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LONDON — It isn't every day that a Russian billionaire buys your hometown paper, but then my hometown is London and the Russian in question is Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB spy. Adding a frisson to the story is the paper in question, the Standard has been owned for some decades by arch-conservative cold warrior Lord Rothermere and you can understand why the British capital's media set is buzzing.
The British newspaper business is very different than America's. The country's best known papers — the Guardian, The Times, The Sun, etc. — are produced and published in London but consider themselves national papers. They don't soil themselves with stories on local government scandals and daily monitoring of the mayor's problems or the capital's disastrous public transport system. The Standard does, and despite declining circulation it is as much a part of Londoners lives as overcrowded Tube trains and malfunctioning double-decker busses.
Lebedev obtained his 75 percent stake in the paper for a nominal sum of one pound ... about fifty cents more than a single copy costs on the news stand. That's not quite the bargain it seems.
He also assumes the losses the paper makes: around $14 million a year. Thirty years ago, when Rothermere purchased the century-and-a-half-old paper, it sold 630,000 copies a day. That's down to 160,000 paid today.
Lebedev knows what he is getting into. "As a young spy in the Russian Embassy I used to read the Standard every day," he recently told The Guardian newspaper.
There may be more to this story than a desire to own a great metropolitan newspaper. Lebedev, despite his KGB pedigree, has occasionally run afoul of Vladimir Putin, particularly as the publisher of Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper for which reporter Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was murdered. A lawyer investigating that killing was gunned down last weekend. Owning the Standard could provide a little protection should Putin want to move against him, as he has against other oligarchs.
Lebedev's 28-year-old son, Evgeny, is expected to be named the paper's publisher. He is considered one of London's most eligible bachelors, a fixture on the fashion party scene. He is currently dating Joely Richardson, star of cult TV hit Nip/Tuck.