with the ‘mutual consent of both parties’. The short note added that the paper had increased its circulation by 15 per cent and was launching a Friday edition in response to ‘popular demand’.
But the future is not as optimistic as it may sound. The Friday edition is in fact a new version of the weekend publication, only with political content as well as light features.
Andrei Soldatov — founder and editor-in-chief of Agentura.ru, a website dedicated to monitoring the Russian secret services — was amongst the staff who were fired. The contract of his colleague, Irina Borogan, deputy editor-in-chief of Agentura.ru and a freelance correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, was not renewed.
In a press release, Soldatov and Borogan said that Novaya Gazeta had ceased its collaboration with Argentura.ru without explanation. ‘They even removed our banner from their website,’ said Soldatov.
‘The suddenness, and the way in which we were fired, gave us reason to suppose that this decision was made not because of economic reasons,’ reads the statement on Argentura.ru, encouraging readers to guess which of the recently published stories could be the real reason. One of Argentura’s last articles for Novaya Gazeta focused on the former FSB officer Pavel Ryaguzov, who is currently facing prosecution in the Anna Politkovskaya murder trial.
Novaya Gazeta’s deputy editor-in-chief Sergei Sokolov denies any politics behinds the firing. ‘Job cuts, including some of the star writers, are a result of the investors’ decision to cut the funding of the paper. This has nothing to do with professional performance.’ Sokolov added that the job cuts ‘will certainly affect the paper, but not catastrophically’. He said that the newspaper will continue to monitor the secret services, ‘like we always did, even before collaborating with Agentura’. Sokolov added that the coverage of Politkovsakya’s murder case, which he is overseeing himself, will not be affected.
Roman Shleinov, head of the investigations unit at Novaya Gazeta, said the paper will continue to do investigations although now there will be less specialisation and journalists will be forced to write on a much wider range of issues. ‘Maybe the job cuts will push the remaining staff to work harder,’ he said. But Shleinov was in general quite pessimistic: ‘It seems that things will get worse.’
For Novaya Gazeta, everything depends on the financial wellbeing of its main funder Alexander Lebedev, the Russian oligarch, former FSB officer, member of the State Duma, and one of the fiercest opponents of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Lebedev, together with the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, bought 49 per cent of the paper in 2006. Later he started another newspaper, Moscow Correspondent, which became famous after running a sensational story (which later turned out to be false) about the marriage of Vladimir Putin to the Russian gymnast Alina Kabayeva. The paper closed shortly after running the story, then restarted recently, only to be closed for a second time because of the financial crisis.
‘For me, supporting Novaya Gazeta and Moscow Correspondent is not business: from the business point of view they are completely unprofitable. It is investment in the development of a civil society,’ wrote Lebedev on his blog, ‘Capitalist-idealist’.
Novaya Gazeta has never functioned as a business enterprise — the revenue from the few advertisements it carries is not enough to cover any significant part of the paper’s expenses, and it seems that its staff have never believed that it’s a viable business model. Whether that’s down to advertisers’ fear of appearing in an opposition newspaper, or the failure of the commercial and sales departments, remains unclear. In the current crisis, what is clear is that advertising revenue will only decline.
Novaya Gazeta is not the first to suffer from the world financial crisis. Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Noviye Izvestia — both non-profile assets of big businessmen — have cut staff and pages, as well as regional and international networks. RBK was the first Russian media brand to announce job cuts, firing more than 100 people in the first days of crisis, over 5 per cent of its entire staff.
Maria Eismont is head of the Russian Independent Print Media Programme at the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow