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April 11, 2011, 1 p.m.

How Russia’s top journalism school is revamping its curriculum to create a new culture of press freedom

The limitations on press freedom in Russia have been well-documented. With the Kremlin holding a stake in each of the country’s six national television stations, including English-language Russia Today, and controlling 60 percent of the country’s registered newspapers, the absence of a free press has proven to be a significant blight on Russia’s efforts to display itself as a Western-style democracy.

That all would seem to diminish the influence — and perhaps bolster the importance — of the country’s journalism schools, including the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, by many accounts the heart of journalism education in Russia. In September, the faculty will overhaul its curriculum, reducing the amount of liberal arts education — Russian and foreign literature, journalism history, sociology of the press — and adding more practical, new media training. The change, of course, has to do with the increasing reliance on Internet news sources, especially among younger Russians.

In a recent opinion piece in The Moscow Times, the city’s English-language daily, Elena Vartanova, a media theorist and dean of MSU’s journalism school, outlined her faculty’s future course, hinting that the increase in new media education might hasten the liberalization of Russian journalism.

I spoke with Vartanova in her office in central Moscow, just a short walk west of the Kremlin. In addition to her views on the state of Russian media, Vartanova addresses the growth of online news culture, how future journalists — her students — could alter what she calls Russia’s “particular national media industry” and why the disappearance of traditional media sources could be a plus.

Tapper: In your Moscow Times piece you called Russia a country with a “particular national media industry.” That seems a subtle way of saying, “We have a lot of problems.” What, exactly, did you mean?

Vartanova: We live in a very complex and problematic society. But how much time did it take for the American media to become financially viable, politically sustainable and respectable? In 1991, Russian media came out of a complete censorship environment. There are still journalists on editorial staffs who were loyal Party members. In terms of historical development, we are just at the very beginning.

Part of the Russian mentality and political and media culture is passive criticism. We don’t have a developed civil society. People don’t feel a responsibility for themselves, for their environment. This is a traditional Russian problem. People feel as if the state should care, but they know that the state cares very badly. Creating something from grassroots level is not typical for Russians.

I believe that technological change accelerates the political and cultural change in society. It helps to get rid of old modes. Sometimes it’s very painful to see newspapers dying, but in a way, that heritage is not easy to live with. Technological change helps a lot.

Tapper: So you’re suggesting, then, that unlike in the U.S., where many people lament the death of newspapers, in Russia it might actually not be such a bad thing?

Vartanova: The death of newspapers not only means the death of traditional media, but also the death of old media culture. Perhaps this will help the next generation of Russians. There is a very strong state presence in the media, not just federal presence, but also state agencies at regional and local levels. Our media is not transparent in terms of revenue structure. For instance, we don’t know the revenue sources of many local media. But we know that local authorities, even when they are not media owners, invest informally. Local newspapers work as official newspapers of local authorities. The advertising market is developed very unevenly — television has more advertising money than print media — so state presence is important for newspapers.

Old media journalists prefer to take sponsorship money, which might come from political parties or local businesspeople. They serve as instruments of influence. In many markets there is a small percentage of objective media. We do not have a newspaper model that corresponds to Western newspapers. Our newspapers were tools of propaganda and ideology. And that hasn’t changed.

Our young people have grown up in a different environment. Perhaps this digital divide, between older and younger Russians, will help the younger generation create their own culture, independent from an old authoritarian tradition.

Tapper: The digital divide can also be expressed in geographic terms, a unique Russian problem considering the size of the country. Broadband access can be four times more expensive in areas outside Moscow and there are far fewer Internet users outside major cities. How does this affect the growth of online media?

Vartanova: The potential of Internet growth is now challenged by technological development. Because the country is so poorly populated, we only have Internet growth in big cities, where people have very good online access. Online culture has matured in big cities. Those who do have good access to technology don’t use online media and they really have a different picture of the world. People in big cities are more dependent on the Internet than on television nowadays.

Tapper: What role, then, is the Internet playing in Russian media?

Vartanova: It really is a new part of our media system. People are increasingly consuming online news, and online news often takes the first step in agenda-setting. Only then do consumers get more analysis and commentary from print sources.

One of the functions of online media is creating an alternative news agenda. If you watch big television channels you see distilled content, which is double-checked by company managers, by people in power — you won’t find problematic material. The alternative agenda on the Internet is helping Russians see pitfalls and problems. And the Internet has become a tool for people to create public opinion, to support the “man on the street.” In Russia, when mainstream media says something, you should double-check on the Internet. It provides a different point of view.

For example, last autumn there was a big plan to build a highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The road would cross a forest near Khimki, a Moscow suburb. Khimki citizens were completely against the road. As [President Dmitry] Medvedev prepared to sign the decree, people began to organize online, through Twitter and blogging sites, like LiveJournal, setting dates for public protests. Finally, it became an extremely urgent issue for mainstream media. People started to think they could tell power what to do.

The Internet in Russia has potential to teach people how to express their opinions and how to be more active in civil society.

Tapper: Your background is in media economics. With its focus on new media, how will MSU’s new journalism curriculum prepare students for a career in Russia?

Vartanova: In terms of online media, it will be more conceptual: how the Internet is changing the media landscape, media consumption, and how the Internet influences media and communication culture in Russian society and between users. We’ll combine academic knowledge with practical skills.

We’ll also teach students how to create their own media startups on the Internet. They’ll learn how to make money, how to deal with advertisers — not to go to politicians, not to ask the state to finance their companies. They’ll learn the disadvantages and problems of the Russian system. But by creating and maintaining startups, graduates will create new culture, new segments of the media industry.

POSTED     April 11, 2011, 1 p.m.
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