#38 - JRL 2009-227 - JRL Home
From: Nicolai Petro <nnpetro@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 2009
Subject: Notes from the Forum of European and Asian Media

I had the privilege recently of attending the fourth annual Forum of European and Asian Media, which was held in Moscow. As the only American there (I spoke [about] security problems in the region), I thought JRL readers might value some observations about the forum.

The event gathered about 150 media heads from throughout the former Soviet Union, as well as a considerable number of Moscow guests. The first day was devoted to an overview of the themes of the conference, while the second dealt more with aspects of technical cooperation among media producers. An unusual aspect of this forum is that it gathers participants from every former Soviet republic (although I did not see participants listed from Turkmenistan, I was told that a few were in attendance).

This group clearly does not represent the entire media spectrum. Specifically, they do not represent media targeted exclusively at non-Russian speakers, which, however, still represents less than half the population in the FSU. I suspect that many in the West would be surprised to learn of the significant demand that still exists for Russian language media outside the Russian Federation. Even though it tends to report mainly on national events, the very fact that audiences outside Russia are still seeking out Russian news sources is of course a conscious cultural choice. Such media therefore often sees its mission as informing their audience about events in Russia proper, and also promoting broad cultural unity.

A good example is the Inter channel which produced a popular video on Metropolitan Kirill's visit to Kiev for the 1020th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus (before he became Patriarch). Through rock concerts and media events they sponsored throughout Ukraine, it launched campaign that made this day an official national holiday. But whereas the official name of the holiday is "Day commemorating the Baptism of Kievan Rus," the producer told us, their slogans referred to it simply as "Baptism of Rus Day," the intent being to draw attention to the common religious heritage of all Eastern Slavs.

According to several speakers, the term FSU or post-Soviet space is quite unpopular among their audience, but there is no consensus on what term might replace it. Ashot Dhazoyan of Eurasia Media suggested the term [characters did not come through e-mail] loosely translated as "Area of Goodneighborliness." That will strike many Western readers as hopelessly romantic, but it captures the spirit of the sessions.

One topic that came up repeatedly was how to keep the trust and respect of your audience, since these are key to both commercial success and reader/viewer loyalty. Although no consensus was reached on precisely how these could be achieved, many found the story of how the Armenian media dealt with the issue of the Russo-Georgian war to be illuminating. According to a noted Caucasus expert from Armenia, the Armenian government felt it had no vital stake in this issue, so from the outset the media there took pains to present both sides of the issue. The public took this all in, but in the end was totally confused about what had really happened. Others, however, responded that such confusion is not necessarily a bad thing, since it reflects a normal perspective on events that have little impact on the lives of average people in Armenia. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the attitude taken by many European and American governments, which had a direct impact on the way in which these events were portrayed in those media.

Two speakers specifically addressed the issue of freedom of the press, and both concluded that no single press outlet can ever truly be said to be free. As Alex Gurnov, a commentator on Russia Today put it "absolute freedom is available only to those writers who do not wish to be published; for everyone else, it exists when you agree with the editorial stance of your publisher." Sergei Markov, Duma deputy and professor put it slightly differently, saying that "there is no freedom of the press anywhere, but societies can be free" if there are alternative media voices in them. No one saw any need to argue with these points.

The overarching theme brought up by time and again by both speakers and audience participants was the common heritage that exists across the FSU, along with a warning about the need to do more to preserve it. One approach mentioned by several articipants was to transform knowledge of Russian into a commercial advantage. In Latvia, according to one participant, firms now to offer a greater hiring bonus for knowledge of Russian than for knowledge of English.

The highlight of the first day was President Medvedev's address, which was well covered in the national news, and whose main theme was the need to overcome stereotypes in reporting.

The second day was devoted to technical issues and exchange of expertise, and as one of the few non-journalists there, the following remarks stood out for me:

"Its all about the content" says Alexei Pankin, who edits a journal on media investment strategy. "Kontent," the word now used in Russian, stress on the second syllable, will have to be provided in multiple formats with paper becoming increasingly the less preferred medium.

"We are in a global media environment in which complete government control is impossible," says Kirill Tanaev and, as if to prove his point, he cited yesterday's WSJ article by Rupert Murdoch on the future of the media. The role of editors is changing, but most editors are stuck in text mode and refuse to be retaught.

Fewer people are reading newspapers, but at the same time people are reading more than ever. The question for those in the media business is how to make money on this. Journalists believe this is a management
issue, while management looks to the diversification of products, and increasing "soft" news at the expense of "serious" news. This is an inevitable trend.

As reporting staffs shrink, the roles of reporter, photographer, editor, and producer will increasingly be filled by one and the same person. In a provincial towns and remote regions, whoever is on the scene first will be expected (and equipped) to perform all of these functions, and to provide a complete product for media distribution.

There is fierce competition for readership in Russia and everything depends on advertising revenues (in Russia the only exceptions are RIAN, Rossiiskaya gazeta, Interfax, and Golos Rossii radio). As a result of the global economic crisis, however, Western business models no longer work in Russia (presumably because their profit margins were low), but the public support option for the media, which is prevalent in Europe, needs to be explored.

With best wishes,

Professor Nicolai N. Petro
Department of Political Science
Washburn Hall, University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881 (USA)


Voice/fax: 1.208.693.5200 | www.npetro.net

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