The Turning Point for Russia Will Be a Higher Proportion of People on the Internet
Interview with Andrey Miroshnichenko, Fulbright-Kennan Institute Research Scholar, upon the completion of his grant, Spring 2013
Malinkin: During your Fulbright scholarship you have been looking at the question “Will Russian media go the way of American media?” What are your thoughts about this, based on your research over the last six months?
Andrey Miroshnichenko: I think in terms of technical development, Russian media is going in more or less the same way as media all over the world. It is happening faster in some countries than others, but the main trend is that the internet is making people both the “audience” and the “authors.” In the U.S. there is much debate regarding the freedom of the internet, about people’s personal data on the internet—this question is really hot here—but in Russia, these questions get less attention so far. What is more salient in Russia is the question of control of mass media and the internet. There is no formal censorship in Russia, but some of the old mass media self-censors, often not touching hot political topics, and that’s why those topics end up on the internet where freedom of speech is much broader. As a result, old Russian media—newspapers—deprives itself of the really hot and interesting topics, and, in turn, loses its audience, who is looking to the internet more and more.
In some of your recent talks you have described an interesting cultural divide in Russia between those who watch TV and those who are “online.” What is this divide based on? And do you see the gap growing or closing?
There is a definite demographic divide in Russia between those who watch television and those who are on the internet. We can see further divisions based on education and where one lives in Russia, whether it is a metropolitan area or a small town. Socioeconomic status and age also cause further divisions. Such divisions can determine the results of elections—for example, in the last election “TV-watching Russia” was more likely to support the current administration while “Internet Russia” voted for a variety of candidates. And that is the main difference between “TV Russia” and “Internet Russia.” “TV Russia” is fairly monolithic, and “Internet Russia” has more varieties of opinion, which can create something that looks like a democracy. The turning point for the future of Russia will be changes in the proportion of people who are on the internet, and the people who stay in “TV Russia.” Currently 45-50% of the population uses the internet.
So it’s close to half?
Yes. If we compare this to other countries, in the U.S. internet users comprise about 80% of the population. In Northern European countries it is 75-80% and more. In South Korea and Japan it’s more than 80%. So when the Russian protests began last year I wrote that it was too early to form effective political diversity because only about 45% of the population used the internet. The evolution of media activity on the internet needs time to pass through several stages. People start by discussing feelings – love, friendship, hatred. It starts at the personal level because they have an opportunity to express themselves. The next stage is social discussions and then socially-charged activity—it is halfway between sharing funny cat pictures and discussing politics. In Russia it began when people started speaking out about the wild fires in the summer of 2010—the first signs of private citizens getting involved. The internet played a major role in providing a forum for people to discuss the circumstances surrounding the wild fires. The next step in this evolution is real political activity. Of course most people will not go this far, but this kind of evolution is inevitable. That is why when the internet comes to any country the people gradually start to get more involved in politics. We can say that ordinary people’s activity on the internet tends to evolve and galvanize their political life. So I think the turning point for Russia will be wider internet use. The question is what level of internet use will be enough to free people from the influence of the old broadcasting political model.
Are there any signs that Russian TV might undergo some kind of a transformation as well? Is there a growing number of programs with different viewpoints?
There were such signs—especially during the protests last winter when TV executives faced new challenges—and they realized that the internet attracted more people, and people who were more active and wealthy, which was attractive to advertisers. The TV executives tried to do something interesting, to introduce more interactive shows on TV, and talk shows were reborn on Russian TV for a short time, but then it went back to its previous mode of just being junk food for the brain—just entertainment and something attractive, attractive in the bad sense. Violence, crime stories, and so on.
You were one of the founders of the weekly Rostov newspaper Gorod N – can you tell me about the current state of the paper?
I cofounded it with friends when I was a student in 1992. It is probably one of the oldest Russian regional business newspapers since the end of the USSR, older even than the St. Petersburg newspaper Delovoi Peterburg. Our paper was established at the same time when most of the local and federal enterprises were created so it was right on the same wave of new Russian business. It has been successful and fairly profitable. It is among those independent regional newspapers that still have influence. It is owned by several people who stand tall and have kept it independent.
Is Gorod N also transitioning into the new media paradigm?
This is a big challenge for local papers, and one of the major differences between the Russian and U.S. experiences. In the U.S., the Ann Arbor News was the first American town newspaper to switch to an online-only format. It was a big shock for Ann Arbor, but the transition was more or less successful. I tried to compare it to Russia, but there are no examples of newspapers in Russia that stopped printing and switched to online-only. This is probably because it is too early—the economic conditions in Russia’s regions are not adequate for online-only independent media. That is the problem. There are some online media projects that started online, with no printed predecessors, and a few of them are profitable. But if a newspaper in Russia declares a transition to an online-only platform, it usually means it is closing. That’s why my advice to Russian regional newspapers is to keep the print issues as long as possible.
As your six-month grant comes to an end, what are some of the things that made the biggest impression on you from the American mass media? Are there aspects of the Russian mass media that you now see in a different light?
I wouldn’t say that anything drastically changed in my impressions of Russian and American media—but I did notice some very tasty details during my time here. For example, there are many satirical programs on American TV that are a kind of mix of journalism and comedy. In Russia we admit that we perceive this genre as a show, but here it is between a show and journalism because they touch on political issues in very interesting ways. I was also very impressed with the coverage of the presidential debates. I think Russia would become another country if it even broadcast the American debates on Russian TV. Very few Russians know what political debates look like—real debates. It was also interesting to observe the fact checkers. Every word Romney and Obama said was checked many times. It was a competition among journalists here to show what the figures meant, and not just what was true or false, but to analyze what the politician was proposing and what these proposals would lead to. If Russians could at least watch how candidates discuss problems, I think the country could change.
Mary Elizabeth Malinkin
William Pomeranz, Acting Director, Kennan Institute