The new digital media entrepreneurs who are struggling to survive can take some inspiration from the story of Q, an independent newspaper publisher in a country of the former Soviet Union. (Name withheld to protect him from further government repression.)
In 1990, Q was among many journalists who founded newspapers independent of the official media. The scent of freedom was in the air after the liberation from the Soviet Union.But as time went on these newspapers also became uncomfortable with the successor government, which despite providing certain freedoms remained an authoritarian regime.
As these newspapers became more critical, the government put the squeeze on them through a series of tactics, including banning newspapers like Q’s from the government-controlled newsstands. Local authorities also pressured private stores not to sell the papers. The circulation of Q’s newspaper has fallen from 12,000 three years ago to 5,000 today.
I spent two days with Q and his team during three weeks of working with publishers in that country. Q’s newspaper and website did not hesitate to criticize the regime or write about the faults of the authorities in their farming community.
In the latest move, the government has stopped selling newsprint to these independent papers, forcing them to but it from foreign countries at up to 50 more than the government media have to pay. Partly because of tactics like these, only one third of the independent newspapers survive.
Evicted, he offers cup of tea
Three years ago, the government enterprise that owned the building that housed his newspaper offices told him he had to leave the space in a month. No one would rent Q another space, even his friends, for fear of repercussions from the authorities.
His reporters worked from home. While Q scrambled to keep publishing. He rented a booth at a public market on the outskirts of town to sell copies of the newspaper as well as advertising.Eventually he decided to buy a house and convert it into a newspaper office, though he does not have the required building and zoning permits.
The space is partly occupied and partly under construction. When neighbors ask about the large number of people coming and going, Q explains that he has many friends who come every day to share a cup of tea.
A batallion of grannies
The other big problem facing Q is distribution. Banned from kiosks, he asked the authorities for permission to sell the paper from some street locations. The request was denied. He asked his friends with shops to sell the paper. They declined and apologized. They fear repercussions from the authorities.
Q decided to turn to a great retailing tradition of his country, older women on pensions, affectionately referred to as "grannies," who supplement their income by selling items on the street. Grannies occupy a special place in society.
People respect them and therefore they have a certain invulnerability. Even the secret police hesitate to mess with them. Q distributes almost 60% of copies every week through grannies, a percentage that is high even among independent newspapers. He also created a network of couriers to distribute the paper.
Q never gives up. He is always looking for ways to distribute the newspaper and get around marketing restrictions. I really admire him and his fellow publishers. They embody the resilience, commitment and creativity of true entrepreneurs.
This post originally appeared on the blog News Entrepreneurs and was posted on IJNet with permission.
James Breiner is a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English and is a consultant in online journalism and leadership.
He spent the majority of his career as editor and publisher of business journals in Columbus and Baltimore for American City Business Journals. He led an investigative journalism team at the Columbus Dispatch that won seven awards from the Associated Press of Ohio. He has a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Connecticut. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica. Follow him on Twitter.