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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Digital Briefing Live: Sam Greene on the RuNet’s impact on journalism

The internet in Russia, often referred to as the RuNet, is experiencing explosive growth, making Russia one of the fastest growing markets last year in terms of internet advertising. Russians are amongst some of the most avid users of social media, and Russia has its own crop of internet companies that are taking advantage of this growth.

This raises questions for how traditional media should respond and position themselves to serve audiences that are increasingly looking for not only content, but also conversation online.

To help us understand not only the growth of the RuNet, but also the impact that this is having on media and government regulation, we spoke to Sam Greene, the director of the Centre for New Media and Society at the New Economic School in Moscow. At the centre, “we are trying to understand how new media is changing the way we live, the way relate to each other, politics and the economy,” Greene said. The centre is connected with similar efforts across Russia and around the world, with partners in the US, UK, India, China, Hong Kong and South Africa to try to understand how the internet and new media is changing our societies.

“It is not possible to ignore the internet as a source of information anymore,” Greene said. It has moved beyond being a specialist media or a media for the elites, with between 30 to 40 percent of Russians now using the internet as an important source of information, he added.

It’s not just that more people have access to the internet, but as broadband access rapidly expands around the country, more people can consume and create video, audio and other media. “It gives (the internet) the immediacy that radio and television have and the same emotional connection you get from radio and television,” he added.

With this growth of RuNet as an important source of information, it is also having an impact on those who do not use it. The internet is not yet on par with television in terms of agenda setting, but it’s getting there, Greene said. News is more than just what we watch on television, hear on the radio or read in the press, news also informs our everyday conversations. “Even if your babushka, your grandmother, is not on the internet, their views are being shaped by what they hear from their grandchildren,” Greene added.

Cross-platform experimentation

With this rapid growth in internet use being a relatively recent phenomenon, the advertising market in Russia remains relatively strong when compared with other parts of the world, which means that it is still possible to make a lot of money in print media, local newspapers and television in Russia, Greene said.

Despite the current strength in the traditional advertising-supported media model in Russia, there is already a realisation that newspaper and television audiences in 10 years won’t be as high as they are now. That is leading to a lot of cross-platform media development as people are increasingly keen to bring their message to audiences online, Greene added.

And readers are responding. Russian readers have always been keen to let editors know what they think, but the internet has added to this interactivity.

“It makes it more difficult for those who want to control the information space, it makes their job much harder because the reaction space on the internet is much faster,” Greene said.

Digital technology has also added an important element of citizen reporting in Russia. The most dramatic example of this was during the flooding this summer in Krymsk, which killed more than 170 people. The region wasn’t a place where most major news organisations would have a bureau or staff, but people told their own story using photos taken on their mobile phones.

“A lot of journalists are now finding that it is their job to consume and filter what readers are sending in and translate that into verified and trustworthy news,” Greene said.

Government moves to control the internet

While these changes make the internet harder to control, the government has changed its stance on the level of control that it wants to exert over the internet. He said:

Early on in Medvedev’s presidency, now we’re talking five or six years, when people were criticising the lack of independent television and lack of diversity in mainstream media, Medvedev and the government were perfectly happy to point to the internet as the place where you could have pluralism. … There was a feeling, ‘well, we’ll let the internet do what it wants to do, and we’ll let people do there what they want to do.

Now they don’t feel that they can look on it as benignly, with as much distance, as in the past.

Despite this shift, Greene doesn’t believe that the government will move to a systematic form of control like China. Not only would it be expensive to develop such a system of control, but the government also realises that there is a risk in rolling out a state system of control. While it’s not possible to tie denial of service attacks against the sites like the popular Live Journal blogging platform, everyone assumed that the government was involved and reacted angrily.

How should news organisations respond?

With the internet growing rapidly and government policy changing, it poses challenges for news organisations in deciding how they should respond to these developments.

Greene said:

The first thing is to get the journalism right. Good journalism is good journalism whether it is online or offline. (The audience) might come because you built nice bells and whistles, but they are going to stay with you because you are bringing them a service.

But at the same time, he also said that news organisations need to realise that the internet is more than just a place for people to read what you have written or watched what you have recorded. The internet is an interactive space, and it can create a new, positive, more engaged relationship between journalists and their audiences.

To realise the internet’s full potential for journalism, he encouraged journalists not to be scared of technology. So much can be done without a lot of investment thanks to a range of new, low-cost and no-cost tools and services.

Success is not about building expensive websites but about “getting conversations started and participating in those conversations”.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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