A Very For­eign Pa­per

Does the de­par­ture of Ve­do­mosti’s veteran editor pose yet an­other threat to Rus­sia’s al­ready em­bat­tled in­de­pen­dent me­dia scene?

The Moscow Times - - LIVING HERE - By Eva Har­tog e.har­tog@ime­dia.ru

In the news­room of Rus­sia’s most re­spected busi­ness news­pa­per, ed­i­tors and re­porters are in a tense face-off with the pa­per’s owner De­myan Kudryavt­sev (who also pub­lishes The Moscow Times). He has just an­nounced the name of their new editor-in­chief — an ap­point­ment that should re­flect the pa­per’s ed­i­to­rial stan­dards. But the mood is sour.

Why bring in some­one from out­side the news­room? Why some­one from state tele­vi­sion? What guar­an­tee will there be of ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence? “Do you re­al­ize what the head­lines will be?” one emo­tional staff mem­ber asks. “‘Ve­do­mosti is go­ing to be led by some­one from Channel One.’”

On the one hand, Tatyana Lysova’s suc­ces­sor was al­ways go­ing to face a news­room of skep­ti­cism. The veteran editor spent more than 15 years meticulously cu­rat­ing its salmon-pink pages. To her staff and read­ers, she was a lone beacon of ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence in an in­creas­ingly hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

To many, her re­place­ment is a sym­bol of that hos­til­ity. Ilya Bulavi­nov was head of In­ter­net broad­cast­ing at Channel One, a tele­vi­sion channel that many con­sider a prime ex­am­ple of Rus­sian state me­dia’s flex­i­ble at­ti­tude to­ward fact and fic­tion.

His ap­point­ment might seem un­usual for a pa­per that pi­o­neered Rus­sia’s tran­si­tion to a free press af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union. But it fits into a broader trend of re­cent own­er­ship swaps, le­gal bat­tles, and staff reshuf­fles at Rus­sian me­dia out­lets—in what some see as a Krem­lin cam­paign to si­lence crit­i­cal voices.

Not busi­ness as usual

In a land­scape where gov­ern­ment and busi­ness in­ter­ests held sway, it took an out­sider to found Rus­sia’s first in­de­pen­dent busi­ness pa­per.

Dutch en­tre­pre­neur Derk Sauer had come to Rus­sia in the nineties and set up the suc­cess­ful pub­lish­ing house In­de­pen­dent Me­dia, which printed sev­eral ti­tles, in­clud­ing The Moscow Times.

Sauer saw an­other niche that needed fill­ing: busi­ness jour­nal­ism un­be­holden to ex­ter­nal in­ter­ests.

With Rus­sia’s hun­gry tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism came a new class of en­trepreneurs who wanted to stay in­formed. Be­sides, Rus­sia’s only other busi­ness news­pa­per, Kom­m­er­sant, was broad­en­ing its cov­er­age, leav­ing room for a hard busi­ness pa­per. Kom­m­er­sant had also been bought by Boris Bere­zovsky, Rus­sia’s king­pin oli­garch, who, like many of his peers, saw the me­dia as a tool of in­flu­ence.

Sauer named Ve­do­mosti af­ter Rus­sia’s first news­pa­per, an 18th cen­tury bul­letin founded by Peter the Great. “It had to sound as if it had been around for hun­dreds of years,” he says. But the Moscow bill­boards an­nounc­ing the pa­per’s launch in 1999 spoke of a sharp break with the past: “Any oli­garch can buy our news­pa­per — at a kiosk.”

Rather than act as the Soviet regime’s pro­pa­ganda tool or an oli­garch’s play­toy, Ve­do­mosti would pro­mote a novel idea. “The mes­sage was: we’re in­de­pen­dent,” says Sauer.

New tra­di­tion

To es­tab­lish Ve­do­mosti’s brand in Rus­sia, Sauer part­nered up with in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ism be­he­moths The Wall Street Jour­nal and The Fi­nan­cial Times.

“We felt we were part of a cer­tain tra­di­tion,” says Leonid Bershidsky, Ve­do­mosti’s found­ing editor, now a Bloomberg colum­nist. “And that mat­tered. We read their rules and saw how they stuck to them.”

Ve­do­mosti used this new play­book to train a gen­er­a­tion of Rus­sians who had lim­ited ac­cess to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards of jour­nal­ism. The pa­per’s out­go­ing editor — who guarded those stan­dards for over 15 years — was among them.

Lysova came to jour­nal­ism by ac­ci­dent. Af­ter train­ing as a math­e­mati­cian, and work­ing as a soft­ware pro­gram­mer, she be­gan at Kom­m­er­sant as a self-pro­claimed “ter­ri­ble jour­nal­ist with no writ­ing or com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.”

But af­ter sev­eral scoops cov­er­ing Rus­sia’s evolv­ing en­ergy sec­tor she carved out a name for her ac­cu­racy and fear­less­ness — traits that would come to de­fine her ten­ure at Ve­do­mosti. “If you think some­thing is right, then you have to fight for it. No mat­ter who’s in charge,” she says.

Af­ter the 1998 fi­nan­cial crash, ethics in Rus­sian jour­nal­ism be­came murkier . Many pub­li­ca­tions be­gan pro­duc­ing “plu­gola” for com­pa­nies and busi­ness fig­ures in re­turn for large pay­ments and gifts.

Lysova ad­mits to writ­ing one such ar­ti­cle—but the “client was very un­happy,” she laughs. “An editor once said I was one of two jour­nal­ists in Moscow who would not ac­cept money, call­ing me a fool.”

Kom­m­er­sant staff even­tu­ally left the pa­per over claims that its owner was try­ing to in­flu­ence his staff’s cov­er­age to ben­e­fit a bank he had ties to. But when paid ar­ti­cles also be­came the norm at the mag­a­zine they sub­se­quently launched, called Ex­pert, Lysova left for Ve­do­mosti in 1999. “It was an in­ter­na­tional brand and I thought I could learn some­thing,” she says.

Within three years, she was chief.

First came the oli­garchs...

Ve­do­mosti’s ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence did not go down well with the oli­garchs.

“Within two days of the launch, I had a ra­bid Py­otr Aven on the phone,” re­counts Sauer. “We’d writ­ten some­thing about Alfa-Bank that he didn’t like.” Other at­tempts to pres­sure

Pub­lisher Derk Sauer (left) and found­ing editor Leonid Bershidsky (right) demon­strate the first is­sue of Ve­do­mosti on Sept. 1, 1999.

“Ve­do­mosti rep­re­sented a Western ap­proach to jour­nal­ism — like an em­bassy — on Rus­sian soil,”— Vasily Ga­tov, me­dia an­a­lyst.

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