The ebullience of that period, however, was quickly offset by skyrocketing inflation. Newspapers were forced to accept state subsidies early on, creating a dynamic that has become increasingly politicized under Putin. Meanwhile, a number of wealthy oligarchs bought media outlets during the 1990s, paying journalists well and providing a measure of independence. By the Putin era, only oligarchs close to the Kremlin could survive.
The problems Western media face—from budget cuts to the impact of the Web—exist in Russia too. But in Russia the foundation was already shaky. And there is no deep tradition of long form investigative reporting, or the institutions to support it. “We failed to create a new kind of journalism” during the 1990s, Alexey Munipov, editor of Bolshoi Gorod, an alternative bimonthly Moscow paper, told me. Readership declined.
And in recent years, it has declined further and advertising revenue has plummeted. In the last year alone, daily papers in Russia lost 17 percent of their readers, and a recent TNS Gallup survey showed that less than 10 percent of the population bothered to read dailies between December 2008 and April 2009. (In most European capitals the same figure is closer to 50 percent.)
The legacy of a “pay to play” model dating from the oligarch-dominated era of the ’90s, in which newspapers and magazines accept money for “articles,” has further weakened public trust. Called dzhinsa (Russian for “blue jeans”), the practice has become institutionalized; newspaper managers or editorial board members are often paid directly. “Newspaper type has become the weapon of the banker and the politician,” a journalist wrote in the mid-1990s. “The journalist has been transformed into a mouthpiece.” The public has become so suspicious of placed articles that reporting or reviews are often assumed to have been paid for. Maxim Kashulinsky, the thirty-six-year-old editor of Forbes Russia, says he still has to persuade people that Forbes doesn’t sell entries to its list of Russia’s one hundred richest businessmen.
Perhaps worse has been the state’s gradual domination of print publications. First, over the course of Putin’s presidency, a number of large-circulation dailies, including Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kommersant, and Izvestia were sold to Kremlin-friendly business groups, including the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom. At the same time, state subsidies for newspapers gradually became tied to content and ideology. Until a few years ago, Russian newspapers received uniform support from state and local budgets for print costs and distribution, regardless of size or political orientation. In 2005, however, a new law changed the funding system; money would be distributed through a competition for grants administered by the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications. The grants were not based on objective criteria, but on the kind of stories publications printed—whether they were sufficiently sympathetic to those in power.
This has created a vicious circle: opposition papers don’t even bother to compete for state funding, so the pool of applicants has decreased; thus the loyal large-circulation dailies get an ever-larger sum of federal money, which ultimately allows them to undersell their competitors. And the resulting wider circulation means they’re more attractive to advertisers. The Kremlin’s approach to print media is simple, Richter says: “If the press wants to help us, we shall help them. If the press doesn’t want to help us or it’s against us, let them die.”
Meanwhile, access to information and sources within the government has greatly diminished. This is particularly true with the intelligence community. Andrei Soldatov, the founder of the investigative Web site agentura.ru (modeled on Steven Aftergood’s Project on Government Secrecy), has covered the FSB and national security issues for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, he says, intelligence agencies feared that they would be disbanded, as happened to the East German Stasi. In an attempt to preserve their power, they established press offices to deal with journalists and the public in the name of transparency.