The Russian press is like the Olympic Games every four years, we see a newspaper boom with several new publications hitting the stands, all hoping to attract a share of the market for serious journals.
In 1993, Obshchaya Gazeta and Sevodnya appeared. (Obshchaya Gazeta first appeared in August 1991, when, in response to the attempted coup, several democratic publications joined forces. But it only became a regular weekly in 1993.)
In 1997, a newspaper explosion gave birth to Russky Telegraf, Parlamentskaya Gazeta and Rossiya. Vremya MN followed shortly afterwards.
Now another four years has gone by and it's time for new publications to appear. Mikhail Berger, who used to put out Sevodnya, and Sergei Parkhomenko, who used to put out Itogi, announced plans to publish two new magazines Delovaya Khronika and Yezhenedyelny Zhurnal. Meanwhile, the former chief editor of Kommersant, Raf Shakirov, who was forced to leave after Kommersant ended up in Boris Berezovsky's hands, will open a new daily in the autumn.
You might wonder where publishers find the journalists to work on all these papers. But they don't have to look the Moscow press is like a giant matryoshka wooden doll with publications that open up to reveal yet more publications.
Journalists from Moskovskiye Novosti, for example, gave birth to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, then some of the Nezavisimaya team split off to found Sevodnya. A group of Sevodnya journalists then started up Vremya MN, and these same journalists later moved to Vremya Novostei. Journalists from Kommersant opened Russky Telegraf (which later closed); while Parkhomenko and Berger will simply pick up the journalists who used to work for Itogi and Sevodnya for their new publications.
The financing search
But the latest boom isn't entirely like the others when it comes to financing. Previously, it was the banks that opened papers. It was considered a matter of prestige for a bank to have its own paper. UNEXIMbank was especially active, buying controlling stakes in Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda as well as founding Russky Telegraf. MOST-Bank owned Sevodnya, Mosbiznesbank opened Rossiya; Sberbank and Vnesheconombank founded Vremya MN, and so on.
But this has changed with time. Most bankers have lost interest in the newspaper business. There are two main reasons: Parliamentary and presidential elections are over, and President Vladimir Putin has made clear his irritation with media owners who try to use their outlets as instruments of influence. For the bankers, exerting influence was the whole reason for buying or founding a newspaper.
Without banks as a source of investment, many newspapers have had to look elsewhere. Today's investor in the business is interested not so much in influence as in shoring up his image on Moscow's political scene. This goes for Vladimir Gusinsky, who has promised financial support for Berger and Parkhomenko; and for steelworks magnate Vladimir Lisin from Novolipetsk, who will finance Shakirov's new daily.
Gusinsky and Lisin are very different people, of course. Gusinsky is an oligarch in exile, while Lisin is an oligarch close to the Kremlin and always attends Putin's meetings with entrepreneurs. But different though they may be, they have similar aims. Gusinsky needs to prove that he's still around, while Lisin, the provincial oligarch unknown in Moscow circles, needs to show the capital just who he is.
But it is a difficult future that awaits the new publications. The niches for the economic and general political press are completely full.
Berger's Dyelovaya Khronika will enter a market already divided between other business magazines, such as Ekspert, Kompaniya, Kommersant-Dengi and Russky Fokus. Parkhomenko's weekly magazine will find itself competing with Kommersant-Vlast, Itogi and Ogonyok.
Shakirov's new daily will find itself up against Kommersant, Izvestia, Vremya Novostei, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and others. And then there's the former chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vitaly Tretyakov, who also wants to open a new daily, though the details of this project aren't yet known.
But why does Moscow need so many newspapers? What's the sense of such a fragmented media scene?
There are two reasons. One is that chief editors, when they lose their jobs, feel it beneath their dignity to become a deputy editor or an ordinary journalist somewhere else. They all want to have their own publication.
And Russian investors have the same mentality and are incapable of getting together to invest. A bank or business would rather carry all the costs but not have to coordinate its interests with those of other investors.
It looks like the only thing in Russia that can make newspapers unite is a coup, like in 1991.
The Odessa file
Ukraine offers a few lessons in this context. I recently came back from Odessa, where I know a lot of journalists.
While sitting in a cafe owned by a wealthy Odessan businessman, I noticed a fat magazine called Passazh, financed by this same businessman, lying on each table.
To my surprise, I saw that this magazine had managed to bring together all Odessa's top journalists, who had previously all been working for different publications and fighting endlessly among themselves.
This Odessan businessman managed to achieve what none of his Moscow counterparts have been able to pull off unite the best talent around and put it to work for him.