Thu, Apr 01, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The rescue and revamp of a newspaper industry

By Richard Perez-Pena  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

“He has the distribution network in London, so he could turn the Independent in London only into a free newspaper, and continue to charge for it elsewhere,” said Roy Greenslade, a former editor at several major British papers, who writes media commentary for both the Guardian and the Standard.

The other papers “are quite worried about what he will do,” he said.

Whatever he does, Alexander Lebedev will continue to cut an unusual figure. He began reading British newspapers in the 1980s, as part of his KGB work gathering intelligence on the British economy. For several years, the agency stationed him in London.

He went into business after the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and built an empire that includes banking, airlines, hotels and manufacturing. He said his business experience, dealing with corruption in Russia and other countries, sharpened his interest in fostering openness and investigative journalism.

“I frankly do not see how you deal with it unless you do it through media,” he said. “And even then, the government might or might not react.”

When other Russian tycoons were buying sports teams, Lebedev invested, along with Gorbachev, in Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper noted for investigative work critical of the government and powerful business interests. It is also known for its four journalists murdered in the last decade, including Anna Politkovskaya.

Alexander Lebedev still maintains his main home in Moscow, while his son is in London.

Some of the British news media questioned the older Lebedev’s independence from the Kremlin early this year, after the airline Aeroflot, which is primarily government-owned, agreed to buy back his stake in the company.

Alexander Lebedev has sought public office repeatedly and served for four years in the Russian parliament, the Duma — a record that, in the US, might be viewed as a conflict of interest. He has switched parties multiple times, and he and Gorbachev talked of forming a reformist party.

After he bought a 74.1 percent stake in the Standard, it hired a new editor, Geordie Greig, with a mission to enliven the paper. It conducted an ad campaign saying “Sorry for losing touch,” attacking head-on the perception that the paper was too dry and too negative about London.

Greig has made the front of the paper a little lighter-weight and more inviting, said Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at the Numis investment bank, “but he hasn’t sacrificed the serious news.”

In Russia and in Britain, the Lebedevs have advocated a press that is not aligned with or controlled by any political or business faction, and under them, the Standard has moved away from its former pro-Conservative stance.

In addition, the vision for the Independent is “to be high-minded,” Evgeny Lebedev said, “and to avoid popular celebrity culture. That niche is more than filled.”

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