Alternative professional journalism in the post-Crimean Russia: Online resistance to the Kremlin propaganda and status quo
By Olga Lazitski
After 2014, a new community of journalists with a unique identity emerged in Russia. The author calls it alternative professional journalism (APJ), highlighting its group autonomy and potential for public mobilization. One of the main conditions for the emergence of APJ is the development of online and digital platforms that are allowed to circumvent a number of structural constraints and attract an important politically active audience that consumes media almost solely online. This paper demonstrates how flexibility of digital settings allowed APJ to resist Putin’s regime and provides an insight on the development of alternative media/journalism in a non-Western, non-democratic and non-liberal context.
On June 6, 2019, the journalist Ivan Golunov submitted a draft of his latest investigation to his editor and headed to a cafe in downtown Moscow to meet with his friend. He never made it to the meeting. Police officers stopped him and pushed him into their car. In the process, they planted drugs in his backpack and charged him with attempting to sell a large amount of drugs. This conviction could carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years. The publisher and the editor-in-chief of Meduza, the online project where Golunov works, claimed that their reporter had been targeted because of his work as a journalist, noting that he already received threats. Golunov’s colleagues from Meduza and a number of other media outlets launched a massive campaign in support of the reporter and organized protests outside police headquarters in Moscow. By June 10, the protests had moved well beyond the community of journalists and beyond Moscow as well. Demonstrations were held in numerous Russian cities and abroad. On June 11, a Moscow court dropped all charges against Golunov (Stognei, 2019). That was a first victory over the state for the journalistic community in Putin’s Russia. What makes this victory even more important is the role of a particular journalistic community that the author calls alternative professional journalism (APJ). Its members managed to mobilize a number of marginalized groups of Russian society that felt threatened by state repression of journalists and other citizens. In fighting for Golunov’s freedom, alternative professional journalists were fighting for their right to practice their profession as they understand it.
In this article, APJ is positioned aside from mainstream journalism, but not in opposition to it. The author highlights its professional autonomy and its potential for increasing public deliberation and illustrates its power through the case of the unprecedented outpouring of public support for the investigative reporter Ivan Golunov, as well as a number of other cases in which alternative professional journalists revealed the wrongdoings of those in power.
This article argues that development of online and digital platforms, as well as the events of the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and the post-Crimean state of Putin’s regime, stimulated the emergence of APJ. The crisis in Ukraine began by mass protests in Kiev against pro-Kremlin president Victor Yanukovich (Pantti, 2016). Russian state-aligned media at that time were forced to demonize the protesters and claim that the uprisings were instigated by the U.S. State Department (Pantti, 2016). Yanukovich was ousted in February 2014, and Russia lost control over Ukraine. Trying to restore control, in March 2014 the Kremlin annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and in April 2014 pro-Russian separatists, unofficially backed up by the Russian military, seized the eastern Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Kremlin’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis resulted in economic sanctions against Russia and instigated a media war between Russia and the West (Pantti, 2016).
Over the course of 2014, Kremlin propaganda intensified drastically (Pantti, 2016), trying to target both international and domestic audiences. At that time, most of the media outlets in the country, even those that usually were not heavily controlled by the Kremlin, experienced harsh censorship on a daily basis. As a result, many mainstream journalists, who could not tolerate censorship anymore, either quit journalism or formed their own online start-ups (Badanin, 2018). Badanin (2018), who launched his alternative investigative outlet, Project, pointed out that due to the development of new technologies major players of the Russian media market lost their exclusive hold over the audience. He described the new media that began to appear:
They are registered abroad, far from Russian control bodies; most of them are trying to work with the most active, young audience. And they all became possible—here is the paradox!—due to the fact that the Russian authorities were attacking freedom of speech. (para.6)
Badanin compares the newly launched alternative outlets with the Soviet culture of “samizdat” (or self-publishing) that helped overcome censorship and start a set of social changes known as “perestroika.” Similarly, the new post-Crimean online “samizdat” manages to circumvent a number of structural constraints, obtain professional autonomy, and win over a very important group of politically active millennials who consume media almost solely online. Alternative professional journalists, who also operate almost solely online, challenge the state’s propaganda efforts and provide the Russian public with the counter-narrative to the official discourse. Their work revealed APJ’s influence within contemporary Russian civil society and proved that the Kremlin’s control over the media is not omnipotent, as scholars and Western media outlets often posit (Pomerantsev, 2014; Snyder, 2016).
The article argues that APJ has already reshaped the current Russian media system, contributed to the development of the country’s public spheres and pointed to the openings within Putin’s regime for civic engagement. This article examines identities of alternative professional journalists, their professional practices and relationship with the audience. The findings reveal an interesting tension between audience expectations and journalists’ role performance, as well as a gap between journalists’ role conception and role performance. The discussion of the ideological adherence of APJ to the Western norm of objectivity provides an interesting insight on the coping strategies of alternative professional journalists within the non-democratic and non-liberal settings.
This article also proposes a new interpretation of the current Russian media system, challenging the theoretical traditions of studying post-Soviet media, which either focus on the state-aligned media (Arutunyan, 2009; Vartanova, 2012) or recognize a dichotomy of state-aligned and liberal/critical media within the system (Repnikova, 2017; Slavtcheva-Petkova, 2018). Proposed conceptualization denies this divide by putting both state-aligned and “liberal” outlets into a group of mainstream media that are coexisting and sometimes cooperating (as in Golunov’s case, for example) with the group of alternative media as a continuum.
Russian Political and Media Systems
Many scholars of Russian journalism (Oats, 2006; Vartanova, 2012) point to the importance of relationship between the state and the media in Russia at any historical period. That relationship “has always defined the nature, main features, and conditions of the media system” (Vartanova, 2012, p. 131). Vartanova describes the current Russian media model as “statist commercialized” and argues that even nowadays “the traditional paternal character of the media-state relationship in which the media still play the role of an innocent and obedient child remains central to the Russian system” (2012, p. 142). Oats (2006) points to the long-lasting tradition of subordination of Russian people to the state and notes that regardless of the existing political regime, Russians always “see themselves as media subjects, without the rights of either media citizens or media consumers” (p. 192). This pessimistic theoretical view of the journalistic role in Russian civil society is very common. It encompasses historical perspectives that argue that Russia has never had functioning public spheres (Dolgova, 2010) and that Russian journalists have never been independent and never experienced freedom of speech (Arutunyan, 2009; Vartanova, 2012).
The more optimistic line of historical perspectives on the Russian media system recognizes journalists’ role within the public spheres. Roudakova (2018) argues that even during the Soviet regime some Russian journalists managed to serve the public, acting as if they were a part of civil society.
Finally, a third line of historical perspectives recognizes the golden era of post-Soviet journalism that is remembered for its pluralism, critical reporting and the power to form public opinion. It produced new professional norms, values and practices, which were based on the belief in freedom of speech (Vartanova, 2012). Pasti (2005) notices that despite the political changes of the 1990s, when liberal values of objectivity and impartiality shaped the form of journalism profession in Russia, even young journalists kept the traditional Soviet concept of journalism as “a derivative of power” (p. 103). In post-Soviet society, journalists are still perceived as those in power.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the market reforms of the 1990s, print media experienced economic crisis due to the sky-rocketing prices for paper, print and delivery (Malinova, 2013). Since then, television that was free of charge became the main arena for public debate. However, it also made television an arena where financial and political groups fought for their influence. By the end of the 1990s, the majority of the mainstream media were concentrated in the hands of the so-called oligarchs who waged their information wars with the help of their media assets (Malinova, 2013). Thus, the golden era of Russian journalism was left in the past.
Malinova (2013) argues that as a result of the political and economic reforms of the 1990s, the Russian public space was reshaped in a particular configuration with the “nucleus,” represented by the mainstream national/federal television channels, and the “periphery,” represented by print press, radio, cable networks, online platforms and other forums with small and fragmented audiences (p. 63).
Hybrid Political Regime
After Putin came to power in 2000, he gained control over almost all social institutions, including the “nucleus” of the media system. Savin, Kashirskikh and Mavletova (2018) state that “the Russian media environment is commonly recognized as substantially oppressed by the state” (p. 474). However, they argue that the mediatized era transformed the nature of authoritarian governments that monopolize access to media to use them “to promote their political messages and exclude plausible criticism” (p. 474). Contemporary authoritarian leaders prefer to avoid violence to avoid isolation from global markets, relying instead on manipulation of information. That is why they allow the islands of controlled media pluralism (Repnikova, 2017). Putin allowed “pluralism” and other appearances of democracy to exist at the periphery of the media system. In his logic, in order to control the discourse, it would be sufficient to control the media within the nucleus, since they are what the majority of the Russian population watch and trust. Kiriya (2014) supported this logic by his data that suggests that the main public sphere in Russia is dominated by the state-owned TV-channels that push pro-Kremlin discourse and give talking points for the online news outlets.
Restoration of state control over the mainstream media resembles the Soviet past. However, as Malinova (2013) notes, Soviet media were a part of a huge ideological machine that was supposed to mobilize the population, whereas the role of the current mainstream media is, on the contrary, to avoid any mobilization. This difference is an important characteristic of the current Russian political regime that allows some openings for public participation and practices of APJ. Shulman (2014) identifies this regime as hybrid. According to Shulman (2014), Putin’s hybrid regime simulates both democracy and dictatorship, neither of which exist. The main goal of the hybrid regime is to ensure the “irremovability” of power (para.6), which might be threatened by working civil institutions, influential independent media and public sphere. For that reason, the regime encourages indifference and passivity in the citizens (as opposed to totalitarianism that encourages mobilization and a particular kind of participation). That is why the dictatorial face of the regime is more of a mask. It allows autonomous private spheres (that are heavily controlled in real dictatorships), which leave openings for people to consume any media they like, as well as discuss, plan and gather in small groups within the private realm. Imitation of democracy is important for Putin’s regime in order to appeal to the West and attract foreign investments (Repnikova, 2017). This cynical performance of democracy is why the government allows some media outlets to produce alternative content, but as long as their audience stays tiny and/or elitist (Savin, Kashirskikh & Mavletova, 2018).
Alternative Configuration of the Media System
In the beginning of the 2000s, renowned Russian journalism scholar Yasen Zasurskii (2002) identified three models of Russian journalism. He called the first model “Soviet instrumental,” explaining that within this model the media are nothing but an instrument in the hands of those in power. The second model—the model of a free press—lived just a few years and ceased to exist during Yeltsin’s presidential re-election of 1996. During that election, the third model appeared. Zasurskii called it “corporate-authoritarian” and equated it to the “Soviet instrumental” because huge post-Soviet corporations that bought controlling stakes in the media treated them exactly like their Soviet predecessors. A decade later, another prominent Russian media scholar, Joseph Dzyaloshinskii (2011), developed Zasurskii’s view of Russian journalism further by adding three variations of position of journalists in relation to their audiences. The first model positions journalists above the audience, which happens when journalists consider members of the audience as objects of ideological and propagandistic influence. The second model positions journalists next to the audience, which happens when journalists aim to inform the audience. The third model positions journalists within the audience, as its part and as members of a community who take a stance.
The current Russian media system reflects all those models and role positions. The mainstream media are mostly instrumental with the above-the-audience journalist position, which sometimes can shift to the next-to-the audience proximity. They mostly reproduce official discourses and ban any alternative ones. The mainstream group contains two subgroups: mainstream professional journalism and the media of state propaganda. The mainstream professional journalism encompasses three of the country’s leading business outlets: Vedomosti, RBC, and Kommersant (among others). There are also two media outlets that are in a state of limbo between mainstream professional and alternative media. They are the radio station Echo of Moscow and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Some scholars consider them “critical” or “liberal” (Repnikova, 2017, pp. 189-195; Slavtcheva-Petkova, 2018; Vartanova, 2012). Even though they do produce alternative discourse and are critical of the regime, this article conditionally includes them in the mainstream professional category given their history, traditional media models, and belonging to the system. Both are a part of “systemic opposition” (Krasheninnikov, 2019, para.1) and are used by the hybrid regime for the purposes of simulating democratic institutions. The Kremlin knows how to use them and how to negotiate with them, as opposed to the alternative professional media that do not want to play by the Kremlin’s rules.
The mainstream professional media were historically the most prominent media outlets that appeared right after the fall of the Soviet Union. Back then, they introduced U.S. journalistic standards and fostered the development of many brilliant reporters (some of whom are now leading the new alternative professional media). In the course of the Putin’s presidential terms, they were forced to accept the Kremlin’s “light-touch” censorship policy in order to stay in business. However, they still exercise some degree of group autonomy, which is why the article uses the adjective “professional”. Their relative editorial autonomy comes in exchange for loyalty on politically sensitive topics. Journalists who do not obey taboos—for example, on covering Putin’s family members or his private life—usually get fired.
The second subgroup of the mainstream category is media of the state propaganda. This article does not classify them as professional journalism because they do not have group autonomy. In the core of the state propaganda there is a set of national networks (such as Channel One, Rossiya 1, NTV and REN-TV). They are free of charge and available for the entire population of the country. All of them directly or indirectly are funded by the state. The heads of those networks attend weekly meetings with the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Alexey Gromov who gives them talking points, stop-lists of the names and issues that are banned for publication and instructions on how to cover particular stories.
A group of alternative media also has two subgroups: alternative media platforms of non-professional journalism and alternative professional journalism. Non-professional alternative media are mostly pages and channels within social media (Telegram, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, VK, Facebook). They are produced by bloggers, some of whom are anonymous. The platform of Telegram messenger (which is prohibited in Russia by law until COVID-19 outbreak in June 2020) allows its users stay anonymous. Often times, they get paid to leak compromising materials and publish quasi-investigations that benefit those who pay for the posts. The problem of the alternative non-professional platforms is an absence of personal responsibility and institutional reputation. However, in some cases alternative professional media have started first as pages in social networks. For example, the Krasnoyarsk online news project Prospect Mira was born as a page in VK and later grew into an independent outlet with a team of professional journalists (Labunsky, n.d.).
APJ Within the Media System
By proposing a new conceptual apparatus, which is different from the terminology of the traditional Western journalism studies, this article argues that the language of the realities of Western liberal democracies, post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s and even early years of Putin’s presidency does not work anymore for the hybrid regime of the post-Crimean Russia. Classification based on the sources of funding and financing (for example, divide into commercial/private, state-owned or public media) would not be helpful in the conditions of current Russian state capitalism. Many outlets in Russia are simultaneously commercial and state-owned, or private but state-aligned (influenced by the state through other means), or public and commercial (when an outlet sells both subscription and ads). The new conceptual apparatus also challenges the theoretical tradition of studying post-Soviet journalism, which distinguishes particular state-aligned and oppositional/liberal outlets within the contemporary media system (Slavtcheva-Petkova, 2018). This article considers them both as a mainstream type, which is in alliance with Putin’s regime.
Anticipating a question about conventional terminology that most of the scholars use (Slavtcheva-Petkova, 2018), the article further explains why it does not call the group of journalists that has been studied “liberal,” “independent,” “critical” or “oppositional”. First, the author does not use “liberal” because this term is ideologically loaded and wrongfully generalizes all non-mainstream journalists into a single category of those who share Western liberal values. Second, the author does not use “independent” because this term is structurally loaded and might be misleading in the cases when outlets do engage government contracts or when the origin of the investments is unclear or kept secret. In addition, most of the journalists from the sample took the term “independent” very critically, asking the researcher, “Independent from whom or what?” Finally, terms “critical” and “oppositional” are loaded in ways that deny norms of neutrality and objectivity that most of alternative professional journalists espouse.
By calling the group professional, this study follows Hallin and Mancini (2004) who identified three main constituents of professional journalism throughout different contexts, namely: shared ethical norms, commitment to public service rather than individual interests and presence of group autonomy. Mellado (2017) explains that autonomy of journalists is “contingent on the willingness and the ability of journalists to work free from any attempts to censor the press in favor of commercial, political, or managerial goals”; autonomy of journalists is an “extent to which journalists can put their professional roles and ideals into practice” (p. 1).
By calling that group alternative, the author distinguishes those professionals from their mainstream colleagues, but it does not put them in opposition to each other in a dichotomized way. Earlier alternative media research started by exploring different forms of alternative media in contrast to mainstream media. Pickard (2007) summarized two general definitions of alternative media: “In its most expansive and popular use, the term ‘alternative media’ includes all media that are somehow opposed to or in tension with mainstream media” (p. 12). However, more recent research rejects this dichotomy and instead champions the analysis of alternative media as a continuum (Atton 2007; Bailey, Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2008; Fuchs, 2010). Bailey, Cammaerts and Carpentier (2008), trying to overcome the limitations of alternative vs. mainstream binaries, argue that “the definition of ‘alternative’ media should be amplified to include a wider spectrum of media generally working to democratize information/communication” (p. xi). They point out that “alternative media do not operate completely outside the market and/or the state” (p. 20), and suggest that “the identity of alternative media should be articulated as relational and contingent on the particularities of the contexts of production, distribution, and consumption” (p. xii).
Bailey, Cammaerts and Carpentier (2008) explain that the forms of alternative media are articulated not only in relation to the mainstream media, but also as community media, as civil society media, and as rhizomatic media, as well as “in their potential to voice ideas which are important and distinctive in their own right, that are not necessarily counter-hegemonic, but are still of significance for different communities” (p. xii). This argument is extremely helpful for understanding the power relationships and practices of APJ in the remote Russian regions where some outlets might be considered locally mainstream by their means of production, but alternative by their processes and content (for example, TV-channel Afontovo in Siberia). “When alternative media are situated in an antagonistic relationship with mainstream media, alternative media may find themselves in a less advantageous position,” being articulated as unprofessional, inefficient, marginal, small-scale, limited in their capacity to reach large audiences (Bailey, Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2008, p. 20). However, mainstream media, as Atton (2007) notes, sometimes also borrow alternative media techniques, such as, for example, blogging and the use of “ordinary” people as sources and news gatherers (p. 24). Fuchs (2010) demonstrates how it might work the other way around, when alternative media also make use of mainstream strategies and structures, deploying commercial techniques and professionalized marketing (p. 183). Fuchs (2010) argues that for the media to be considered alternative, it is enough to stay on the alternative side only in the area of content (p. 183).
The category of alternative media encompasses different theoretical typologies. There are approaches (Atton, 2002) that distinguish between the process (self-managed, self-owned, collective organization, alternative distribution) and the content (critical, counter-hegemonic, alternative genres), as well as approaches that distinguish between alternative media being 1) a part of civil society, 2) an alternative to mainstream, 3) media serving the community, and 4) rhizomatic media (Bailey, Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2008, p. 7). A number of other approaches includes a distinction between alternative content, alternative channels, alternative sources and alternative values (Rauch, 2007); as well as a relational multilevel approach that defines alternative media as counter-hegemonic that can emerge on the macro-level of societal function, the meso-level of organizations and/or the micro-level of news content and producers (Holt, Figenschou & Frischlich, 2019, p. 862).
The most common component among all approaches is the challenge of the status quo and the production of counter-hegemonic representations (Fuchs, 2010, p. 178; Jeppesen, 2016, p. 55; Pickard, 2007, p. 12). This is the characteristic this study uses in its analysis of Russian APJ, along with the rejection of the alternative vs. mainstream binaries.
The final theoretical view is understanding of alternative media as being opposite to professional media. Atton (2007) argues that alternative media “tend not to be produced by professionals, but by amateurs who typically have little or no training or professional qualifications as journalists” (p. 18). Such forms of alternative media challenge professional practices of journalism, including credibility, expertise and exclusive authority of professional journalists, as well as professional notions of objectivity (Atton, 2007, pp. 17-24). Alternative journalism, according to Atton (2003), replaces “an ideology of ‘objectivity’ with overt advocacy and oppositional practices” that emphasize first-person, eyewitness accounts by participants and anti-hierarchical forms of organization (p. 267). These practices suggest “an inclusive, radical form of civic journalism” that is opposed to elite-centered notions of journalism as a business (Atton, 2003, p. 286).
Institutionalization of objectivity and professionalization within the Western context became a necessary feature of “legitimate” journalism. Professional norms of objectivity, impartiality and detachment were embraced by the Western mainstream news media (Schudson, 2003). In Russia, on the contrary, mainstream media traditionally adopted the role of a state’s servant. The core of Soviet journalistic professionalism incorporated a robust literary tradition and encouraged journalists to express personal opinions in their articles, “responding to a normative demand of communist ideology for a journalist to be an active citizen and propagandist of the Communist party line” (Vartanova, 2012, p. 138). Even in post-Soviet times, Trachtenberg (as cited in Vartanova, 2007) argues, the Russian media system barely has anything in common with the western “tradition that sees proper functioning of the mass media as a fundamental element of civil society and of the system of representative democracy” (p. 131). In politically and culturally specific national settings (that oppose the western notion of separation of state and civil society), the idea of professionalization with its group autonomy, public service and shared norms became an alternative to the dominant perception of journalism in Russia. That is why the aforementioned elements of the Atton’s theory pointing to the alternative vs. professional binaries are not applicable for the non-democratic context of contemporary Russia. Instead, by proposing the term APJ and conceptualizing the type of alternative media that stresses its professionalism, this study hopes to provide an insight on the alternative journalism in non-Western contexts and open up a discussion about possible avenues for development of APJ.
The main objective of this study is to understand the identities, the practices and the relationship with the audience of Russian alternative professional journalists. The main research question is three-fold:
RQ1: Who are the people who practice APJ?
This question seeks to find out the values they share, the ideals they believe in, the role in society they ascribed to themselves and their motivation for doing journalism.
RQ2: How do they do their work?
This question aims to find out how do they choose stories, sources and what their working methods are.
RQ3: How does the audience consume and use APJ work?
This question investigates how the audience perceives alternative professional journalists, what role it inscribes to them and what it expects from them, as well as to what extent the social groups marginalized in Russia use APJ outlets as a public forum for challenging the status quo and fighting for their rights.
To answer these questions, the author uses a combined methodology that Singer (2017) called a “triangulating method” (p. 208). Current variation of this method encompasses: 1) participant observation, 2) in-depth interviews and 3) discourse analysis. This combination allows to investigate the cases through the production-text-consumption circuit and contextualize them by using a unique insight obtained during one-on-one conversations. The research focuses on two populations (journalists and audience) and draws on four key ethnographic sites.
APJ Projects Under Examination
Some of the new APJ projects launched in recent years have already obtained huge public interest and millions of viewers; while others choose to work for a niche audience.1 This research studies the operation of the online Moscow-based TV channel Dozhd and the online Latvia-based project Meduza, as well as their local counterparts Afontovo and Prospect Mira in Siberia. They are online-based; they challenge the official discourse; the government pressures them; they have found the ways to maintain their editorial autonomy; and they adapt a particular professional culture of “Western objectivity,” which is different from the culture of the current Russian mainstream journalism. In what follows, there is a brief introduction of the outlets from the APJ sample and the material conditions that allowed these alternative media to emerge.
TV Dozhd (TV Rain): Its owner, Natalya Sindeyeva, is a journalist who launched it in 2010 with the financial help of her husband, Alexander Vinokurov, a businessman. At the time, it was the only alternative to the state-controlled television. In 2014, during the crisis in Ukraine, the channel’s coverage was an important counterweight to state propaganda. However, 2014 was the year when Dozhd was almost shut down. In 2019, it was still on the market, broadcasting almost entirely online and available only by subscription. By late 2019, Dozhd had about 50,000 subscribers.
Meduza: It was founded in 2014 by a group of journalists who resigned from their jobs at Lenta.ru after the owner of the outlet—oligarch and Putin ally Alexander Mamut—fired editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko. The team of journalists considered the firing of Timchenko to be an act of censorship in response to how Lenta.ru was covering the Ukraine crisis. They left in protest over Timchenko’s firing. Later she registered a new outlet in Riga that started as a mobile application and online aggregator where news was selected in a manual mode by the professional journalists who perform fact checking and relevance evaluation. It also creates its own journalistic content, specializing in investigations and analysis. Meduza, however, does not reveal the name(s) of its investor(s).
Prospect Mira: This is a privately-owned online project in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk that also keeps the name(s) of its investor(s) secret. The uniqueness of Prospect Mira is in the way it appeared. On its website, the project is introduced as “the only non-standard city outlet that grew entirely from the social network.” “Evolving from the page in VK, we could keep open-heartedness of the informal web projects. We draw attention. We are not afraid to test new formats, to be ironic, to criticize or to praise,” reads the opening statement on the website (Labunsky, n.d.).
Afontovo: This TV channel was one of the first private regional media outlets of post-Soviet Russia. A group of media professionals founded it in Krasnoyarsk in 1992. In 2010, due to its unprofitability, the channel stopped broadcasting. In 2011, a local media businessman, Igor Yusma bought it. In 2015, due to “financial crisis in Russia,” as the owner explained, a part of the Afontovo team was fired. But instead of selling or shutting down his media asset, Yusma invited a team of professional journalists form another Siberian city, Tomsk. A couple of months prior to the offer, those journalists lost their TV station, TV-2, the most renowned regional channel in the country. It was shut down by the government in January 2015 for its unbiased position and critical reporting.
The protocol of participant observation focuses on the components of editorial decision-making, such as moral and ethical struggles of journalists; relationship with sponsors, sources, government officials; how the editors and owners treat sensitive topics; and how financial problems affect the performance. In some of the media outlets, besides being present in the newsrooms, control rooms and studios, the researcher also shadowed reporters “in the field” and accompanied them to informal gatherings (in the cafes, informants’ apartments, etc.). Watching the ways in which members of the community interact and perform their practices illuminates not only how the discourse of professional norms and ideas got inhabited and mobilized, but also what material infrastructure is available and what constraints restrict the desired performance. Overall, the researcher observed work of the journalists over the course of one year, from June 2018 to July 2019.
Another ethnographic method used for the journalism population is in-depth interviews. They were semi-structured and lasted from one to three hours. The researcher conducted 31 initial interviews and multiple follow-up interviews from June 2018 to July 2019 in Latvia, Moscow and Siberia. Most of the interviewees participated in the research on condition of anonymity, so all names in the publication are changed if not stated otherwise. This method allowed the informants to reflect upon their professional practices and formulate their role conception and understanding of professional norms and values.
Finally, the audience research method has also been used. This data serves as a supplement to help analyze the main body of data. The audience population sample includes people from Moscow, Krasnoyarsk and Blagoveshchensk who consume the news products made by APJ and those who do not. The protocol of the in-depth, semi-structured interviews included snowball sampling within the following demographic groups: males/females aged 18-25, 25-45 and 45-plus. Interviews lasted from one to more than three hours and, besides questions of media consumption, touched on the issues of education, politics, social life, public participation, leisure time, and work. Overall, the researcher conducted 42 initial in-depth interviews with further follow-up conversations over the course of one year. This approach allowed the researcher to understand how the APJ content has been interpreted and who the consumers of APJ are.
RQ1: Who are the people who practice APJ?
In response to RQ1, the ethnographic data points to two groups of alternative professional journalists. The first group is comprised of accomplished, famous professionals in their late-40s who left mainstream outlets around 2014 and found asylum in APJ projects. The second group is young dreamers in their 20s who grew up watching journalism produced by those who are mentoring them now.
The editor of Meduza, “Arkadii”, calls himself and his colleagues who adventurously moved to Latvia “journalists in exile.” He started his career by working for the Saratov newspapers and experiencing “all the hell, poverty and corruption” of the regional media on the 1990s. In 2002, Kommersant invited him to work for its regional bureau. In 2005, he moved to Moscow to work as Kommersant’s Moscow reporter. Seven years later, when the Kremlin-aligned billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the newspaper, “Arkadii” resigned. His friends invited him to join Lenta.ru. And when its editor-in-chief was fired, he decided to retire from reporting, left Russia and became Meduza’s editor in Latvia.
“Yan” also abandoned the spotlight of the reporter’s position in the post-Crimean years. He worked for the mainstream NTV and REN-TV. When he resigned, he came to Dozhd. He recalls, “When I came to Dozhd, I have been more than cynical, battered and disappointed journalist. And I found my rehab here. I regained freedom, excitement, innocence and belief in my profession.”
Both “Yan” and “Arkadii” mentor young reporters who have never experienced working in a regime other than Putin’s. “Arkadii”’s mentee “Anna” received her degree in journalism from Moscow State University. In elementary school she though that a journalist is a person that talks and writes about issues that other people are scared to talk about. In her career choice, Anna was influenced by Western culture. In her childhood, she read American novels and watched Hollywood movies where journalism was depicted as something noble. One of the films she recalls is “Erin Brockovich”. She was also inspired by the work of the American investigative journalist Nellie Bly, who in 1887 wrote her expose of the brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York City. Now “Anna” is Meduza’s Moscow reporter. She says that it is her dream job: “If Meduza ceased to exist, I would not know where else to go. Now that I know how it is in the ideal world, I would not be able to compromise my professional values and ideals.”
“Yan”’s mentee “Lidia”, a Dozhd reporter, in her childhood wanted to write books and to be a detective. Journalism seemed to neatly combine both. When time to enroll in the university came, most of “Lidia’s” peers chose schools of economics and public administration; “Lidia” and some of her close friends chose journalism. “We were all dreamers. We were people with ideals,” “Lidia” recalls. During her first internship at the state-owned Channel One her dreams met the harsh reality: “It was very hard in terms of both the team and the level of freedom.” Even though the state network offered good money, Lidia did not stay. In 2014, the year of Crimea crisis, she graduated. Dozhd became her first employer.
RQ2: How do alternative professional journalists do their work?
In response to RQ2, the ethnographic data identifies a set of professional norm and values shared by the informants. Both groups of alternative professional journalists share the same professional ethos, particularly cherishing the value of professional autonomy. At a time when group autonomy is under serious threat, one of the ways to practice it is solidarity among group members, as happened in the Golunov case. He was backed up by dozens of other alternative professional journalists who launched online protests and organized rallies outside the police headquarters that were joined by almost 20,000 supporters. Another prominent example of the act of journalistic solidarity relates to Golunov’s investigation of Moscow’s funeral mafia that was tied to his arrest. When the news about his arrest first broke, Meduza invited Golunov’s fellow media professionals and friends from other outlets to finish his work. A team of 16 journalists from seven media outlets teamed up with Meduza, which coordinated the collaboration. On July 1, 2019, the investigation about the Moscow funeral industry and its ties to high-ranking FSB officials (Golunov, 2019) was simultaneously published in more than 30 media outlets in Russia and abroad, including Russian mainstream media (such as Kommersant and Vedomosti) and foreign outlet (such as The Independent, BuzzFeed and Der Spiegel). Golunov’s investigation occupied the top position on the Russian internet among all news published that day (“Rassledovanie Golunova” [“Golunov’s investigation”], 2019).
In order to maintain autonomy, alternative professional journalists developed their own strategies to deal with the structural constrained. In Krasnoyarsk, alternative professional journalists constantly experience pressure from officials, who often call Afontovo’s editor-in-chief before the broadcast with demands to change the script, re-edit the video or even ban the entire report. If the editor-in-chief argues, the authority blackmails her, threatening to impose on the outlet “all sorts of administrative pressures.” Then, she does everything to make their communication with her miserable, so that the next time they think twice before calling her with their demands. Most of the times this strategy works; and the officials call the owner of the channel directly. He lives in Spain and is often out of reach. Another way that Afontovo deals with the pressure is to agree to ban a story from broadcasting, but to leave it on the network’s website and social media. Officials usually care less about what is published online, taking broadcast content more seriously.
Role conception and role performance of alternative professional journalists.
Mellado (2017) explains journalistic role conception as the way journalists perceive and talk about their roles and norms they are supposed to follow in their practices. It is an ideal that they are striving for. They learn this ideal concept at journalism schools or from their mentors. However, sometimes in the real-life environment journalists have to perform something different, and that is what is considered to be role performance (Hallin as cited in Mellado, 2017, p. xii). Combination of both participant observations of journalistic practices and interviews with the journalists allowed to reveal the gap between alternative professional journalists’ role conception and their everyday role performance, as well as define the main components of their identities. The study found a revealing discrepancy between the way they discursively construct their journalistic norms and the way they perform their profession. An important conflict that the data identified might be the tension between “the neutral observer and the civic activist.” These two sets of practices are not mutually exclusive and are simultaneously present in the daily routine of journalists from the sample, yet discursively they compete. Activists are ardently rejected by the alternative professional journalists as unprofessional and biased. This insistence on professionalism derives from three traditions: the U.S. normative tradition, elements of civic journalism and practices of Soviet journalism.
U.S. normative tradition.
Commitment to the U.S. normative tradition of impartiality, active critical journalism, and public interest reporting was adopted during the short “golden era” of post-Soviet journalism (Vartanova, 2012). Experienced alternative professional journalists recall that impartiality began to break down during the presidential elections in 1996, ending the “golden era” of post-Soviet journalism. That year, journalists took a stance against the communist candidate Gennadii Zyuganov and supported Boris Yeltsin who was not capable of serving the second term due to his medical conditions. Yeltsin eventually resigned before his term expired and appointed Putin as his successor. Then journalists realized that taking political sides and neglecting norms of impartiality during Yeltsin’s second presidential elections in the long run made them contribute to Putin’s regime and his attacks on press freedom. That moment in the history of Russian journalism influenced the current role conception of alternative professional journalists who reject an activist posture in the public sphere and strongly articulated their belief in objectivity. “Arkadii” learned norms of objectivity when he started working for Kommersant:
I am all for objectivity and impartiality regardless of what personal opinion or emotional experience I have about any issue. When I come to see a doctor, he or she does not tell me that he or she is a member of a particular political party. The doctor asks how I feel. So, I do the same. Even though we are not fans of the current political regime, but when it comes to the text, I need view points of all sides of the story. And if one of the sides refused to comment, then the refusal is also a comment. In this sense, I really like our objectivity. I understand emotions of the American journalists who took a stance and put caricatures of Trump on the cover pages. I do understand them as a human being, but I do not understand them as a professional. (Personal communication)
“Anna” claims herself as an adherent of the objectivity norm in a way it was understood and practiced by Politkovskaya2:
It seemed so cool to me how she objectively depicted both sides of the conflict. She didn’t omit anything, didn’t write that the Chechens were monsters; she just wrote very humanly. I like when the text is written with respect, but also with the proper skepticism. (Personal communication)
It is interesting that for her role model in terms of objectivity, “Anna” chose the journalist who was also a human rights activist. Being an activist means having a particular position and taking action on the social issues, which contradicts the detached position of a neutral reporter. Justifying her role conception of objectivity, “Anna” says:
Meduza just thinks that people have the rights that have to be respected. It is not something oppositional; it is humanism. If you say that in prisons and mental asylums human rights are not obeyed, you are not an oppositioner, you are just a normal human being who wants other people to be treated with dignity. It is not about politics. (Personal communication)
Denying issues of human rights as political, “Anna” tries to renounce herself from the possibility to be labeled as activist, which would oppose her role conception. Her professional practices, however, reveal traits of civic journalism.
Traits of civic journalism and practices of the Soviet journalism.
These two components have several characteristics in common. In my analysis, they are related to the proximity of the journalists to their audience. Some practices of civic journalism and Soviet journalism correlate with the Dzyaloshinskii’s (2011) third model of the position of journalists within the audience. Thus, for example, the publisher of Prospect Mira identifies himself as a member of the community that his outlet serves. He says, “We need to balance the negative picture, otherwise it would be impossible for all of us to stay sane. We live here and we are in this together.”
The traits of traditional Soviet concept of journalism as “a derivative of power” (Pasti, 2005, p. 103) is particularly tangible in the Russian regions, where the audiences have much closer relationships with their journalists. Often times, local alternative professional journalists use their “power position” to ensure what they understand by social justice on the micro level. Consider, for example, an episode from the Afontovo’s newsroom. One of the reporters, “Kira”, received a phone call from viewers, old ladies who were asking that they cover a story about a stolen front door in their community. Local authorities could not install the door for several weeks, the coldest weeks of that Siberian winter. “Kira” went to the ladies and filmed the report. The day after it aired the door was finally installed. Using her position, Kira performed a trait of the Western civic journalism and re-enacted practices of Soviet journalism, when reporters advocated for their readers, viewers and listeners communicating their requests to the state and party officials (Roudakova, 2018). Kira and her colleagues also volunteer for the Krasnoyarsk search party called Liza Alert. Every weekend they look for missing people in the local forests and invite their audience to join. Some journalists participate in squads of amateur firefighters in Siberia and around Moscow.
Besides volunteering, those who adopt a civic journalism approach organize campaigns for social causes, charity events, fundraising and protests.3 Engaging in advocating for community issues, alternative professional journalists act like political players. However, they still discursively insist on their adherence to the norm of objectivity and neutrality. Some of them acknowledge their occasional departure from neutrality, justifying it by their editorial mission and audience expectations. For example, “Yan” gives an interesting explanation why he decided not to publish/broadcast a report on the criminal past of Pavel Grudinin who ran for president in 2018. Yan considered it unfair to give Dozhd subscribers the content that they could get for free in the mainstream media that were already executing Kremlin’s order to ruin Grudinin’s reputation. In his opinion, it would look like the Kremlin also paid Dozhd to spread the propaganda message. For him it was not self-censorship or a declaration of a political position; it was professionalism, which encompasses editorial choices and understanding of the channel’s vulnerability and competitive advantages.
RQ3: How does the audience consume and use APJ work?
Relationship with the audience.
In response to RQ3, this study identified some common patterns of media consumption, namely: TV viewership is dramatically decreasing; most of the interviewees get the news through search engine algorithms (that are influenced by Russian state officials); many are getting information from social media opinion leaders; most of the interviewees do not trust mainstream media and are interested in alternative content.
Consider, for example, an anecdote from the audience research. Tatiana, a travel agent in her 50s from Krasnoyarsk, said she rarely watches mainstream networks. Tatiana and her husband turn them on only when they want to “laugh at the facial expressions of those who are constantly on the screens” (personal communication). In March 2019, the researcher, Tatiana and her husband were in their living room watching the opening ceremony of the Winter Universiade on Channel One. The couple was curious why Putin’s face looked displeased and why the local governor and mayor were not in the broadcast even though they were present at the ceremony and were sitting next to Putin. Tatiana evaluated the broadcast as “ridiculous political theater” and turned her attention to her smartphone, specifically the Instagram feed and local messengers through which Krasnoyarsk dwellers share news and opinions.
The gap between state propaganda messages and real life experiences made people curious enough about alternative content that they started searching online and even producing themselves. Many people from the sample who live in the provincial towns get their news from local groups organized within chat messengers (i.e. WhatsApp) and social networks’ groups (i.e. Facebook and VK) where they also post information if they witness, hear or learn something.
The spread of social media networks and messengers contributes not only to the growth of offline public participation organized via online platforms, but also to the distribution of the APJ work. The majority of the members of the audiences of APJ from the sample primarily get APJ content by coming across the links to particular pieces in their social media newsfeed and then sharing those links further. This model of two-step flow communication (Merton & Lazarsfeld, 1948), in which opinion leaders play a gatekeeping role, also works for the less politicized audience members, who learn about the APJ work from celebrities and bloggers they follow on social media.
Satisfying audience’s needs and interests is very important for alternative professional journalists, particularly for the subscription-based outlet. Dozhd’s sustainability depends entirely on the number of subscribers, who are, as “Yan” puts it, “hostages of their habits,” who want to get a particular agenda. “Yan” explains, “Dozhd audience is charged to believe that Putin is the executioner. They want to endlessly hear that. And of course it is hard to keep the balance between what we want professionally and what our viewers expect to see.” It goes both ways. Some members of the audience blame alternative professional journalism for liberal bias, considering as such presence of both sides of the story, in which the official side usually does not sound convincing.
In the Golunov case, expectations of his supporters revealed an important conflict between journalists’ roles of neutral observers and civic activists. People who rallied, in response, hoped that the protests would extend into the public movement against police brutality. However, when Golunov was released, Meduza called upon the public not to attend the march that was planned for the next day. Meduza’s editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov (2019) wrote,
About the march. Our position is: we fought off the attack on our guy, thanks everyone. This is our common victory, a result of the incredible cooperation of the people. But we are not practicing activism and we don’t want to be the heroes of resistance, sorry. (para. 21)
This statement caused public dissatisfaction. One of the protesters commented on Kolpakov’s statement: “I read that Meduza doesn’t do activism. Excuse me, but how come? What were those protests, petitions, duties by the courthouse if not activism?”
The fact that the public has chosen alternative professional journalists as the leaders of the public resistance said a lot about their mobilizing potential and growing influence in the public sphere. However, alternative professional journalists have been reluctant to acknowledge their active position, being scared to be blamed for their bias and political involvement. How we can interpret this observation and what implications the findings of this research might have for the future development of the Russian alternative journalism will be discussed in the final part of the paper.
The findings spark a set of discussion questions united by the theme of ideology of the Russian APJ. In Western contexts, scholars who study alternative media tend to align themselves with a political ideology. Pickard (2007) argues that alternative media can be right-wing. Fuchs (2010) insists that alternative media must have leftist social justice goals. Neither of these ideologies would make sense in contemporary Russia, where political right and left mean something completely different from the Western understanding of those concepts. Left is associated with the Communist past, party censorship, Stalin’s purges and economic hardship of the periods of stagnation. Right is often understood in connection with the liberal reforms of the 1990s, privatization and oligarchy. None of the sides of the Western political spectrum has even slightly positive connotation in the Russian settings. As the findings demonstrate, alternative professional journalists strongly reject the idea of being in opposition to the current regime or being Putin’s critics. Thus, the question of APJ ideology can not be discussed through the lens of the traditional Western theoretical tools. Instead, the author argues that the ideology of Russian APJ is “objectivity.”
The norm of objectivity that the Russian alternative professional journalists worship came from the U.S. normative tradition, where objectivity entails “writing and organizing the material so as not to express or suggest a preference for one set of values over another” (Klaidman & Beauchamp, 1987, p. 46). It also means writing “not what journalists think, but what their sources say” (Sigal as cited in Manoff & Schudson, 1986, p. 8). Schudson (1978) explains that objectivity meant that “a person’s statements about the world can be trusted if they are submitted to established rules deemed legitimate by a professional community” (p. 7). Thus, objectivity in Western tradition is tightly connected to the professional group autonomy. Moreover, my informants were reluctant to talk about those issues from the critical standpoint and were defensive when I was trying to challenge their belief in objectivity
Alternative professional journalists religiously believe in the norm of objectivity that they almost never fully experienced, but have been always striving for. This idea reminds them of the dawn of the post-Soviet journalism and gives them hope that professionalism (in the way they imagine it) is achievable. Alternative professional journalists shield themselves by this discourse of objectivity that serves them as a way to separate their professional group from the mainstream journalists who adhere to a different model; a way to discursively position themselves outside of the system, not in opposition to it (not as counter propaganda with another political charge). Aside from making them feel hopeful and good about themselves, the ideology of objectivity also serves as a way to protect themselves by avoiding accusations of activism and biases against the regime that might attack them at any time.
In the course of the last couple of years, the Kremlin tried to obtain control over the Russian segment of the internet. In 2019, the government passed the “sovereign internet” bill and implemented laws about “fake news” and decried “blatant disrespect” of authorities, making it easier for the government to block websites critical towards public officials (“First Russian,” 2019). In addition, after people felt empowered by Golunov’s release, the state became more violent towards protesters and organizers, who now get not only severely beaten by the police, but also arrested and imprisoned for voicing their position in public (“Massovye zaderzhaniya” [“Mass arrests”], 2019).
The gap between discursive commitment to objectivity and the role performance of the elements of civic journalism might be a reaction to the state’s attempts to scare journalists and activists and discourage public participation. It might be that for the same reason, out of the instinct of self-preservation, alternative professional journalists, who won the important battle over media power in the summer of 2019, decided to strike the flag, recede and worship objectivity.
In the post-Crimean years, technological advances and political conditions of the Putin’s regime contributed to the emergence of a community of APJ that operates almost solely online and perceives itself as a marginalized social group. APJ demonstrates that the current Russian media system is not entirely controlled by the Kremlin and that flexibility of digital settings allows resistance against the rigid structures of the regime that employs traditional mainstream media to reinforce its power hierarchies. By moving their operation online, alternative professional journalists managed to spill online activism into the offline reality of the streets of Russia, where shadows of possible social change became more distinct. However, alternative professional journalists did not accept the role of civic activists given to them by the public. Their refusal to lead a resistance, ignited by them, opened up debates about journalistic activism and its ethical components. By this denial, alternative professional journalists distinguish themselves from the propagandists who are far from being objective. However, claims of alternative professional journalists’ commitment to the norm of objectivity are not fully consistent with their role performance, which also includes some traits of the Soviet journalism and the Western conception of civic journalism that alternative professional journalists actively deny as present in their practices. Discrepancies between role conception and role performance, and justification of those discrepancies by the discourse of professionalism serve as a strategy to manage pressure from the state and circumvent structural constraints require further analysis.
By examining APJ practices in the digital environment and the ways that they reconfigured power relations within the society, this article makes a theoretical contribution to the studies of alternative journalism (Atton, 2003; Jeppesen, 2016) in non-democratic regimes and the development of public spheres in non-Western contexts. It challenges the taken-for-granted theories about Russian journalism (Arutunyan, 2009; Slavtcheva- Petkova, 2018) by offering a new interpretation of the post-Crimean media system, in which APJ plays a very special and promising role, though currently it still occupies the periphery of the media system.
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1. Some of the APJ outlets appeared recently are Project (https://www.proekt.media/), The Bell (https://thebell.io/en/), MediaZone (https://zona.media/), Colta (https://www.colta.ru/), Open Media (https://openmedia.io/), VDud (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMCgOm8GZkHp8zJ6l7_hIuA).
2. Anna Politkvskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who reported on political events in Russia, in particular, the Second Chechen War. On October 7, 2006, she was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building. Those who ordered the assassination are still unknown.
3. Within a variety of the alternative media in Russia there are several projects that openly position themselves as civic journalism. However, they are not in the current sample. The most prominent and successful civic journalism projects are Takie Dela (https://takiedela.ru) whose motto when they launched in 2016 was “We will bring back a subject into journalism” and MediaZona (https://zona.media). They organize fundraising and charity events.
Olga Lazitski is a media scholar and a journalist. Her academic work encompasses issues of propaganda and populism within the contexts of the post-truth era, production of national subjects and nationalist sentiments, public resistance to the hegemonic discourses and oppressive regimes, practices of alternative professional journalism and its role in the public spheres. Lazitski’s broad scholarly interest relates to the concept of media endarkenment—the term she coined attempting to name the processes of media influence and practices of media production and media consumption, by which the number of informed, critical-thinking and active citizens decreases. Currently, Lazitski is a doctoral candidate at University of California San Diego Communication department. She has been a Fulbright scholar at Emerson College in Boston where she started her media research on media endarkenment, propaganda, and persuasion. She also worked as a reporter, producer, anchor, and news writer for Russian and international networks in Moscow and local media in Siberia and Russia’s Far East.