Ex-K.G.B. Agent Buys Famed London Tabloid

January 21st, 2009

That’s the title of a perversely amusing story in today’s New York Times. Apparently a certain Mr. Aleksandr Y. Lebedev, whose former career including spying on Britain for the KGB, has seen his personal fortune take a surprising turn for the better. He know owns the National Reserve Bank, 30 percent of the Aeroflot airline and a newspaper (Novaya Gazeta) in Moscow. (A very amusing profile of Lebedev appeared also in the Times last September.)

At any rate, early today the owners of The Evening Standard announced that Mr. Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, had purchased the paper for a price described as “a nominal sum” (analysts estimate it to be one pound, or about $1.40 USD). The paper has a circulation of more than 280,000 copies a day but unfortunately also has losses estimated by analysts at up to $22 million a year.

But what amused me most in the article was a quote from Roy Greenslade, who writes a column on the media in The Evening Standard and blogs about it on the Web site of The Guardian.

“What you always have to ask yourself is, ‘Why is this person buying the paper?’ ” Mr. Greenslade said in a telephone interview.

“There are five reasons for owning newspapers, and all begin with a P: profit, propaganda, political influence, prestige and public service. There’s no profit in The Standard, so you’ve got to look at the other things.”

A memorable listing of reasons for owning a newspaper. With profits rapidly evaporating in the U.S. and elsewhere, and prestige turning into profound embarrassment, what will keep newspaper owners motivated in the future?