U.S. media glitz bringing change to Mongolian steppe

Surging economic growth creates new market for Western magazines like Cosmopolitan, Playboy



Every time a new Mongolian-language edition of Cosmopolitan magazine is released, Tselmeg Erdenkhuu sits down with a friend to explore a monthly dose of Hollywood gossip, glitzy fashion and scintillating sex.

“They talk about sex a lot in this magazine, like what position is healthy or how to make men go crazy,” said the 28-year-old businesswoman and single mother.

The titillating revelations are just part of a U.S. media invasion of the once remote country that has ridden a globalization wave since shaking off communism two decades ago.

Mongolians are avid readers and the country’s literacy rate is over 97 percent, a legacy of the Soviet-era education system that saw village boarding schools set up for the children of nomads. Even in the vast nation’s distant steppe, herdsmen are to be found reading crumpled 2-week-old newspapers inside their felt-covered yurts.

With its economy roaring on the back of a mining boom that fueled 11 percent growth last year, publishers now see opportunities to target newly wealthy Mongolians with premium-priced, Western-linked products.

Launched in December 2010, Cosmopolitan has built a circulation of 5,000 copies. National Geographic and, most recently, Playboy have since followed in its wake.

With the rapidly shifting economy, fast urbanization, major infrastructure projects and environmental threats, the Mongolian-language National Geographic is also making an impact, despite its steep cover price of $14.40.

“Many people are concerned about nature and how it can be preserved while we simultaneously develop our economy,” said Khaliun Tseven-Ochir, the general manager of Irmuun, which publishes both National Geographic and Cosmopolitan. “Through National Geographic we can influence our country’s leaders to avoid the mistakes that have been made in the past. Our readers expect us to raise these issues.”

The Mongolian version of Playboy has also found its way to supermarket checkout stands, selling some 3,000 copies of the inaugural October edition. Racy images of Kim Kardashian and Mongolian model Sarnai Saranchimeg were the primary selling points.

And for those who buy it for the articles, there were interviews with Ulan Bator Mayor Bat-Uul Erdene and actor Jack Nicholson, plus a profile of the late Steve Jobs.

“Before we launched, most people thought that Playboy is just porn. But we are challenging that perception with intellectual articles that will keep Mongolian men informed,” said Editor-in-Chief Bolormaa Natsagdorj.

Mongolia’s 2.75 million people are spread across an area half the size of India, and its media landscape is as wild as its physical scenery. The new magazines are competing with dozens of local publications, many of them trashy tabloids filled with sex scandals, soft porn and yellow journalism, often with unsourced facts.

Some owners of major daily newspapers — which do not reveal circulation figures, but are said to sell 5,000 to 8,000 copies — have family or friendship links to top politicians.

But the arrival of U.S. media can only raise local reporting standards, said Khulan Jugder, a journalism instructor at the capital’s University of the Humanities. “Mongolian media stations are all private and politicians own many of them. So they can’t inform in an unbiased way or make objective programs,” she said.

Cosmopolitan and Playboy are split about 50-50 between locally produced and U.S. content, while National Geographic is mostly translated.

For now, they are more emblematic of a social transformation that is already seeing young, upwardly mobile Mongolian women challenging traditional norms of dating, career choice and lifestyle.

Mongolia’s minister for culture, sport and tourism, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, 46, seems to epitomize the changes. A Stanford graduate and one of nine female members of the country’s 76-seat Parliament, the Great Hural, she has moved up the ranks of government with positive energy, a can-do attitude and an array of fashionable trouser suits.

Cosmopolitan “certainly helps our young ladies and girls gain confidence in themselves,” she said. “Women need to share their secrets of success, beauty and strength. Sisterhood is a natural need of every woman.”