Dissertation Case Studies

Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Following are brief summaries of three newspapers studied close up for my Ph.D. dissertation, The Press in Transition: A Comparative Study of Nicaragua, South Africa, Jordan, and Russia. The three papers are Barricada in Nicaragua, The Citizen in South Africa, and Izvestia in Russia. For information about the fourth case-study, on the Jordanian press, see my recently-published monograph, Press, Regime and Society in Jordan since 1989. Other relevant links are cited in the summaries.

1. Nicaragua

Beyond the Barricades:
The Sandinista Press in Transition, 1979-1998

The story of Barricada, born out of the Nicaraguan Revolution as the "official organ" of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). From its ramshackle beginnings in 1979, when production staff worked by the illumination of truck headlights and the paper was distributed free, Barricada gradually began to cultivate an institutional identity separate from the leaders of the Sandinista Front. The story of the revolutionary era brings striking personalities to the fore. Prime among them: Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of ex-Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro and scion of one of Nicaragua's most influential families, who directed Barricada almost from its inception; and Sofía Montenegro, one of the most prominent feminist activists in Nicaragua, a committed but free-thinking Sandinista who spent much of the 1980s in trouble with the revolutionary regime. (Link to an Interview with Sofía.)

In the later years of the revolutionary government, Barricada began to move towards a "de-officialized," less sectarian journalism - a process that gathered irresistible force with the Sandinistas' election defeat in 1990. In the wake of that shocking loss, Barricada constructed a "New Editorial Profile" that ended the paper's status as FSLN official organ, and relaunched itself "in the national interest." From 1991 to 1994 Barricada practiced a dramatically different style of journalism, exhibiting the values of professionalism and a more dispassionate reporting style that had driven the autonomy project from the start.

But powerful "orthodox" factions within the Sandinista Front never reconciled themselves to Barricada's de-officialized status and their lack of direct influence over the content of the Front's newspaper. They were outraged when Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Sofía Montenegro, among others at the paper, put their signatures to a document calling for a sweeping "renovation" within the FSLN. Over time, these more orthodox factions gained control over the Front's apparatus and resources - including Barricada, which had never ceased to be owned by the FSLN. After consolidating their power at the July 1994 party congress, the orthodox current, led by former president Daniel Ortega, staged a highly-public defenestración ("throwing out the window") of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of Barricada since 1979.

Over the ensuing two weeks, extraordinary scenes took place, as the new party-designated directorship warred openly with Barricada's remaining editorial staff, nearly all of whom were vocally opposed to the ending of the paper's independence from party-political control. Interim editor Daniel Alegría described a "constant struggle" over the daily content of the newspaper. Over these weeks, some three-quarters of all editorial staff were fired or resigned from the paper.

The new directors of Barricada, led by former Minister of the Interior and Sandinista chief censor Tomás Borge, set about refashioning the newspaper in their more orthodox image. Barricada returned to being a not-very-subtle mobilizing tool for the FSLN. The character of its journalism underwent immediate and far-reaching changes: the paper sang the praises of Daniel Ortega and other Front leaders, and mobilized itself fervently behind the Front's 1996 national election campaign.

With the "re-officializing" of its role and content, Barricada came full circle as a newspaper - but with a crashing lack of success in strictly market terms. Circulation slipped from about 12,000 in 1994 to about half that in 1996, and the Front's failure to retake power in 1996 meant the future of Barricada, along with other Sandinista institutions, became even shakier. Finally the paper was undone from within: its editorial and blue-collar workers struck for overdue back-wages, and Tomás Borge responded by closing the paper, a move immediately pronounced illegal under the Nicaraguan Labour Code. At the time of writing, the legal wrangling continued, and there were plans afoot to found a Nueva Barricada that would attempt to recapture some of the flavour of the Chamorro-era autonomy project.

2. South Africa

From Rightist to "Brightest"?
South Africa's Citizen

Based on fieldwork conducted in Johannesburg in 1995 and an article forthcoming in the Journal of Southern African Studies. When The Citizen first hit Johannesburg streets in 1977, there were immediate murmurings that the paper was not what it claimed to be - the privately-funded project of South African millionaire Louis Luyt. The Citizen's right-wing, pro-government line - positioned in the morning market against the apartheid regime's arch-enemy, The Rand Daily Mail - seemed too fortuitous.

Suspicion thus hounded The Citizen throughout the first few months of its life, but it wasn't until South Africa's greatest-ever political scandal - the so-called "Info Scandal" or "Muldergate" - broke in October 1978 that the corrupt intrigues at the heart of The Citizen were revealed.

The Info Scandal investigations led to the resignation of John Vorster from the state presidency, and a reconfiguration of Afrikaner political power at the expense of the conservative Transvaal wing. They also revealed that The Citizen was part of a vast, worldwide propaganda campaign designed and fully funded by the apartheid state, aimed at counteracting the outside world's "total onslaught" against White rule. The Citizen was meant to lure readers away from the traditionally liberal and oppositionist English press - most famously The Rand Daily Mail, which had helped to break the story of The Citizen's state funding.

In the wake of the scandal it seemed obvious to everyone that The Citizen would collapse. Instead, it soldiered on under the ownership of Perskor, the junior of the two Afrikaner publishing giants. At the Citizen's helm was M.A. "Johnny" Johnson, a cantankerous personality who is doubtless one of the most intriguing and idiosyncratic figures on the South African press scene. A classic "old-school" journalist, Johnson began to garner The Citizen a grudging respect, offsetting its mongrel status among its peers. The Citizen was desperately underfunded; its operations were backwards; much of its content was reduced to a parade of wire-service copy. But that copy was superbly well selected by Johnson, who ran news operations with an iron hand. The sheer density of news allowed The Citizen to appeal to readers who wanted news without frills.

Most prominent among these readers, amazingly, were Blacks! The newspaper created by the apartheid state ended up being read largely (about 60 percent) by the group apartheid was instituted to suppress. Blacks liked The Citizen for its tabloid format - easy to read on long minibus commutes. They liked its nonpareil racing-sheet, "The Punter's Friend," which The Citizen picked up from The Rand Daily Mail after the Mail's collapse in 1985. And the death of the Mail gave The Citizen a lock on the Johannesburg morning market for the latter half of the 1980s.

The Citizen thus not only survived, but in some respects thrived, becoming the third-largest newspaper in the country - despite its lackadaisical approach to independent reporting, marketing, strategic management, and community outreach. Under Johnny Johnson, the paper became gradually more centrist, even opposing the Nationalist government on certain issues. Its evolution was such that by the time of South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, The Citizen backed no political party, urging its readers only to "vote ... and help determine the country's future."

The Citizen's relatively stable market niche, and Johnny Johnson's near-dictatorial hold over operations right through to 1997, meant that the paper changed surprisingly little as sweeping transformations affected the wider society. The Citizen's time-honoured retrograde attitude towards Black advancement was one index of the trend (at the time of fieldwork in 1995, the paper had not a single Black staffmember above the level of darkroom assistant).

The surprise announcement in 1996 that Perskor, The Citizen's owners, were merging with Kagiso Trust, one of the most prominent of the new Black-dominated investment syndicates, was a necessary repositioning of Perskor and its flagship newspaper in the face of South Africa's new political reality. Still, Kagiso Trust executives took pains to downplay rapid change at The Citizen. Incremental transformation seemed a likelier prospect.

The Citizen stood in 1997 as perhaps the greatest anomaly in all of South African journalism. It had successfully overcome the massive stigma of its apartheid roots. In a supreme irony, its predominantly Black readership positioned it well to expand into the market with the greatest untapped potential in the new South Africa. Likewise, given the personalist rule of Johnny Johnson at the newspaper, the announcement of the chief editor's retirement in March 1998 could only be a watershed.

3. Russia

A Great Leap Backward?
Russian Journalism after Communism

[Link to an Interview with Dima Babich, one of the new generation of Russian journalists.]

Based on fieldwork in Moscow in May-June 1997. News accounts of the former Soviet Union paint an almost unremittingly bleak picture of economic collapse and political chaos. Newspapers, like other formerly privileged institutions, have had to negotiate this hostile terrain since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

The decline and eventually the disappearance of Communist Party control spawned a "Golden Age" of Russian journalism, lasting from approximately 1989 to 1992. Journalists were at the vanguard of the changes sweeping the new Russia. Every taboo had been trampled; almost anything published was snapped up by Russian readers basking in the new freedom to read, speak, and write.

But with the economic reforms introduced by Boris Yeltsin's deputy, Yegor Gaidar, in January 1992, it was clear that the Party was over. State subsidies for basic materials were removed and prices allowed to reach market levels. Hyperinflation destroyed savings and reduced consumer purchases to bare essentials, which often no longer included newspapers. State-controlled printers began to charge rates comparable to those in Western Europe.

The economic crisis obliterated many of the publications that had flowered in the glasnost era. Those that remained confronted a narrow range of choices. They were more or less obliged to maintain a sympathetic relationship with at least one of the powerful factions in the Russian government, and with local and regional authorities. Access to vital materials, printing plants, and informational sources were easily manipulated by the powerful to ensure press compliance and quiescence. Impoverished journalists had little choice but to write zhentsii, thinly-disguised advertisements or political puff-pieces, for wealthy patrons or enterprises that could supplement their paltry reporters' salaries.

The Russian press of 1997 is immeasurably more pluralistic than the micro-manipulated media of the Soviet era, but it is a press whose dream of independence has been largely stymied by the ascendant nouveau régime. This program will explore the pressures, constraints, and opportunities the Russian press encountered through a case-study of Izvestia. The former official organ of the Russian parliament secured its independence from the Communist-dominated parliament in a dramatic 1992-93 showdown, which included clashes between the armed forces of the Yeltsin regime and those of the parliament under the mercurial Raslan Khasbulatov. The conflict presaged the still bloodier events of October 1993, when Yeltsin sent in tanks to bombard the parliament into submission; so, too, did the result. The Yeltsin regime triumphed in both cases; Izvestia was granted its "independence" and control over its material plant. Its debt to powerful factions of the regime, though, was heavy. In the 1996 elections, Izvestia like most Russian papers unashamedly trumpeted Yeltsin's candidacy and derided his Communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov. Many critics saw Izvestia as a mouthpiece for the governmental faction led by Anatoly Chubais, whose reformist line received consistent backing.

Izvestia also stands as an excellent symbol of the new corporate pressures brought to bear on the Russian press. In early 1997, the paper reprinted an article from Le Monde accusing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of amassing a vast fortune through his chairmanship of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. Outraged at this accusation against a fellow oil baron, executives at the LUKOil corporation, which had been amassing considerable shares in Izvestia, threatened the paper and its editor, Oleg Golembiovskii, with reprisals. LUKOil then set about trying to secure a majority share in the Izvestia enterprise. To head off LUKOil's designs, Golembiovskii and other staff arranged for another powerful corporate player, Oneximbank, to purchase a minority of shares which, together with stakes still held by Izvestia staff, would constitute a controlling interest and guarantee the editorial independence of the paper.

Events hung in the balance at the time of fieldwork in Moscow in May and June 1997. But barely three weeks after a round of interviews - probably the last - was completed at the quasi-independent Izvestia, Oneximbank did what some had suspected it might do. It struck a deal with LUKOil behind Izvestia's back. At the annual general meeting of the paper, a new Board of Directors was elected which reduced Izvestia staff to a minority. Oleg Golembiovskii and several other senior figures were fired. Interviews conducted in the wake of the dismissals revealed a staff gloomy at the prospects of toeing the political line of LUKOil, Oneximbank, and their powerful supporters in the government. Many commentators linked corporate takeovers of the media, of which Izvestia was only one example, to the desire of Russia's new élite to prepare for the 2000 presidential race, ensuring well-disciplined media support for a "moderate," Yeltsin-style candidacy to head off the resurgent Communist threat. There would be no return to the massive censorship bureaucracy of the Soviet days. But it was clear that the press, whose revelations and campaigns were so vital to glasnost and the undermining of the Soviet colossus, was an increasingly cowed and irrelevant force in the new Russia.

Books about media and politics from Amazon.com

NOTE: If the box instead shows generic Amazon information,
please click the "Refresh" button on your browser.

Created by Adam Jones, 1998.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.