After reading the Utah Press Association newsletter last week, Pressing Issues, concerning William Dean Singleton and his recent trip to Russia, the story brought back a lot of memories for me. Singleton, who is vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews, owners of the Salt Lake Tribune, was in Moscow in May speaking with the Russians about their newspapers.
According to the newsletter, Singleton told the Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, what needs to be done to make sure their newspapers, magazines and TV stations become strong and truly independent.
"I did it so they can reinforce and safeguard the still-fragile democracy that has replaced the 'Evil-Empire,'" he said.
Singleton, as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, was asked by the White House to coordinate the news media part officially dubbed as the Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue. According to the article the key proposals in the report included creating favorable laws that regulate the business side of news media (such as cutting taxes on advertising), as well as eliminating budget subsidies and other government involvement and putting together strong trade organizations.
The reasons this all brings back memories to me is while I was living in Washington State a few years ago, I was asked to join a training and consulting team as partners in a newspaper program for the US Agency for International Development. I find it interesting that Singleton's message in 2002 is very similar to some of those we proposed back in 1997.
Three of us, Ann Olson from the Detroit Free Press, Serguey Vorobyov, a Russian with the Russian American Press and Information Center, and myself spent three weeks in the cities of Ekaterinberg, Nizhney Tagil, and Novokuznetsk. We worked with the managers, editors and newspaper staffs during the day and then prepared recommendations and action plans necessary for their survival in the evenings. All the cities were in the Ural Mountain region in Central Russia; large industrial cities with populations of nearly a million people each. They had suffered badly from the collapse of the Soviet defense industry and most factories were undergoing a conversion crisis. The newspaper industry in these areas had been struggling since the fall of communism and the American journalism teams were invited to assist the newspapers with recommendations and plans.
It was an incredible experience, not only an opportunity to learn about the Russian culture and history, but to be part of a team that was there to reinstate and save a valuable aspect of what a democracy is based on; a free press. Although our team wasn't in the company of Russian President Putin and American President Bush, we did speak to three publishers and their editors and discussed the very issues that are still being addressed some five years later.
One of the greatest memories was in Ekaterinburg talking with Ivan Malakheev, publisher of the Uralsky Rabochy, that city's major newspaper. Until 1991, the newspaper had been the voice of the Communist Party in the region. Since then the publication has been struggling to survive as an independent newspaper. Its battle to stay alive when I was there in 1997, was exacerbated by the dismal and stagnant economy and the political upheaval in a country moving in fits and spurts toward democracy and a market-based economy. When I was invited to participate in the study we were asked to share our professional expertise about the newspaper business. We had not been the first team to work with the Rabochny, and there have been many since our visit. Changing a country's political views and its economy is a long and sometimes painful process. The Russian editors wanted to find out how a newspaper can make money. They wanted to know about technology, and find out how to manage and market a newspaper, operate a newsroom, and start a wire service.
I was encouraged to read Singleton's account and see that the Newspaper Association of America is involved in the efforts to improve the Russian free press. There isn't a week that goes by when I don't think of some of the journalists I worked with back in 1997 and now that the two ex-rival governments are getting involved in the reform I am convinced that change will occur.
As Singleton said in his report, "The stakes are too high to give in. U.S.-Russian cooperation makes so much more sense than confrontation."