RIA Novosti overhaul sends shockwaves

RIA Novosti to be replaced with Russia Today news agency. Source: RIA Novosti

RIA Novosti to be replaced with Russia Today news agency. Source: RIA Novosti

The dissolution of the agency, which will take at least three months to implement, also leaves 2,300 employees in limbo, with many wondering whether they will be able to continue working within the new organization.

The Kremlin’s drastic overhaul of state-owned media, which would see RIA Novosti, Russia’s biggest news agency, dissolved and absorbed into a new holding, has left industry insiders and experts wondering what, exactly, would arise in its place and how deeply the national media landscape will be affected.

“The time of distilled, detached journalism is over,” Dmitry Kiselyov, the firebrand television presenter appointed to head the new conglomerate, told RIA Novosti staff on Dec. 12. “Objectivity is a myth that is being imposed on us…. As for editorial policy, of course, I would like for it to be associated with love of Russia.”

Kiselyov’s comments have journalists, managers and clients of RIA Novosti – which also publishes The Moscow News – wondering if that strategy will leave any room for news.

Market will be affected

On Dec. 9, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree dissolving RIA Novosti and replacing it with a conglomerate called Rossia Segodnya. The move came as a surprise not only to journalists, but to RIA’s editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, who had headed the agency since 2003.

The new organization, to be headed by Kiselyov, would shift its focus, according to the decree, on broadcasting to foreign audiences. Nothing is said in the decree about keeping the Russian news service, which produces 50 news wires carrying on average 2,000 texts and up to 600 photos each day.

It was unclear, based on Kiselyov’s comments, how RIA’s Russian service, counting over 850 reporters and including bureaus in 45 countries, would remain within the new holding. He told RIA staffers that he would try to make the “bureaucratic transition” as smooth as possible, although some cuts would have to be made to ensure efficiency. “The RIA brand will somehow remain,” Kiselyov said.

According to Dmitry Drigailo, head of the business development department at RIA Novosti, “well over a hundred” media outlets currently subscribe to the RIA news wire as paid clients. Fifteen percent of RIA’s subscribers are located abroad, he added.

Lack of clarity about what will happen to the news wire has some of RIA’s subscribers wondering whether they should renew their contracts.

“We’re not ready to prolong our subscription for another year because we don’t have an understanding about the kind of wire service the new structure will provide,” Galina Timchenko, editor of Lenta.ru, one of Russia’s largest privately owned online news sites, told The Moscow News. Lenta.ru’s content is formed between 20 to 25 percent from the RIA Novosti’s dispatches, according to Timchenko.

“A news agency is supposed to carry full, objective information as much as it is possible,” Timchenko said. “Based on what [Kiselyov] said, that is not his purpose at all. So we have no idea what kind of product it will be.”

Russia’s regional media relied heavily on RIA Novosti’s news wires, with a number of regional newspapers getting certain wires for free, according to Sofia Dubinskaya, executive director of the Alliance of Regional Media Directors in Russia. According to figures provided by RIA Novosti, there are currently over 370 free subscriptions to the agency’s multimedia sports package.

“It was easier to rely on fast, independent information from RIA Novosti than [Itar-Tass],” Dubinskaya said. “I don’t know if this will continue with Rossia Segodnya. Based on what Kiselyov has said, [the new organization] will have little interest in regional media. Even local television stations relied to a large degree [on RIA]. I don’t know what they’re going to do without it.”

The hole left in news production is unlikely to be filled by RIA’s chief competitor, the state-run Itar-Tass, according to media analyst Ivan Zassoursky, head of the new media and communication theory department at Moscow State University’s Journalism Faculty. Zassoursky believes that Itar-Tass, which produces several times less content than RIA Novosti, won’t be able to handle the demand.

Without RIA’s news wire, state media will lose influence over the news agenda, leaving social media, already influenced by opposition-minded bloggers, to their own devices. That, in turn, could undermine information exchange between the government and its citizens, Zassoursky said.

Propaganda hard to sell

For Kiselyov, “love of Russia” was integral to editorial policy. “People who can carry arms will be needed,” he told staffers when asked about possible layoffs. That has created some uncertainty for top managers at RIA over the kind of news organization that will emerge in the overhaul.

“What I am going to regret is that this new organization may end up without a news agency,” Valery Levchenko, deputy editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti, told The Moscow News. “I’ve spent the last seven years proving to people that RIA Novosti is not propaganda.”

From a business perspective, it was unclear how the new conglomerate would continue selling a news product if objectivity wasn’t the purpose.

“If the agency’s information products change their purpose and stop informing and evaluating, and start instead to propagandize and incite, then we will lose a considerable share of our subscribers,” said Drigailo, of RIA Novosti’s business development department. “If we start changing the purpose of the information we publish, we risk losing our reputation, our influence and our income.”

Job market fears

The dissolution of the agency, which will take at least three months to implement, also leaves RIA Novosti’s 2,300 employees in limbo, with many wondering whether they will be able to continue working within the new organization.

“I think there will be three strategies for staffers. The first is to wait to be transferred into the new structure,” Levchenko said. “The second will be to seek help from previous management. The third group will look for options independently.”

The confusion and insecurity gripping RIA employees is likely to produce a sense of disarray on the Russian media market in general.

“It used to be that working for the state media was viewed as a relatively secure position,” Zassoursky said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

For Dubinskaya, of the regional media alliance, “what’s hard to accept is that thousands of people may find themselves out of a job, both in Russia and abroad. Kiselyov says that he’s not going to fire people, but to be honest I don’t believe him.” 

First published in The Moscow News.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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