I’m excited to announce that I’ll be returning to Russia next week to take part in the Bilateral Presidential Commission Mass Media Sub-Working Group meeting (that’s a ridiculous mouthful…). Last year, I was one of 12 journalists from the US that participated in the inaugural US-Russia Young Media Professionals Exchange (the second exchange will happen in a few months, and applications are being accepted until August 9), administered by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Knight Foundation. Now, as part of a continued cooperation and dialogue between the Putin and Obama administrations, this meeting next week will be an opportunity for delegates from newsrooms, academia, and government, in both countries to talk about the business, process, and nature of journalism in both countries. I’ll be representing the other journalists who went on the exchange last year to talk about what went right and what went wrong on the exchange.
I’ll be in St. Petersburg for a couple of days and then available Aug. 3 – Aug. 10, tentatively planning to head north from St. Petersburg.
A bit about the exchange: Twelve Americans traveled to Moscow and worked in newsrooms there for 3.5 weeks (I was at ITAR-TASS Photo; others were at Kommersant, Ogonek, Moskovskii Komsomolets, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and other major news organizations in the country) and twelve Russians came to the US to work in newsrooms here, including Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Seattle Times, and the Miami Herald. It was a phenomenal opportunity to take my previous life as a Russian major and mix it with my current life as a photojournalist.
My experience in Moscow involved working closely with editors in the news and assignment desks at ITAR-TASS Photo and go on daily assignments alongside the agency’s wire photographers. You can see some of the images I took during my time in Moscow and a reporting trip to Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia, above. The nature of these daily assignments was quite interesting, especially coming from a background of newspaper and magazine photography in the US. The majority of the assignment work I saw involved a press conference, media availability, or official opening or tour. Access to politicians and businesses was extremely limited and heavily negotiated for each assignment. ITAR-TASS is a state news agency, but their operating budget, from what I understand, comes entirely from photo licensing and sales. Images of Putin and Medvedev, of course, are the biggest sellers, but the agency frequently covered opposition politicians while I was there. An editor told me the market for those types of images was generally limited to publications in Moscow and outside of Russia. I also got the opportunity to talk extensively with photographers from ITAR-TASS and other Moscow publications, sharing what it’s like to work in the US and learning about being a photojournalist in Russia. Many expressed frustration about the subjects their papers covered, how politics is reported in the media, lack of access on all types of stories, general suspicion of journalists and photographers (one photographer told me about getting harassed while taking pictures of holiday lighting in a busy shopping area of Moscow).
We also had substantial opportunity to meet with editors and journalists at many newspapers in Moscow, though most of these were state-run operations. When asked about their approach to the news, an editor at Komsomolskaya Pravda said, “We support the President,” and said that stance is what guides the newspaper’s reporting. Other reporters at that publication and elsewhere told us that the relationship with the administration was a bit more complicated than that. While living in China, I became accustomed to the Chinese way of controlling the media through daily directives of what can and cannot be published. I expected that something like that would exist in Russia, but in talking with editors and reporters, heard of no such centralized control of newsrooms. Rather, reporters we spoke with seemed to have a general sense of what news would and wouldn’t fly in daily editorial meetings, not unlike newsrooms in the US. Of course, they said their editors would rarely approve a story critical of the administration, but even one of the largest newspapers in the country isn’t afraid to criticize Putin’s party or investigate murders of journalists. That editor, Pavel Gusev, told our group that he had no problem printing journalism critical of the administration, so long as it could be backed up with facts and honest journalism.
One of the biggest shortfalls of the exchange was that we did not have any official meetings with independent and opposition journalists and publications. This was to be expected, but there was opportunity to arrange those sorts of meetings on our own. Online and social-media focused journalism and blogging is a significant force in Russian politics and society, and I only saw glimpses of that.