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To Publish or Not To Publish: What Happens in Print Journalism of Kazakhstan during COVID-19

Print media suffered the most of all Kazakhstan media from coronavirus. The crisis made many media outlets come to the limit and they will either die out or disappear, or transform, according to experts.

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Coronavirus that affected all fields of national economy of Kazakhstan had a negative impact on the media industry. Print media happened to be at risk like all around the world.

“Many newsmen write that newspapers either suspended or the number of issues and copies was reduced. Many newspapers lost 30 to 70 per cent of advertising revenue, some media outlets cut wages,” media expert Olga Kaplina said.

The message of the Kazakhstan media community to the minister of information and public development said that print periodicals faced the hardest times. They involve the system of retail distribution (kiosks, sellers, distributors) and especially in the regions, print circulations in printing houses of neighbouring towns. All the infrastructure, according to the document, faced the risk of removal, which will lead to the closure of print editions.

The operation of regional outlets with limited circulations, insignificant advertising, which existed due to subscriptions and distribution of newspapers, was mainly paralysed.

Kyzylorda region suspended distribution of regional and local print matter due to the difficult epidemiologic situation. Materials were suggested for publishing in electronic form only, whereas employees of Kazpochta may deliver them in hard copy.

Straight from the source

Chief Editor of the Uralsk newspaper ‘Nadezhda’, Alla Zlobina, told CABAR.asia they could not publish their material in any form.

“We had a problem of delivery of our newspaper to our subscribers who live in Aksay (regional city in Western Kazakhstan region – author’s note). It was actually cut off due to posts between the cities and districts. Enterprises stopped working there and no one could deliver newspapers. Kiosks as well as markets closed, so there is no retail sale there. […] Finally, we decided to stop printing the newspaper,” Zlobina said.

Photo: nadezhda.kz

This is the first case of stopped issue of the newspaper since its existence – 1992. The editorial staff tried to shift to electronic format temporarily. But after the first digital test, they dropped this idea. Amid isolation, it is difficult to prepare comprehensive and diverse materials.

The majority of the team were placed on unpaid leaves. Only three employees stayed to make news.

“Even if we saved on wages, this is absolutely incommensurable with losses,” she said. “We suffer losses. The main source of our existence was sales of print media. Although our circulation was limited, only 3-3.5 thousand copies a week, we coped with it. We placed advertising, PR articles, subscription. Now we have nothing.”

There are going to be more losses ahead, Alla Zlobina added. After they resume work, they will have to compensate 1-1.5 months of idle time to their subscribers and prolong subscription for free.

It is hard for employees as well – they received compensation in the amount of 42,500 tenge (102 dollars) for one month only. Besides, the editors office will need to level up price of one copy at least by 10 tenge (0.024 dollars). Now it costs 90 tenge (0.22 dollars), whereas the net cost is higher several times. As a result, this will lead to drop in sales.

Photo coursery

The situation in Shymkent newspaper ‘Rabat’ is not so critical. Despite the difficulties, it was published anyway. Chief Editor Farida Sharafutdinova explained they had obligations to subscribers and the state – they had to fulfil the government order.

“We did not reduce the circulation, 7 thousand copies, but we had to reduce the frequency of newspaper publication,” chief editor said.  “Due to the lockdown, our weekly newspaper was published biweekly. We have many subscribers in various organisations, and we deliver our newspaper to them by ourselves. As they were mostly closed, we had no one to deliver the newspaper to.

Photo: kapital.kz

The republican business weekly Kapital.kz was suspended for the same reason – no one and nowhere to deliver to. Its last issue was published on March 19.

“We distributed mainly to business centres, air planes, large restaurants, shopping malls. As everything was closed, there was no point in printing 10 thousand copies, which would be nowhere to deliver. We had materials, and the printing house was available,” Asia Agibaeva, director-general of Capital printing house and chief editor of the newspaper, said.

Komsomolskaya Pravda Kazakhstan newspaper did not stop publishing hard copy. According to editorial director Vitaly Krasnov, they could not afford stop publishing because they had obligations and contracts. However, they made some improvement: they joined two dailies into one.

Chief Editor of the same newspaper and chief editor of AiF Kazakhstan, member of the board of Kazakhstan Media Alliance, Viktor Kiyanitsa, determined the work of the editorial office during the lockdown as a charity. Part edition of the newspaper was distributed via volunteers free of charge in grocery stores, hospitals, etc. because it wasn’t sold at retail.

“The most dramatic moment was when all kiosks stopped working at first,” Kiyanitsa said. “Then the printing house was closed. Editorial offices, including ours, printers and distributors of the print media turned to prime minister Askar Mamin. The situation improved then.”

However, according to our interlocutor, the main thing did not happen:

Distribution points still don’t work and didn’t work this whole period. They are blood vessels of the print media. A few newsstands of Karavan network opened, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. The main distribution points are in stores, supermarkets, on streets, etc. do not operate.

The situation, according to the head of the media outlet, worsened the situation in the newspaper. According to his estimates, one-fourth to one-third print media outlets of Kazakhstan can suffer from this crisis. According to Kiyanitsa, it’s unclear why the print media and the media industry as a whole were not listed as the industries that suffered from coronavirus. It obviously needs state support.

‘Kazakhstan Media Alliance’, Legal Media Centre and managers of some periodicals earlier turned to the country’s leadership and asked to exempt the owners of media outlets from VAT for 12 months. No answer followed. The press service of the ministry of information and public development said the document was under consideration.

Emergency is a catalyst, internet is not a rival

Independent expert, academic of the Academy of Journalism of Kazakhstan, Asylbek Bisenbaev, said state support is definitely essential. However, it should be provided not to the media outlets, but to their distributors. According to him, the key reason of the deplorable state of print media is the lack of the single cutting-edge system of delivery and distribution of newspapers and magazines in the vast territory of Kazakhstan.

Asylbek Bisenbaev. Photo from personal Facebook page

“Earlier, when we had a centralised system, a man received a newspaper early in the morning. In recent years, the network of kiosks all over the country has become less dense in all towns of the republic. Subscribers receive print media once a week or once in 10 days because of the slow work of Kazpochta. Who needs a daily newspaper once in 10 days?!” Bisenbaev said.

According to him, it’s not coronavirus but crisis on the petroleum market that will have negative impact on the media sphere. The state will need to cut all expenses and will hardly subsidise the system of newspaper distribution.

“The state contract will be curtailed, but a whole range of media outlets work under such contracts,” he said. “Moreover, sales will decrease and business will spend less on advertising. This will lead first to the decrease in circulation and then to the closure of newspapers.”

According to Bisenbaev’s forecast, up to 40 per cent of print media outlets could cease to exist before the end of the year. Media outlets supported by the state and oligarchic groups will remain.

The analyst does not agree with the common statement that newspapers will not survive because of competition with the internet. According to him, coronavirus and technical gaps in distance education have shown that Kazakhstan has major problems with internet coverage.

“The major part of our readers are pensioners who do not use internet at all. It is like an outer space for this category of people. Moreover, a newspaper is easy to use when it comes to looking at local official documents, reference data and other important and useful information. Besides, this information can be read many times and by many people,” Farida Sharafutdinova said.

Government helps those who help themselves

Aleksandr Amzin. Photo: ohtapress.ru

Meanwhile, Russian media expert Aleksandr Amzin during live on Go Viral Kazakhstan dedicated to ‘Media during coronacrisis: how they die, hibernate and survive’ said that the current situation is a good motivation for shifting to the digital sphere.

Later, in his comment to CABAR.asia, he explained that not all print media outlets have to do this.

“For example, print media that were free of charge now bear losses or are closed because fewer people go to work. Such media are not interesting if they are digital, but after the pandemic they will become popular again. Large media outlets have traditional and major consumers of paper version – cafes, hotels, airlines that distribute newspapers. The lack of money from them should be compensated. However, few people doubt that the mankind will get back to coffee houses, hotels and airlines,” Amzin said.

However, glossy magazines and local newspaper will have hard times. The former, according to the media expert, were liked for their cover and the habit of reading them during the pandemic will fade away.

“The same will be with local newspapers, which were not used by users who already receive local information from social media and messengers. Therefore, I’d say that magazines and local press should invent something or use the marketing strategy to remind of them on digital channels,” Amzin said.

Every media outlet has its own way. There is no common recipe, the specialist emphasised. However, if digital channels could be ignored until now, he summarised, now they cannot be.

General Director of TLK Media Zhanna Isingarina said that a print version without online version is a way to nowhere.

“Periodicals must transform and use all modern ways of communication. Thus, all magazines published by us – for railway personnel, business analytical and in-flight magazines for passengers – have online versions. We use video products, make videos and programmes, run accounts in social media,” Isingarina said.

She noted that it is essential to develop both directions in a balanced manner: a quality print version and modern means of communication, including social media.

“Strict conditions of the pandemic are the challenge and a chance for our editorial offices to use new ways of data submission, to improve interactive feature and quality of analysis. It is our immunity from crisis turbulence,” Isingarina said.

This statement is ambiguous, though. Even foreign experts cannot predict what will happen to print media.

“In Kazakhstan, the situation is unique because we have a government order that will support some media outlets if nothing changes. However, we can say write now that those media outlets that have reliable audience will recover after COVID-19 (maybe not as print media, but as websites or social media accounts),” Olga Kaplina said.

Tirle photo: zonakz.net

This article was prepared as part of the IWPR’s Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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