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#27 - JRL 2009-73 - JRL Home
April 18, 2009
Under Economic Pressure, America’s Russian Newspaper Reinvents Itself
By Nikola Krastev
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

It appears to be business as usual on Brighton Beach's bustling sidewalks. But as of April 17, Efim Zapolskiy, a few months short of his 80th birthday, will no longer receive the daily feed of information he's relied on for many years.

A faithful subscriber to the venerable "Novoye Russkoye Slovo" (NRS), the United States' only daily in Russian, Efim will have to settle for its weekly reincarnation. Pressed by the current financial crisis, steep competition in the United States and from Russia, and Internet news-gathering, NRS's management decided that the only feasible way to stay in business is to switch to a weekly format.

Zapolskiy, a transplant from Ukraine, says that for the 17 years he's been living in Brighton Beach -- New York City's "Little Russia" -- he's rarely gone a day without NRS.

"Of course this newspaper helps a lot," Zapolskiy says in Russian. "They're covering what's of interest to us, it's all in there. They cover the economy, culture, everything. What can I say?"

Scattered on the benches along Brighton Beach’s windy boardwalk, a number of transplanted Soviet retirees, bundled in their "dublenki" (fur coats) and "ushanki" (rabbit hats), are nodding in agreement: the NRS daily will be missed.

Valery Weinberg, NRS’s editor in chief since 1993, tells RFE/RL that the transformation was inevitable. The paper, which came into existence 99 years ago -- seven years before the Bolsheviks took over Russia -- has outlived Lenin, Stalin, the Great Patriotic War (World War II), and Perestroika.

But it couldn’t compete anymore with the growing number of local Russian-language newspapers, and with the even mightier U.S. editions of Russia’s popular "Komsomolskaya pravda" and "Argumenty i fakty." The Internet hammered the final nail in the coffin.

"I've spent 45 years at this newspaper," Weinberg says. "On a personal level what’s happening is a sad story. For someone who has worked for so much of his life here, I'd love to continue in the best traditions of NRS and see the newspaper as a daily."

“The world economic crisis pushed us toward this decision, and let’s not fool ourselves: all daily newspapers, including, for example, 'The New York Times,' are being subsidized," Weinberg adds.

New-Look NRS

The number of pages and sections in the weekly edition will increase significantly, and hopefully, Weinberg says, the number of advertising pages will grow as well. The whole newspaper will be printed in color, unlike the daily edition, which was only partly in color. NRS's website, nrs.com, which is quite modest by 21st-century standards, will be entirely overhauled.

But will these arguably dramatic changes be sufficient to invigorate the interest in a newspaper considered by many to have been a beacon during darkest days of communism?

Michael Idov, a contributing editor for “New York” magazine, was freelancing for NRS when he first came to New York in 1998. “At that moment I was very flattered to be in the company of some of the best-known names in Russian culture overseas,” Idov said. “That said, it has to be assumed that NRS today is absolutely irrelevant, a newspaper [not in] touch with the hopes and aspirations of contemporary Russians in America.”

In his mid-30s, educated in Latvia and the United States, Idov represents a younger generation of Russian immigrant: those who are fully immersed in urban American life and rarely, if ever, glance over the pages of the newspapers intended for the local Russian diaspora.

NRS’s Weinberg admits the paper was tilted more toward the older Russian emigres in the United States, notably those who don't speak English and are confined to their original cultural environment. But most of the current contributors are in their 20s, and the paper’s character is changing.

“We are currently refreshing our pool of authors by retaining younger journalists, and it will be notable even in the first new issue. It is definitely not aimed toward retirees,” Weinberg says. “We are acutely aware that if we want to participate in the share of advertising dollars, we must [reorient] the newspaper toward youth.”

Half of the full-time employees have been let go, and the new NRS will rely largely on freelancers’ contributions, Weinberg says. By applying the freelance strategy he expects to cut the operational expenses in half.

“The fact that they’ve been publishing a daily newspaper for so many years -- it’s a great feat,” says Idov of “New York” magazine, noting that the Internet has sapped the readership of many publications.

According to Weinberg, NRS now has 5,000 regular subscribers and 28,000 copies sold daily at newsstands. The numbers are barely a third of what they were during the paper's heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s, before the advent of Google and Twitter.

In Brighton Beach, three out of four young Russian-speaking people RFE/RL asked about NRS said they hadn’t heard about it. But then, they also said they don’t read any newspapers. And hardly any books.