Russian Regional Journalism
Struggle and Survival in the Heartland
Table Of Contents
- About the Author
- About the Book
- This eBook can be cited
- Section I: Russian Regional Journalism and Its Contexts
- Chapter One: Introduction
- Chapter Two: Russia’s Regions and Regional Journalism: The Current Context
- Chapter Three: Local Russian Journalism as a Social Space: Field and Ecology Perspectives
- Section II: Findings: The Three Regions, Their Journalism, Journalists and Communities
- Chapter Four: Russian Regional Journalism and Its Environments
- Chapter Five: Regional Journalists: Scarcity, Divisiveness and Persistence
- Chapter Six: Russian Regional Journalists in a Digital Era
- Chapter Seven: Journalists’ Shifting, Versatile Roles
- Chapter Eight: Cracks in the System: Journalists’ Pursuit of Autonomy
- Chapter Nine: Conclusions: Daunting Challenges and Ways Forward
- Appendix: Methodology
First and foremost, both of us—Elina and Wilson—thank those whom we cannot name. We promised anonymity to 124 individuals—newspaper editors, reporters, advertising managers and proofreaders—who welcomed our research into their newsrooms and lives making this project possible. These individuals never said they feared being identified. The reason was, as one reporter put it, “Nothing left to lose.” But we were (and are) still cautious.
For more than thirteen years, Elina religiously traveled to Russia every year, taking part in journalistic communities in three Russian districts or regions. Besides conducting interviews, focus groups and observations, she did what everyone was supposed to do while in Russia: drank a lot of tea and ate uncounted boxes of chocolate (not just ballet and hockey are great in Russia). Participants shared anger, joy, secrets, disagreements, values, Instagram photos, bad/good days, passion for writing, love of art and appreciation of humor.
Meanwhile, Wilson stayed put, but not idle, working on the project’s scaffolding—helping fashion the frameworks of our inquiry and the words through which we shared them—while always staying in touch, at a distance, with Elina’s lively and lived experiences in the regions.
Of course, our participants had an agenda. They felt their work as regional journalists is a largely untold story, and this is why many conversations started with them saying, “Tell the West.”
And we do.
The West, listen up. Russian regional journalists, overlooked and even looked down upon and having little chance competing for scholars’ interests with their colleagues from the national capital, want you to know that … well, it’s all in the book.
Many scholars helped us assure this book accurately represents Russia and its journalism, today and in the past. We are grateful to Sergei Samoilenko, Svetlana Pasti, Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova, Michael Alexeev, Ilya Kiriya and anonymous reviewers for what Russians call конструктивная критика (constructive criticism) and insightful comments. Of course, any errors are entirely our own.
We appreciate care and guidance of the Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.’s editorial team—Erika Hendrix and Liam McLean.
We thank our families for helping us power through. Your unconditional love and faith that this book would eventually be completed inspired us every day (if not every hour). A special thanks to Perrin for his careful work in checking references.
Elina and Wilson,
May 7, 2020
In 2012, a reporter for the Government newspaper, the oldest local paper in its region, received a phone call from an employee of a local factory in a remote village. The factory’s owner had refused to pay salaries and threatened to close the factory, the employee said—a move that would cripple the small community. The reporter followed up, asking regional government officials to comment. Officials listened but warned the reporter off the story. The factory owner was a “nut case from Moscow,” they said, and he would hurt people if the story were published. The reporter decided to kill her story, as she “did not want to aggravate” the delicate situation and risk a factory shutdown. In the past month, six of her investigations had withered on the vine, all discouraged by officials, and the reporter was frustrated. But she was philosophical. She had come to believe it was more important to help people in need than to publish a story that might do them damage. She said that in the 1990s “reporters would have thrown stories like bombs into a crowd,” but today, reporters are being careful. No reporter, she said, wants her story to be the “last straw”—the story that leads to disaster.
Local Russian journalists1 have a history of connecting personally with the citizens who read their stories. Local Russian citizens have a history of reaching out to journalists, often in desperation. We see evidence of both in the anecdote above, told to us by a reporter interviewed for our study of journalism in Russia’s regions.
For the citizens in the regions we studied, often burdened by poverty and neglected by government, the press could be a final hope, and journalists sometimes have pushed officials to help citizens. Yet, local journalists themselves have been threatened by poverty and some news outlets threatened with closure. The COVID-19 pandemic, spreading around the world as we complete this book, is surely making these hard times worse. And so, often, journalists have not pushed officials, as journalists’ vulnerability and dependence on government have grown. With meager revenue and diminished autonomy, regional journalists who seek to serve both citizens and local elite face a steep, risky challenge.
Today, political engagement by journalists and citizens at Russia’s regional levels is as important as ever. Russia’s national regime draws critical support from the regional “heartland,” despite the fact that, historically, these areas have been subsumed within national-level governance, and obscured by the wealth, power and cultural dominance of “the capitals,” Moscow and St. Petersburg.
National Russian policy, from the reign of Catherine the Great through the Soviet era and on to today, has often discouraged the notion that the regions—Peter the Great’s provintsiia2—are individually distinctive. The regions have been portrayed as uniform, a vague backdrop to the country’s vibrant capital cities and distinctive ethnic areas. The regions’ journalism and other cultural forms have tended to be overlooked as well.
Of course, Russia’s regions are not uniform. They are diverse, in geography, resources and economic fabric, ethnicities, religion and culture. Differences across a country enhance the chances for change, and cultural, political and economic diversity should encourage diversity in journalism content. No doubt, the journalism of Russia’s regions shows significant conformity to Russia’s uniform national governance and culture, but in our research, we also found journalism norms, values and practices that are shaped by other important contexts, including both local and occupational communities.
Mixed contexts suggest questions. What are the varying characteristics of the challenging environments within which local journalists live and work? How do these characteristics constrain and shape their journalism and notions about its purposes? How have these characteristics and their influences changed (or not changed) across the Putin era? Can local journalists truly reflect their regions and the needs of regional citizens? Can local journalists connect with both government and citizen and bridge the two? If so, how?
We explore these questions through qualitative case studies of local newspaper journalism in Russia, conducted each year from 2007 to 2019. We studied journalists, their work and their perceptions at newspapers in three regions. Newspapers in one region, our primary region of study, were examined across all 13 years, while newspapers in the other two regions were studied over the last half of that period. The primary regional case, which we call Region A, is a small, fairly typical region suffering through economic adversity. The two other regions, Region B and Region C, are explored less thoroughly, but they offer valuable comparison as they are larger and relatively wealthier and more stable. Theories of social fields and ecologies serve as lenses for analysis, and we provide detail on our conceptual framework below and in Chapter 3.
This book follows a number of recent studies that have also looked at subsections of Russia’s news media, including studies of journalism in particular regions (Romanovich, 2006; Roudakova, 2017; Verkhovskya, 2006) and several overviews of regional journalism (Pasti, 2005; Pasti & Pietiläinen, 2008; Pietiläinen, 2002). Other recent studies have focused on news media niches, such as journalism in smaller, more liberal outlets (Slavtcheva-Petkova, 2018) and online digital media (Oates, 2013). Our book contributes to this increasingly varied literature on Russian journalism by providing analysis of a regional social space, offering comparison across multiple regions, across multiple news outlets of different ownership types, and across time, from the post-perestroika period forward.
Russian Regional Journalism as Local Journalism
Not all the troubles of regional Russian journalists are unique to Russia. Both the scholarly literatures on Russia’s regional journalism and the general literature on local journalism—in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere—suggest local journalists across the world struggle to connect the intimate space of people’s everyday lives with the space of local governance and the broad space of national governance.
Several challenges derive from small scale, a quality shared generally by local communities and their news sources. One common challenge is the unified power of local elites, which constrains media and limits the diversity of viewpoints in smaller social environments (Tichenor, Olien & Donohue, 1980; Nah & Armstrong, 2011; Rankine et al., 2011). Dependence on the local elite was certainly evident among the papers in our research. One editor noted the small “pool of information” in his region: “You upset a few press secretaries, and next you don’t know where to go to gather information.”
Local news organizations and communities also generally have fewer human and financial resources than do national-level news organizations in the largest cities (Culver, 2014; Fink & Anderson, 2015; Zion et al., 2016). Resource scarcity was evident at most papers we studied. Over the last decade, one paper shrank from 12 to three reporters, all desperately trying to fill a growing news hole due to declining advertising. The limiting effects of resource scarcity on the reach, depth and general quality of news have been common across media systems (Berkowitz, 2007; Franklin, 2006), and smaller staffs tend to rely more heavily on media releases from government agencies and businesses.
A third common condition is the close quarters between journalists and residents, and the shared trust between the two that this proximity fosters. Research indicates that journalists who identify authentically with their community encourage trust—i.e., when a journalist perceives the community as “my home,” residents perceive the journalist as “one of our own” (Chernov & Ivanova, 2013; Hatcher & Haavik, 2014; Matthews, 2017; Thomson et al., 2015). Such identification is important but increasingly hard to come by, given news staff turnover. We also note that strong bonds between journalists and communities can bring dysfunction, encouraging insularity and boosterism, which can hinder social change (Gutsche, 2015).
We discuss these common traits and challenges of local-level journalism in more depth in Chapter 3. However, we won’t take the universal comparison too far. Russian local journalists enact their work within distinct cultural and political-economic contexts and dynamics. These contexts and dynamics shape the analytical field of this book’s case studies, and we need to understand their origins. Later in the book, we look at the contexts of the three regions we studied. However, all regions in Russia’s heartland share some common history, and we explore this history next, as knowing where you’ve been is important to understanding where you are.
Russian Journalism at Russia’s “Sub-National” Levels: A Brief History
- X, 204
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- Publication date
- 2020 (November)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 204 pp., 2 tables.