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Russia's Tabloid King Builds An Empire

"Tvoi den" bears more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Murdoch's "The Sun." And that's just fine with publisher Aram Gabrelyanov.
"Tvoi den" bears more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Murdoch's "The Sun." And that's just fine with publisher Aram Gabrelyanov.
MOSCOW -- Aram Gabrelyanov has all the makings of a Russian Rupert Murdoch.

The self-made millionaire sits atop a mushrooming media empire based entirely on the sensationalist charms of tabloid journalism.

Gabrelyanov even runs his own school of tabloid journalism, a long-term strategy he hopes will permanently alter what he sees as Russia's stiff -- and sometimes boring -- media landscape.

"In Russia, they think that there is quality journalism and there is nonquality journalism. I completely disagree," he says. "I think that there is interesting and uninteresting journalism."

For a sense of what Gabrelyanov finds interesting, one need look no further than his company, News Media, and its signature publications.

"Zhizn" (Life), a weekly with a print run of 2 million, offers horoscopes, an advice column, and gentle gossip about celebrities like legendary crooner Josef Kobzon, whose latest trip to a cancer clinic is relayed in astonishing detail.

And then there is "Tvoi den" (Your Day), a daily that offers more robust tabloid fare, like "the first real nude photo" of socialite and TV presenter Kseniya Sobchak, and revelations about a plot by fitness guru Olga Slutsker to send her children to school in England without informing her ex-husband, a Federation Council deputy.

Gabrelyanov also runs the news portal, which on November 20 was running an exclusive video interview with the widow of Daniil Sysoyev, an Orthodox priest who was shot and killed the previous day inside his Moscow church.

Russia's Rupert Murdoch

News Media's quick response to breaking stories like the priest murder have earned a grudging respect within the media community.

Aram Gabrelyanov
Vasily Gatov, the vice president of the Russian publishers guild, says Gabrelyanov's company has changed the country's media environment.

"The appearance of such a powerful and charismatic project like has had quite a strong effect on Russian journalism as a profession," Gatov says.

"You can be arrogant and turn your head away and say that these people have ruined the profession. But unfortunately, the demand for what Aram Gabrelyanov does remains quite constant."

Gabrelyanov began his career as a journalism student at prestigious Moscow State University in the mid-1980s.

Ironically, it was the school's Soviet-era restrictions that the publisher credits with first developing his muckraking skills.

When rules prohibited him from accessing the university's foreign-press archives, he tricked school officials into giving him a special pass, forged a fresh expiration date, and spent a blissful year poring over copies of British tabloids.

In particular, he admired "The Sun," the paper that helped solidify the reputation of his professed idol, Rupert Murdoch, as a media giant.

Anyone leafing through "Tvoi den" can see more than a passing resemblance between the two publications. Both feature booming, large-type headlines, bright red and black graphics and, most notably, the "Page 3 Girl" -- the topless women who gaze out at delighted readers every day.

Tabloid U

The news that Russia's Rupert Murdoch was opening his own journalism school caused howls of alarm among some in the traditional journalism community.

Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations -- who has since moved to Georgia to escape pressure from Russian authorities -- has called the image of Gabrelyanov instructing the journalists of tomorrow a "nightmare."

Aram Gabrelyanov teaches a class at his school.
"I don't know about the project, but if it is created by the holding that includes the paper 'Tvoi den,' then all I can say is, what kind of journalism?" Panfilov says. "You can immediately say that it's complete garbage."

Undaunted, Gabrelyanov is personally overseeing instruction at the school, where budding muckrakers pay 24,000 rubles ($830) for a six-month course, with the potential of winning a job with News Media at the end.

On a recent evening, 16 students gathered in Gabrelyanov's office at News Media, located in between a women's prison and a police station in northern Moscow. Memorable front pages of "Zhizn" and "Tvoi den" line the walls, and Gabrelyanov, beginning his lecture with recollections from his mischievous days at Moscow State, is every inch the proud teacher.

What do young journalists need to understand? For Gabrelyanov, it's one thing above all others: the scoop, the established tabloid tradition that dictates a paper has to be the first to a story, no matter what it takes.

Gabrelyanov's papers, which enjoy as many readers as more august publications like "Komsomolskaya pravda" and "Argumenty i fakty," take pride in scooping the competition.

During class, Gabrelyanov relates with relish the success of "Tvoi den" in being the first to cover the murder earlier this year of the noted criminal boss Vyacheslav Ivankov, better known as "Yaponchik."

"Of course we knew first, an hour and half before anyone else. We had a video of how the bullet hit him. We managed to arrive and buy everything before the police came. We came and bought everything before the police arrived," he says.

"The police came and phoned us and said, 'Can you give us the video to have a look?' We said, 'Of course. No problem.'"

'If It Bleeds, It Leads'

In chasing its scoops, News Media has gained a reputation for ruthless reporting and deep pockets. Editors initially refused to let reporters use the Internet, saying they should get the stories themselves.

And while Gabrelyanov insists his company doesn't pay the police for information, he concedes it has been known to give away free mobile phones, and is a generous contributor of vodka and other gifts on Russia's annual Police Day.

News Media's ties to police work mean its publications are not necessarily for the faint of heart. They come packed with sensationalist crime stories, graphic photographs of dead bodies, and a killer "if it bleeds, it leads" instinct that can make other Russian newspapers look positively pedestrian.

Gabrelyanov insists that his stories, no matter how sensational, are still accurate, a claim his students seemed to accept with only minor misgivings.

For future muckrakers like 26-year-old Ilya Inutkin, who claims to never pick up a newspaper, it is the breakneck pace of portals like that make tabloid journalism the best.

"What attracts you is the up-to-date information on different themes," he says. "They attract you because they write about it first, and then everyone else starts covering it."

On Kremlin's Good Side

Still, News Media has its own self-imposed limitations: never criticize the political elite or any of the country's official religions. A tabloid, Gabrelyanov argues, should be statist and conservative -- particularly when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enjoys 70 percent approval ratings and President Dmitry Medvedev trails just behind with 65 percent.

"Tvoi den," however, does not hold back with lesser members of the Russian government, and has attacked ministers on populist issues and conducted in-depth investigations of government corruption. But it was loudly supportive of last year's war in Georgia -- a necessary position, Gabrelyanov says, for a paper aimed at the masses.

News Media recently launched its latest project, "Zhara" (Heat), a glossy focusing on Russian celebrities. In developing the magazine, Gabrelyanov says he consulted with Vladislav Surkov, the powerful Kremlin aide who together with presidential press secretary Aleksei Gromov watches over the Russian media.

If toning down the content was Surkov's intent, he appears to have succeeded: a review of "Zhara" in the English-language "Moscow Times" says the magazine "doesn't have much bite and feels slightly middle-aged -- it even has a cooking column."

But Gabrelyanov insists that his publication's positions come from him and him alone. News Media's hands-off policy on Putin and Medvedev has not resulted in any special Kremlin access.

In fact, "Tvoi den" reporters have not been allowed into the Kremlin pool, the small group of reporters that follows the president's every move. Not that they wouldn't want to. It's just that there's a small condition Gabrelyanov says he's not prepared to meet.

"They said, 'Get rid of the 'Page 3 Girl' and then maybe we can talk,'" Gabrelyanov says. "I say I'm not going to do that."

That may not be the end for Gabrelyanov's ambitions. Murdoch, too, kept his Page 3 intact, despite pressure from critics -- and he now lunches with world leaders, as a man with a personal fortune of $4 billion and a media empire that includes thoroughly respectable publications like "The Times" of London and "The Wall Street Journal."

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