Serious journalism is far from self-evident – Interview with prof. Elena Vartanova

“The freedom of press as an ideological construct is an ideal which accountable media should pursue.”

by Katja Lehtisaari & Janne Suutarinen

Elena Vartanova is Full Professor, Dean and Chair in Media Theory and Economics at the Faculty of Journalism, in Lomosonov Moscow State University. Her extensive research focuses on Russian media system, media economics, media theory and journalism in Russia.

Russian Media Lab’s researcher, Doctor of Social Sciences Katja Lehtisaari interviewed professor Vartanova in October 2017. This piece has not been published before, and it has been afterwards completed with more recent viewpoints and provides comparisons to the situation with Russian media one year ago.

How would you describe the greatest challenges and problems at the moment in the Russian media industry?

Vartanova thinks the problems of the Russian media industry, as a particular branch of economy, are similar to what exist also outside of Russia. The cash flows and new investments are getting fewer, and the changing market is still very unstable.

“The distribution of advertising is changing and the internet as a platform is challenging the traditional distribution of advertising. The newspapers’ income for advertising has dramatically decreased in recent years. This is relevant not only for the national press, but also for the regional press.”

The transform in media markets has struck also for example magazines, as well as produced shifts in the overall habbits of media consumers. The general monthly audience of Yandex, Russia’s most popular internet search engine, topped the numbers of ‘Pervyi kanal’ (Channel 1), the leader of the country’s top three main television channels in 2012.To Vartanova, this is an indicator of the growing importance of advertising.

The second challenge of Russian media industry would be legislative one, Vartanova says.

“There still are many issues of non-regulation, yet some issues and some areas are starting to become more regulated than what they have been in last years.”

The law of foreign ownership that came into force in 2016 brought new structure to the industry and made the issue of cash flows more substantial, since big media companies lost a part of their funding.

“This is the new framework of Russian media industry – though not necessarily a problem, at least right now. The flow of money from the global markets is not as stable as it used to be in the 90’s or 00’s.”

Regarding regulations, Russia’s government adopted a law to restrict the share of advertising with paid cable channels in 2015, Vartanova mentions.

“The law is now relaxed, but still I think this puts more pressure to the media owners”, Vartanova points out.

The third challenge comes from the diminishing role of local media, which is caused by poor advertising in the regional markets. The scarce times have hit also the newspapers and the TV industry. Limited income makes it even harder to deal with the regional Russian elites, which brings difficulties of sustaining the journalistic quality of contents.

Fourthly, Vartanova brings up the geopolitical context and sanctions. However, there are positive consequences also.

“The international advertisers are not that much interested in the local markets, at least regarding the product groups that are under sanctions. This gives a chance for domestic advertisers, but at the same time limits the money coming from the global markets, which is the disadvantage of the situation”, Vartanova ponders.

The fifth, not necessarily still an urgent issue, is the rising role of corporate media. The corporate magazines coming from business-to-business sphere are starting to compete with the general interests magazines, Vartanova says.

“Serious, investigative, analytical, explanatory and data-based journalism requires a lot of money and very qualified journalists – as well as lots of their time.”

How are these economic or legal challenges in Russia’s media industry connected to the freedom of expression and the journalists’ working possibilities?

“The market economy as such does not guarantee the idealistic functioning of free press”, Vartanova starts.

“The freedom of press as an ideological construct is an ideal which accountable media should pursue. When seen from the media policy angle, the freedom of press in the market conditions is something that needs to be protected by special positive and negative regulation, like the constricting the ownership from sliding in the hands big and powerful corporations, and supporting the content which is important for the society.”

Vartanova believes that a protective treatment for societally important media content is important, since the market is pressing down the serious quality programs to make way for providing entertainment, which might not be so educational or enlightening. The audience needs to be provided with programs that have the feature of sparking social discussions and debate.

“Serious, investigative, analytical, explanatory and data-based journalism requires a lot of money and very qualified journalists – as well as lots of their time. The shrinking journalism market and at the same time growing entertainment media market pose some serious problems with this”, Vartanova states.

Many regional newspapers in Russia are financed directly from the local government or local state agency. In lots of cases, that is the source for the livelihood of local journalism. Vartanova tells that she has heard promising visions of for example crowdfunding journalism or methods of direct payment from audiences. Yet, the business is professionalized, and crowdfunding seems to be more of an expression of support, rather than a real basis of financing journalism.

“I believe that societies’ media policies supported by academians could find the solution for the issue at hand. The most urgent thing is to elaborate the new economic models for traditional media. The new digital media environment is much more complicated and less clear in terms of economics.”

Do you see any positive trends going on in the Russian media sphere?

“I think that the move of conventional media to the internet gives one hope. The new generation of journalists, though not too well educated, has a very creative approach from multimedia journalism for explanatory journalism. They call it ‘razyasnitelnaya zhurnalistika’ (from Russian razyasnyat – to explain).

Vartanova thinks that the younger generations of journalists want to be professional also in the digital platform. At the same time, young audiences want to satisfy their own demands in media content, which complicates the situation, since media has their own vision of the professional and unprofessional values. Here media has educative duties, as Vartanova suggests.

“In order to make the young generations truly active citizens and professionals, media has to take into account trends in media consumption, which are technologically defined. Consumption should be made possible anywhere, anytime and with any device. This also shows up a new direction for the building of new business models.”

The peoples’ preferences need to be found out, if there is an aspiration to develop demand for quality journalism also.

“It is very difficult to find the balance between commercially driven and socially responsible media. Media consumption studies might show the ways for future content production and distribution schemes”, Vartanova adds.

“The most urgent thing is to elaborate the new economic models for traditional media. The new digital media environment is much more complicated and less clear in terms of economics.”

Are there signs of traditional media companies being able to reform in front of changing demands in media consumption?

Vartanova thinks that the traditional companies are indeed changing their strategies and trying to catch up with the audiences through new devices. It has become apparent that the social networks are the new entrances to media, and each media company is looking for their own strategy to digitalize.

Yet, there are many big media brands whose contents are largely produced in traditional forms. The more creative ideas might be currently drowned out.

“There are brands like ‘Pervyi Kanal’, ‘Kommersant’, and ‘Komsomolskaja pravda’ to name a few. They are working according the traditional ways of content production and traditional forms of representations, as well as organized through traditional job markets and in traditional organisational sizes”, Vartanova lists.

How do you see the future of newspaper journalism in Russia?

“For me it is even more unclear than the future of the other media, because we all know that the print media is dying. On the other hand, it is getting clear that people want also material media, which are bound to traditional physical form. It can be reused, reread, and reviewed. Paper as a ‘real’ product, that provides sensory feelings, is still of demand.”

Russian author Andrei Miroshnichenko predicted that the last newspaper in Russia will be published quite soon – before the year 2030 (See: Miroshnichenko, A. (2011). Kogda umrut gazet [When the newspapers die] Moscow: Knizhnyj mir).

“Still the newspaper exists. We see the loosing of economic foundations, but at the same time the increase in interest towards printed media is visible. Even when we have more and more electronic information, printed newspaper may be an additional dimension to the media sphere.”

Lassila’s brief report on the 50th ASEEES Convention in Boston

by Jussi Lassila

“All in all, Boston was definitely worth visiting this year.”

The annual ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies) Convention was held this year in Boston on 6–9 December. This was the 50th convention that has been organised while ASEEES celebrated its 70th anniversary. More than 650 panels, roundtables and group meetings on all disciplines related to the field within four days resulted as approximately 45 parallel sessions throughout the convention. Yet, all these events with hundreds of participants found their place almost without notice in the huge Marriot Copley conference hotel in the center of Boston. For an individual participant it was, of course, rather difficult to choose an interesting one from the number of compelling panel descriptions even with a relatively strict thematic focus. I picked up those that discussed Russiaʼs political development, the regimeʼs survival strategies, civil society prospects, political communication and propaganda as well as foreign policy.

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Media and Religion: fighting for power or seeking common good? – Interview with Victor Khroul

by Janne Suutarinen

“Unfortunately, ‘zone of accordance’ or ‘zone of tolerance’ in the terms of religion dialogue in Russia seems to be moving away more and more from the present time.”

Associate professor Victor Khroul (Moscow State University, Journalism Faculty) has extensively studied media and religion in Russia. He is the author of the book Religion and Media in Russia: Functional and Ethical Perspectives (2012) and currently he is researching religious factor in mass communication with focus on religious content in the texts in the net.

Why did this topic spark your interest?

Religion belongs to maybe the deepest level of personal understanding of the world and personal convictions. For many, it is the core of identity. Therefore, I found interesting to study the role of media in the formation of religious identity in religious practice.

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Russian Media Lab researchers at two local media events in St. Petersburg

by Olga Dovbysh

Russian Media Lab researcher Olga Dovbysh together with RML’s partner Kamilla Nigmatullina moderated a roundtable “Local media as strategic resource of authorities” at St. Petersburg State University on 23 November.

Dovbysh shared her observations on how authorities in Russia’s towns use local groups on social network sites to communicate with citizens, get information on local events and control local media. Vladimir Kozlov, professor from South Federal University (Rostov-on-Don), mentioned that today both local media and authorities are forced to go digital and communicate in digital space.

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Russian Media Lab’s program at the ASEEES Convention, December 6–9

Russian Media Lab will host a panel at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies) convention in Boston. The panel will take place on Friday 6th 12.30–2.15 pm, in room Wellesley, 3. See the convention’s full program here.

RML’s panel is connected to the project’s upcoming edited volume ‘Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere’ (Katja Lehtisaari & Mariëlle Wijermars, eds.). See the program below.

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The ‘Occupation of Runet’ – Kremlin’s campaign to tighten the screw online

by Janne Suutarinen

Professor Markku Lonkila (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) along with Larisa Shpakovskaya (HSE, Russia) and Philip Torchinsky (independent researcher) have studied the Russian government’s measures of bringing Runet under tighter control after the social media -fueled protests in the beginning of 2010’s. The adoption of new regulations was followed by increasing punishments toward certain Runet users, and now the oppositional voices online are quite muffled.

Lonkila, Shpakovskaya and Torchinsky.

What is the evolution of Runet and its present state of affairs seen from the viewpoint of state control?

The protest wave in Russia 2011–2013 completely changed the Kremlin’s attitude towards social media. Before the protests the Kremlin had counted on the control of nationwide TV channels, and Russian-language section of the internet had been practically free from regulation.

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New memorandum tackles internet piracy in Russia – Scholar’s Comments from Mariëlle Wijermars

by Janne Suutarinen

In the beginning of November, BBC News announced that three major Russian internet companies, Yandex, and Rambler, have teamed up with leading media production companies  to sign a memorandum combating piracy. The guarantor of the agreement’s execution will be Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media.

The memorandum stipulates that the media  will create a register of websites hosting pirated materials. The internet service companies oblige themselves to consult the register every five minutes and remove listed websites from their search engine results within six hours.

According to BBC News, the copyright holders that have signed the memorandum are Gazprom-Media, National Media Group, Channel One, All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), STS-Media, Association of Film and Television Producers, Internet Video Association (online cinema association), video platform Ruform, as well as Yandex-owned Other copyright holders are welcomed to join the agreement.

Russian Media Lab’s Mariëlle Wijermars (PhD), who conducts research on media and internet governance in Russia, thinks the memorandum is an interesting case because it creates a new mechanism of internet content control that operates outside of existing legal structures.

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Fine lines in Kremlin’s fog – German journalist Thielko Grieß on his experiences of working in Russia

By Olga Dovbysh & Janne Suutarinen

“You have lots of freedom of speech in the internet and in social media, but there exists a fine line somewhere. Nobody knows exactly where it is, or if one has crossed it or not.”

Since February 2017, Thielko Grieß has worked as a correspondent and presenter of Deutschlandradio in Moscow.

Thielko Grieß

Grieß studied Cultural Studies, Political Science and Communication and Media Studies in Leipzig, Jena and Ljubljana and then gained his first journalistic experience as a news editor and reporter at MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk). In 2009 he was part of the founding team of the newsroom of DRadio Wissen. After the traineeship Grieß worked as a presenter of the program “Morning information” (Informationen am Morgen) on Deutschlandfunk and was one of the station’s external reporters.

Having journalistic experience in two different media systems, in the interview Grieß reflects on peculiarities of journalistic work in Russia.

What are your reflections of working as a journalist in Moscow in comparison to your journalistic experience in other countries?

I have worked as a journalist in various countries but for a longer period of time only in two: Russia and Germany. Because of that, I would like to compare the aforementioned.

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There are challenges in Russian media studies – RML at the Aleksanteri Conference 2018

By Janne Suutarinen

The 18th Aleksanteri Conference “Liberation – Freedom – Democracy? 1918–1968–2018” again brought together hundreds of scholars and enthusiasts of Russian and Eastern-European studies. In the conference, Russian Media Lab hosted one roundtable, one plenary session and six panels. The project’s manager and Aleksanteri Institute’s director, professor Markku Kangaspuro was pleased with Russian Media Lab’s part in the program.

Was the Russian Media Lab stream at the conference successful?

“Definitely successful: the project got more visibility and all of our panels attracted good amount of researchers.”

In your perspective, what were the stream’s main contributions to the conference?

“The project really raised up our research topics for the whole conference – not only in the panels but also in the plenary session. And we can’t forget Mariëlle’s contribution as the coordinator of the whole conference.”

Did there come up new ideas for the project?

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Call for papers “Media control as source of political power in Central and Eastern Europe”


Workshop at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki organized by the Russian Media Lab in collaboration with the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen

Helsinki, 02 – 03 September 2019

We invite proposals for papers to be discussed at an intensive two-day workshop on “Media control as source of political power in Central and Eastern Europe” at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki on 02 – 03 September 2019. The workshop will involve around 15 scholars, and early-career researchers are especially encouraged to apply. Travel expenses and accommodation costs of invited participants will be covered by the organisers.

The workshop aims to bring together approaches from political science, media studies and other relevant academic disciplines to get a more comprehensive picture of the role of media control in consolidating and expanding political power in authoritarian regimes and in “backsliding” democracies. The focus of the workshop will equally be on the interplay of media and political actors and on the effect of this relationship on regime dynamics.

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