“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.”