It used to be that if you needed to find a Russian-language book, order an item from a Russian grocer or place an ad that reached Russian speakers in America, you came to Novoye Russkoye Slovo. At its heyday, the newspaper, started by anti-Bolshevik émigrés in 1910, set the dialogue for Russians in America and was widely read. Last month, NRS celebrated its 100 birthday, with an anniversary issue, special mentions by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and even a letter from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who called the paper “one of the more authoritative socio-political publications of the Russian diaspora.”
But the oldest Russian-language publication in the country, which once boasted a circulation of 70,000, is struggling, the victim of the Internet age and increased competition from other Russian-language newspapers. There are more than 3 million Russian-speakers living in the US and a growing number of publications have sprung in recent years catering to them, voiding the monopoly once held by NRS.
“It used to be the only show in town and people would read it religiously,” said Vladimir Kozlovsky, a longtime reporter for NRS, who also works for the BBC and the Russian channel RTVI. “Now what they need is their own Russian (Rupert) Murdoch.”
Last year, the paper laid off dozens of reporters and shifted ownership from the controversial Vadim Rabinovich, a Ukrainian oligarch who has been linked to shady companies, to Valery Weinberg, an insider and former editor-in-chief who has been with the paper since 1964.
Since then, Novoye Russkoye Slovo has struggled along, relying on seven staffers and another two dozen freelance reporters around the US as well as writers in Russia, Germany and Israel. Several sources, who did not want to be quoted because of their ongoing relationship with NRS, said the paper is in such dire straits that it fabricates bylines in order to fill up 46 pages, which Weinberg admits was done before, but is frowned upon today.
“If we do it, it’s only to protect journalists when writing about controversial topics or preserve their reputation by not having the same person write about politics, arts and sports,” Weinberg said.
Instead, the affable editor who loves a good story, is intent on making the publication a daily again and finding new investors, advertisers and new media partners to secure its future.
“The paper has to be national in scope, even international, something people can find in hotels and anywhere they go, like the International Herald Tribune,” said Weinberg. “Only then can it have the popularity and the demand we are looking for.
At its height, the publication was a platform for such literary giants as Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky, and balanced news from Russia with the goings on émigré’s adopted country—from the Russian Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond. In more recent years, writers like Maya Pritsker, an arts and entertainment writer, and Oleg Sulkin, a film critic, gained a following in NRS and gave the publication credibility, but both have been laid off because of budgetary reasons.
“While professional reporters who had a reputation and responsibility to what they were writing were working there, it was a good paper,” said Regina Khidekel, director of the Russian American Cultural Center in New York City. “But when you have new people come in who don’t have journalistic integrity or a desire to report the truth, the paper suffers.”
Even before the massive layoffs, circulation dropped when Rabinovich, the Ukrainian tycoon, bought a controlling stake in the paper in 2003. Observers worried that NRS would become a public relations vehicle for the Ukrainian government, in part because of Rabinovich’s close relationship to then-president Leonid Kuchma. Beyond the covert reasons for the acquisition was the challenge of running a paper from the Ukraine, since Rabinovich has been banned from the US since 1995 for his ties to the criminal underworld.
“You can't properly run a New York paper from Kiev or Casablanca,” said Kozlovsky. “News from Ukraine doesn't sell many papers in the Russian-American market.”
Despite the foray into shady ownership and a slew of financial problems, Novoye Russkoye Slovo still has a fan base, comprised mostly of an aging population that’s not keen on reading about the world on a computer screen. One of them is Chana Suliteanu, an 82 year-old Romanian-American who lives in Boston.
“The paper keeps on amazing me, time and time again,” Suliteanu said. “I know many writers at the paper and I like it because it speaks the truth.”
Assemblymember Alec Brook-Krasny, the first Soviet-born, Russian-speaking Jew to be elected to the New York State Assembly, said the paper still serves a role in understanding the needs of Russian speakers in the US, who emigrated in waves and whose backgrounds vary from 19th century Jews escaping pogroms, to nobility fleeing the revolution, to those traumatized by World War II to another wave of Jewish immigration in the 1970s.
“The paper has been through so many changes and so many editors, the fact that it’s still being distributed is, in itself, a testament to the Russian community and that the Russian language is alive and well in America,” Brook-Krasny said.
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