Foreign Subscribers Rely on a Digest of U.S. News
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 - They work in a cluttered warren of cubicles in the back office of a research organization here, two former Russian journalists and a Chinese colleague. Three times a week, they e-mail a snappy digest of American news called Washington ProFile to more than 20,000 Russian-language subscribers in more than 100 countries ?and to a like number once a week in Chinese.
Their annual budget? About $350,000. Subscription price? Free. Estimated readership? Tens of millions, from individual editors and academics, to readers of Izvestia and scores of smaller newspapers throughout the former Soviet Union, China and Taiwan, all drawn to Washington ProFile's no-nonsense mix of interviews, news analysis articles and lifestyle features in places where reliable Western news in the local language is scarce at best.
"It's not just news," said Bruce Blair, a veteran arms-control expert and the president of the Center for Defense Information, a national security research organization that has sponsored the service since the fall of 2001. "It's information and explanation and analysis." With the United States spending millions of dollars on propaganda campaigns around the world making the case for democracy and American values, Washington ProFile is accomplishing much the same goal on a shoestring, and without a hard sell or a partisan agenda.
The Russian Web search engine Aport lists Washington ProFile as the second-most cited American-based news agency in the Russian mass media, after CNN. The State Department's own Russian-language home page lists a link to Washington ProFile just below one for the BBC. The Chinese version, which is translated as Washington Observer Weekly, has quickly broken into major, government-controlled publications, which are generally forbidden to use news from abroad.
Mr. Blair, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" in 1999, hopes to piece together enough foundation or corporate sponsors to expand the service into Farsi, Arabic and Spanish, and to extend its reach worldwide. "I really think we could reach a billion people a week on maybe a $1 million-a-year budget," he said.
The service is the brainchild of Nikolai Zlobin, 45, a former Moscow State University professor and a journalist who has lived in the United States for more than a decade. He spends about 80 hours a week preparing articles on everything from Trent Lott's resignation as Senate majority leader to the popularity of alternative fuel vehicles, President Bush's doctrine of pre-emption and New Year's customs.
"I started it out of frustration that even my friends, and people who knew a lot about America, didn't understand," he said. "Russians think they know a lot about America," he added, "but as a matter of fact, they don't.
"They know a lot of facts, but it's much more difficult for them to put it in a larger context," Mr. Zlobin said.
Only a handful of full-time Russian and Chinese journalists are based in North America, filing reports to newspapers and broadcast outlets that are variously censored, short of cash and newsprint and unable to subscribe to mainstream news services like Reuters.
As a result, Mr. Zlobin said he often found himself struggling to explain the ways of Washington to Russian editors who asked their correspondents to get interviews with President Bush or his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and file the results right away.
"There are many compromises within the administration and Congress, and you have to figure that out and not just talk with Condi Rice, because she won't tell you nothing anyway," he said.
The Russian service is online at www.washprofile.org, but in many places, good Internet connections are scarce, and articles are just as often printed verbatim, Mr. Zlobin said.
Yali Chen, who earned a master's degree from Princeton University last year and now runs the Chinese version of Washington ProFile, has filed articles on the Washington-area sniper case and its implications for gun control, an interview with Michael O'Hanlon, a leading defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution and an analysis of lobbying, or "ear-buying," on Capitol Hill.
"It shouldn't be propaganda," Ms. Chen said, echoing a point that all of the organization's staff members cite as a strength. "I listened to the Voice of America for eight years when I was working in China, and I think they have a disadvantage of being preachy."
Michael McFaul, an associate professor at Stanford University who serves on the organization's board, called Washington ProFile, "the perfect kind of low-tech democracy assistance," and added, "What's appalling is that there are not 25 of these."
Andrei Kortunov, who heads the Moscow Public Science Foundation and is a board member of Sreda, a magazine on media issues, said in a telephone interview from Moscow that he read Washington ProFile online.
"Not just for journalists, but for scholars who want to deal with international relations, such sources of information are valuable," he said. "It's up-to-date, pretty high-quality stuff. I suspect it is often used as background material, especially in media in the capitals dealing with international relations," Mr. Kortunov said. The Carnegie Corporation gave Washington ProFile $50,000 a year for two years in seed money, but that is running out, and Mr. Blair is looking for a business plan that can keep the project afloat, perhaps through some in-kind advertising for corporate sponsors.
Mr. Zlobin summed up his mission: "We're trying not to be too boring. America is not a boring country. So you try to use humor, to bring the humor element and show that this is not just this country attacking North Korea and Iraq but that normal people live here, and they have their own problems and lives."
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TODD S. PURDUM, The New York Times , February 2, 2003