U.S.: New York's Russian-Language Media Seek New Audience
By Francesca Mereu
On newsstands in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood that is home to some 15,000 Russian immigrants, English-language publications are a rarity. Instead, vendors sell more than 20 locally published Russian-language newspapers, plus dozens of newspapers and magazines imported from Russia. But many of the publications, which now are read primarily by older immigrants, are looking for a fresh audience in order to stay afloat. RFE/RL reports on efforts by New York's Russian-language media to change with the times.
New York, 30 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- New York City is home to 600,000 Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some 15,000 of them live in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood reminiscent of the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.
Russian music can he heard on the street. Soviet-style shops bearing signs in Russian and English sell goods imported from Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. And the newsstands offer a wide variety of Russian-language reading material.
Obit, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, runs the neighborhood's largest newsstand. There are no English-language publications to be found among his assortment of local and imported newspapers and magazines. As Obit explained, there simply isn't any need. "I don't sell English-language papers. I don't have any -- only Russian papers. People in Brighton Beach are Russian speakers. No one is going to buy English-language papers. You can hardly sell them, so I don't sell them," Obit said.
Obit said his best-selling items are the 20 or so locally published newspapers that offer Brighton readers a useful blend of news and information pertinent to immigrant life. The oldest is "Novoe Russkoe slovo." First published in 1910, it is the oldest foreign-language paper in the United States. The newspaper, which often runs articles without a byline, gives a smattering of world and local news, as well as useful information about changes in U.S. immigration policy.
Another popular paper is "Russkii bazar," a thick weekly filled with current events, Russian-language book reviews, and page after page of classified ads, travel offers, and cultural events. The editor in chief of "Russkii bazar," Natasha Shapiro, said the paper began eight years ago as a small publication dedicated primarily to advertisements and classifieds. Since then, however, she said the paper has responded to reader demand by boosting its coverage of Russian events like October's hostage crisis in Moscow. "Whether you like it or not, anything that happens in Russia and in Moscow -- the capital of the [former] Soviet-bloc countries -- is reflected in our life here in America and in New York. No matter who we are -- Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, or Georgians -- we are all considered 'Russians.' If something happens in Russia that Americans find upsetting, you soon begin to notice that some Americans are looking at us 'Russians' with suspicion. For this reason, it would be unreasonable for us to ignore what is going on in Russia," Shapiro said.
Nina Khrushcheva is the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and a professor of media and culture at the New School University in Manhattan. Despite contributing to Russian newspapers like "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Obshchaya gazeta," Khrushcheva does not read New York-based Russian-language newspapers, because, she said, their journalistic standards are low. "Somehow it seems to me that when people are getting out of context, it does happen that usual standards do not really apply. So the standards for articles and the standards of journalism [in New York's Russian-language press], from my point of view, are lower than they usually would be. Even the Russian media in its native country is not particularly good at fact checking -- it's always more of editorializing and opinions. So you can imagine [the standards of] all those immigrants who came here and became journalists or were journalists before," Khrushcheva said.
In addition to print media, Russian speakers in the United States can listen to Narodnaya volna radio, which broadcasts from Manhattan. They can also watch Russian Television International (RTV), a satellite channel offering all-Russian programming.
RTV, which also broadcasts to Russian communities in Israel and Western Europe, is owned by Vladimir Gusinskii, the Russian entrepreneur who has seen his fortunes dwindle since losing his Russian media empire, including the private NTV television channel. In the United States, RTV has some 200,000 subscribers, the vast majority of whom are based in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brighton Beach.
RTV offers news coverage from Russia, Israel, and New York. While its Russian and Israeli coverage tends to reflect the more serious news issues of the day, its New York stories can sometimes tend toward the frivolous, as in the following report on a contest for the sexiest Russian couple in Brighton Beach: "Thanks to a contest for the sexiest Russian couple recently held in the Big Apple, everybody now knows who is New York's sexiest."
Such coverage notwithstanding, Khrushcheva said RTV's team of journalists -- many of whom are former NTV staffers -- provide high-quality news for Russian-speaking immigrant communities. "What I have seen was good. I mean, it is a little more sensationalist than I would like to have, but they probably do check the facts. And I know that a lot of people watch it around the world. I do know a lot of immigrants, especially after a certain age -- say 40, 45, 50 -- they do watch it, and in fact it is their connection to what Russia is. I mean, they all subscribe and they want to know what is the Russian opinion, of the world and of Russia, around the world," Khrushcheva said.
The older audience Khrushcheva describes is not limited to RTV. Most of New York's Russian-language newspapers have an aging readership, with younger immigrants turning more often to English-language media for their information. Natalya Kane came to Brighton Beach 10 years ago, when she was 24. She said that while she still reads the Russian-language press for immigration-related news she can't find elsewhere, newspapers like "Novoe Russkoe slovo" are really for the community's older generations. "Old people in particular -- not those of my generation -- [read the Russian-language press]. My grandmother reads only Russian papers. If she didn't have these papers to read, she would drive me mad bothering me all the time [saying], 'Tell me about it, translate it for me.' Now she reads it [by herself]. If something happens in the world, she can read about it. She watches [Russian] television all day long. She loves the [Peruvian] serial 'Isabella' and the news," Kane said.
New York's Russian-language media, aware of the dwindling interest of younger audiences, are taking steps to reverse the trend. "Novoe Russkoe slovo," for example, several years ago launched a special page for younger readers with news about Russian pop music and anecdotes about political life, sex, as the section's editor, Viktor Smolny, said, "anything that drives them."
Smolny said a young reader's interest in Russian culture is often determined by how many years he or she has already spent in the United States. "Of course, it depends sometimes on the time that a person has spent here. If the person was brought here as a young child, let's say at the age of 3 or 4 or 5, and started to learn to write and read in English first and only knows a couple of words in Russian, but doesn't really consider it his or her native language, of course these people would not be a likely audience for this page. But then there are other people who came here at a more developed age, teenagers or some even older than that who still consider themselves young, and they want to read not only English-language publications but something in their native language as well," Smolny said.
In neighborhoods like Brighton Beach, it is difficult to imagine that the predominance on Russian culture, food, and entertainment will ever fade away entirely. But unless the Russian-language press succeeds in winning back younger readers, newsstands like Obit's may have to make room for other New York papers, like "The New York Times" and the "Daily News."