The Russian press turned the spotlight on itself last week, as a public-relations agency's sting operation caught at least 13 publications accepting money to print what turned out to be a fake story.
But despite the attention drawn to the practice of "zakazukha" taking cash in return for publicity masquerading as a news story industry insiders said the system is likely to continue in Russia's weak and underdeveloped media market. They added that accepting money for stories is only one of many unfair business practices flourishing in the Russian press these days.
The latest scandal surfaced when the Moscow office of St. Petersburg-based PR agency Promaco sent fake press releases about the opening of a fictitious Moscow electronics store to 21 publications.
One of the publications, Klient magazine produced by the Kommersant publishing house ran the press release for free. Three more, Izvestia, Sevodnya and Itogi, said they could only publish the press release if labeled as an advertisement. Another four, Dengi, Expert, Kompaniya and Vedomosti, said the information in the press release was not sufficient to run a story.
But the remaining 13 media published the press release after accepting money for it. Moskovsky Komsomolets, Vremya Novostei, Novye Izvestia, Ekonomika i Zhizn, Vremya MN, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Obshchaya Gazeta, Vechernyaya Moskva, Tribuna, Profil, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Argumenty i Fakty fell for the scam.
Promaco officials said that no press releases were sent to the English-language media in Russia. Russia Journal officials said that the paper does not publish paid articles and that it has criticized the practice several times in its editorial columns.
Kirill Semyonov, head of Promaco, said at the news conference that his company's stunt came purely from the desire to draw attention to the problem of paid articles. He added that Promaco spent $15,700 in payments for running the stories and for costs related to promoting the subsequent news conference, which was advertised in Kommersant and Vedomosti.
"The Mass media have ceased to be free channels of communication," added Raniya Ibatullina, head of the Promaco Moscow office.
Semyonov also claimed some of the publications that did not fall for the sting are also known for publishing paid articles. "They might have changed their corporate behavior, or they were just lucky this time," he said.
Some of those who swallowed the bait later apologized to their readers, but most of them said the PR campaign was either a "provocation" aimed at getting publicity for Promaco or that it could have even been sponsored by some interested party, such as one of the papers that did not fall for the scam.
Pavel Bardin, editor of the Izvestiya Media supplement to the Izvestiya newspaper, said at the press conference that the campaign was probably paid for by an interested party. "What you did is negative PR, and it must have been ordered by someone," he charged.
A few publications accused PR agencies of forcing the media to accept money for stories. Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said in an article that it is PR agencies, not the press, who are to blame for the practice of accepting money for articles. He said that a lack of professionalism in PR people makes them opt for a simple money-for-story deal instead of providing the media with good information for stories.
PR professionals say that the problem of paid stories is unlikely to be solved by a move along the lines of that taken by Promaco. "PR people are the intermediary between the clients and the audience," said Leonid Tarasov, general director of the Ansdell Russia PR agency. "And the problem is not in the PR people or their clients, but in the audience, which too eagerly swallows obviously biased and one-sided information."
"I believe that it is possible [for PR people] to work without offering payments for stories to the press," Tarasov added. "Information they send out should be of high quality, and it requires a lot of effort to get it across to the press.
"We as intermediaries should work hard on getting information from our clients across to the reader," Tarasov said.
Yevgeny Abov, a member of the board of the World Association of Newspapers and deputy director of Prof-Media publishing house, said the problem of paid stories has to do with insufficient resources in the market and a lack of professionalism in PR people who choose the line of least resistance.
In any case, the incident had members of the newspaper community squabbling among themselves, with charges and countercharges flying throughout the industry. One local editor, whose paper was not taken in by the scam, said he was disappointed that even papers that are "supposed to be in relatively good financial shape, such as Vremya Novostei, accepted money. This will raise doubts over the veracity of all of their coverage," said the editor, who asked not to be identified.
Vremya Novostei accepted $525 to print the story, according to a list provided by Promaco and published in several newspapers. Other papers accepted up to about $2,000 to print the fake article. (See accompanying list.)
Andrei Grigoriev, editor of Kompaniya magazine, said he doubted that Promaco's campaign would bring positive results, and he said there were other ways of getting money for positive coverage. "The practice of accepting money for separate stories has been widely condemned," he said. "But there is also a practice where a large media corporation signs a big advertising contract that also implies positive coverage of the client's activity in its publications."
Grigoriev added that from an ethical point of view there is no difference between selling a single article for money and giving positive editorial coverage alongside a big advertising or sponsorship contract. "Take, for example, Vedomosti, which has enormous advertising incomes for Russia, but it also has some sponsor companies that give it money."
Leonid Bershidsky, editor of Vedomosti, denied the allegations. "We've never had sponsors," he said. "We have contracts with some companies under which we publish their logos, but these contracts do not include any provisions for coverage, positive or otherwise.
"We've published stories that infuriated our advertisers many times," Bershidsky added. "As for correlations between running ads and publishing stories, if any occur, they are accidental since we practice the principle of The Great Wall of China between the newsroom and the advertising department, so that they don't know what we're writing about, and we don't know what ads they're selling."
Dmitry Murzin, editor of Vremya MN, said the problem is broader than publishing paid stories.
"The mass media sell out in many ways, for example, by promoting a certain political line or hiding something [for money]."
He also was critical of a compeitor. "I wonder what Kommersant was trying to say when it ran a story condemning the media [for accepting money for stories] ... and in the same issue published four pages of paid articles not marked as advertisements."
Clients of PR agencies said they don't support the idea of paid stories. "We don't believe it to be a professional approach," said Yelena Alexandrova, public relations manager for Moscow-based British-owned cigarette company Liggett Ducat. "It's always clear if a story has been paid for, anyway.
"It's not true that it's impossible to get information published without paying for it," she added. "It's all about the professionalism of PR people."
Pay-Per-Say The unlucky 13
Here is the list of newspapers that accepted money to publish a fake story submitted by public relations agency Promaco.
Vremya Novostei received $525 (published fake story on Feb. 16)
Moskovsky Komsomolets received 26,800 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 17)
Rossiyskaya Gazeta received 57,320 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 22)
Novye Izvestia received $800 (published fake story on Feb. 20)
Ekonomika i Zhizn received 18,360 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 24)
Vremya MN received $595 (published fake story on Feb. 17)
Komsomolskaya Pravda received 15,687 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 17)
Nezavisimaya Gazeta received 14,340 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 23)
Obshchaya Gazeta received 8,577 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 16)
Vechernyaya Moskva received 6,000 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 19)
Tribuna received 3,859 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 16)
Profil received $1,732 (published fake story on Feb. 19)
Argumenty i Fakty received 18,050 rubles (published fake story on Feb. 21)