by Suren Musayelyan
When journalism student Aram Gabrelyanov spent hours reading foreign newspapers and magazines in a special KGB depository in 1984, little did he know that two decades later he would head Russia’s top-selling newspaper copying the style and design of a racy British tabloid.
Gabrelyanov (Gabrielian), 45, is now the owner and editor-in-chief of Zhizn (Life) newspaper, a daily newspaper selling 150,000 copies each day and a weekly edition with a circulation of some two million in 56 cities of Russia.
The Moscow State University graduate remembers that when he read Western newspapers as a student, he understood that the way journalism worked in the Soviet Union was not right. After graduating from the department of journalism in 1986, Gabrelyanov went to Ulyanovsk, a Russian town famous as Lenin’s birthplace, to set up a tabloid-style newspaper, Slovo Molodyozhi (Voice of Youth), managing to sell 220,000 copies in the area’s 600,000-strong population.
As boss of Zhizn, published since 2001, he says they don’t have a single kopeck of outside investment and the paper is popular and self-sufficient.
“It is not true to say that you cannot make money from newspapers in Russia. You can do it if you work well. It is just that, here, many journalists are used to living at the expense of sponsors, the authorities or of political circles,” says Gabrelyanov.
Zhizn is a close imitation of Britain’s best-selling tabloid, The Sun, which sells more than 3 million copies a day. Gabrelyanov says the British paper accepts this as a compliment. “I studied The Sun very closely. We sent our man to London to spend some time in their offices, learning about this publication. Now we have very good relations with The Sun. They help us and we supply them with a lot of material from here.”
In particular, Zhizn copies the style of whole pages and columns from The Sun. There are Page 3 girls, an “agony aunt” column, complete with photo stories, written by a former intelligence officer, called Dear Inna. There is also a page of pop news and gossip modeled on The Sun’s “Bizarre” page, dubbed “Bazariy” in Russian.
Of its popular style, Gabrelyanov says: “Many people only have time to skim through newspapers, which is why a tabloid requires big headlines, eye-catching photos and plain language.”
The paper is on sale in Moscow’s streets for 10 rubles (35 cents).
Gabrelyanov says: “Once, without introducing myself as the paper’s owner, I quarreled with one of the newsagents in the street about the retail price, which I thought was too high. He told me ‘If you don’t want it, don’t buy it, it sells fine for 10 rubles’.”
Zhizn is known in Russia as a paper that arouses the greatest controversy among readers and the media community.
“Everybody says they don’t read it. But they do. Because they always know what is written in Zhizn,” says Gabrelyanov.
Zhizn has a staff of 350 in Moscow and another 600 across Russia. The Moscow office is a multinational one—working alongside Russians are an Abkhazian, Chechens, Jews, Armenians, and a Georgian.
Gabrelyanov has two sons, Ashot, 21, and Artyom, 19, both studying journalism at Moscow State University. “They tell me that everyone in their department despises my paper. Their teachers say that I am a good person, but my paper is bad.
“The principles of journalism taught at the university level are changing, of course. A newspaper must be interesting. I think that putting together a tabloid is much more difficult than making a broadsheet. You need to find truth that might be scandalous and can be sold.
“I keep telling my staff that we need only the truth. As soon as you start lying to people, they turn away from you.”
Gabrelyanov does not accept the widely held view that Zhizn’s typical reader is someone only from the lower classes.
“The reader of our newspaper, as of any tabloid, is a man of action who wants to achieve something more,” he says. “He or she may be dissatisfied with something, but this is the driving force in their lives.”
The style of the paper’s reporting inevitably results in legal actions. The editor admits that there might be occasional inaccuracies, as with any other media, but he says that they lose cases not from an inability to prove something, but because they must protect their sources.
“We have a strong legal team. The most we have lost in a single case so far was a fine of 150,000 rubles (about $5,300). We’d rather pay the fine than disclose our sources. If we do, nobody will work with us in the future. Of course, working at speed sometimes causes inaccuracies; we have them like everyone else.”
Zhizn’s only market competitor is Komsomolskaya Pravda, a propaganda sheet in Soviet times which now has transformed itself into a brash tabloid. Soon after its launch, Zhizn managed to attract more than half of its competitor’s 250,000-strong readership in Moscow.
Gabrelyanov takes his success as a businessman and manager in his stride.
“What Armenian cannot be a good manager? I think my success is connected with my Armenian genes, since Armenians are known as people who always want to achieve something more,” the editor says. “Also, I have good assistants. My first deputy finance manager is also an Armenian of Karabakh extraction.”
Gabrelyanov’s roots are in the village of Datev in Zangezur, Armenia. He says his great grandfather Nikolay Ter-Gabrielian was the founder and head priest of Datev monastery.
When the priests began to be persecuted by the Soviets, the family fled to Dagestan in southern Russia and settled in Derbent, where some 500 Armenian families were living. There they changed their priestly surname of Ter-Gabrielian into the more secular and Russian–sounding Gabrelyanov.
Now Gabrelyanov has a Russian wife from Ulyanovsk, but he continues to speak Armenian in the Zangezur dialect of the language. He says he tries to bring up his two sons in an Armenian spirit, introducing them to the culture, the songs, etc.
Gabrelyanov was in Armenia only once, as a seven-year-old boy. “But I know everything about Armenia, as I go to the Armenian church here every Sunday. I read Armenian newspapers, magazines, listen to Armenian music.”
But he insists that his ethnicity is not reflected in the newspaper and says he only once took a clear stand on an Armenian issue, in order to avert a split by the Moscow Armenian church from Holy Etchmiadzin.
Zhizn’s Director General is also Armenian, 39-year-old Samvel Nalbandian, who has worked with Gabrelyanov for 15 years and knows him from their days in Ulyanovsk. He describes his friend as a businessman who can understand a situation and the people in it, and take responsibility for his decisions, even if they prove to be mistaken.
“There is no such thing as an idea that cannot be achieved for Aram. Apart from generating ideas, he has the brain and energy to put them into practice. Not every manager can do this,” says Nalbandian, remembering an episode from their time in Ulyanovsk when Gabrelyanov himself joined the railway workers to unload a train carrying rolls of papers when the situation required it.
“Despite his apparent roughness, he is a flexible manager,” he adds.
Speaking of business prospects in Russia, Gabrelyanov says that he sees tabloids in the future. “People want entertainment. They are tired of information overload. In England, the peak period for tabloids was about two years ago. Here in Russia we will reach it only in about five years’ time,” he says.
Zhizn is also available in Ukraine and Gabrelyanov says they have received a few proposals from foreign investors, in particular Turks, who want to buy the rights to publish the tabloid in Russian and English in Turkey, which is a favorite holiday destination for Russian tourists as well as home to a growing expatriate community.
“As for Armenia with its small population, I think it (Zhizn) is unlikely to be a commercial success there,” says Gabrelyanov.
“The Armenian mentality is not yet prepared for a scandalous tabloid like ours,” his deputy adds, saying that they have correspondents in the northern Caucasus who are available to cover any hot news or events related to Armenia.