Journalism, not heroism ‘Vedomosti’ editor-at-large Maxim Trudolyubov reviews the fate of his own newspaper and other authoritative news outlets
In mid-March 2020, Vedomosti’s owners announced the preliminary sale of the newspaper to “Versiya” publishing house head Konstantin Zyatkov and “Arbat Capital” investment firm managing director Alexey Golubovich. Andrey Shmarov was then hired as acting editor-in-chief and several employees resigned immediately. The newsroom openly opposes his appointment and continues to observe longstanding independent editorial policies, despite Shmarov’s efforts to reshape the paper. In a special text for Meduza, Vedomosti editor-at-large Maxim Trudolyubov explains how journalists can survive amid pressure from their own management and owners.
Recent events at Vedomosti are part of a larger history of the news media that doesn’t end at Russia’s borders. Fighting to save the publication and its reputation from destruction, Vedomosti’s defenders are trying to rescue an institution with a complex internal code that’s sometimes hard to reconcile with the rules observed by others.
The newspaper’s journalists struggle with more than just getting through to the new owners. Opposition politician Alexey Navalny recently wrote about Vedomosti’s “sellout reporters, running around Facebook and defending [owner Demyan] Kudryatsev.” In this sense, some might say those trying now to save Vedomosti are people who have already fallen hopelessly low.
But you could also say these same people are soaring hopelessly high. “A business newspaper ‘like in the West’ in Russia during the age of Rosneft is a fantastical unicorn,” writes columnist Oleg Kashin. The Telegram channel Besposhchadnyi Piarshchik (Cut-Throat Spin Doctor) breaks it down like this: there was freedom under Western owners because foreigners didn’t care what the paper wrote about Russia — “all that mattered was that it was moderately bad and not too glowing.” Russian shareholders, meanwhile, can’t afford such extravagances, “unless they’re fucking insane philanthropists.”
The staff in Vedomosti’s newsroom are now the professionals and the moral victors, and acting editor-in-chief Andrey Shamarov and editorial director Yuri Katsman — despite all their advantages in brute force — are the losers. And yet it’s still worth addressing allegations against the paper’s journalists that they’ve either sold out or clung to unrealistic ideals.
The accusatory language of “trading your conscience for a mortgage” emerged in the toxic environment that followed Russia’s 2011-2012 protests and 2014 annexation of Crimea. The mortgage as a symbol of conformism is an extremely unfortunate image that creates a false idea about the place of work standards and professional ethics in public (and not just journalistic) life. Vedomosti’s journalists aren’t defending a single newsroom so much as their own desire to remain in the profession while observing its work and ethical standards.
Vedomosti first hit newsstands on September 7, 1999. With equal shares, the newspaper’s co-founders included the Russian company “Independent Media” (created by the Dutch journalist and businessman Derk Sauer), the British media company “FT Group” (which publishes The Financial Times), and the American company “Dow Jones” (The Wall Street Journal’s publisher).
In 2005, Derk Sauer and his partners sold Independent Media, including its 33-percent stake in Vedomosti, to the Finnish publishing house “Sanoma.” In 2015, Sanoma sold its third of Vedomosti to a company associated with the family of Demyan Kudratsev, who worked as CEO of the “Kommersant” publishing house from 2006 to 2012. In late 2015, after Russia started enforcing new regulations that limit foreign ownership in Russian media outlets to 20 percent, the companies “Pearson” (which publishes FT) and Dow Jones sold their shares in Vedomosti to Demyan Kudratsev and his co-investors, Vladimir Voronov and Martin Pompadour. In March 2020, it was announced that Vedomosti’s new owners would become the entrepreneurs Konstantin Zyatkov and Alexey Golubovich.
In late March 2020, Andrey Shmarov was appointed the paper’s new acting editor-in-chief. The sale hasn’t yet closed and Vedomosti’s publishing company remains under the formal management of Demyan Kudryavtsev and his partners, though Kudryavtsev says operational control has been transferred to the business’s prospective owners.
After a series of attempts by the new acting editor-in-chief to influence the paper’s editorial practices in favor of the oil company Rosneft, the newsroom nominated a replacement for Shmarov in an editorial published at Vedomosti itself, where senior staff defended the publication’s values and principles.
Currently, each print edition of Vedomosti reaches an average of 192,300 readers (according to “Mediascope” data between May and October 2019). The newspaper’s website gets 13 million unique views a month. According to data from “Yandex Radar,” Vedomosti’s website drew 14.4 million readers in March 2020. The publication does not disclose its financial indicators, though shareholders stated in 2017 that Vedomosti remains profitable.
Alexey Navalny is a heroic politician and it’s every hero’s right to urge others to great feats, but professionalism and honesty shouldn’t be great feats. Abiding by journalistic rules is less like religious asceticism (“it’s either your conscience or your mortgage”) than the non-religious principles of ethics in medicine or education. If doctors observed medical ethics based solely on their political convictions and personal tendency towards heroism, there’d be no one to treat us.
Journalism’s defenders in Russia are criticized not only from the heights of heroism but also from on the ground, where gut feelings rule the day. These disparagers know how the world works, their grasp of things extends far beyond Russia, and they usually hitch their explanations to the guiding star that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” In every encounter with this wisdom, those who defend professional standards and ethics in journalism look like naive foreigners in the cruel world of “Sechin’s Russia,” or the cruel world of “Murdoch's America,” or the cruel world of “Jack Ma’s China.”
How this happens
This is what happened with staff at The Wall Street Journal who defended the newspaper’s journalistic standards and internal code in 2007 when the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch acquired control of the company “Dow Jones,” which publishes the paper (Dow Jones was one of Vedomosti’s co-owners at the time). Just before the deal closed, editors published a long, in-depth profile on Murdoch, detailing his conservative political leanings and history of meddling in the editorial affairs of publications he owns. Murdoch himself was interviewed for the story.
After the sale, several well-known journalists resigned, including the authors of prominent investigative reports that famously upset Murdoch. The paper started producing fewer deep-dive feature stories and its editorial pages — already conservative before Murdoch took over — swung even further to the right. Editorial page editor Paul Gigot kept his job and he’s still there to this day, though managing editor Marcus Brauchli was forced out, a few months after the sale.
Journalist Joshua Prager — one of the reporters who left The Wall Street Journal after Murdoch’s arrival — told me that the erosion of the paper’s investigative desk and its increasingly conservative tilt were a depressing change in the newspaper’s “DNA.”
Dozens of staff who endured Murdoch’s acquisition could not stomach how the newspaper writes about Donald Trump. Leaving the publication in early 2017, reporters and editors talked about missed exclusives, sanitized interviews, the refusal to use the word “lie” about Trump’s statements, and “too many flattering access stories,” where WSJ gave Trump favorable coverage in exchange for a direct line. The newspaper’s critics say it no longer has a politics desk, but they acknowledge that there’s still top-notch reporting from the business, international, and cultural desks, as well as first-rate book reviews.
For many readers, today’s WSJ and its traditional, restrained tone are a welcome departure from The New York Times (where I have written columns since 2013), whose editors actually refused to recognize Trump’s election victory as ordinary political news. For many regular NYT contributors, Donald Trump represents an emergency that must be treated accordingly.
The South China Morning Post is an even bigger “foreigner” in China’s cruel world than Vedomosti is in Russia’s. Published in English in Hong Kong and long separated from Mainland China by a special local culture, British sovereignty, and the law, the newspaper’s main audience is Western readers and the local informed public. At one point part of the “News Corp.” empire, SCMP was acquired by a family of Malaysian moguls through the “Kerry Media” company in the 1990s. In 2015, the newspaper came under the control of the Alibaba Group — one of the pillars of modern China’s digital infrastructure. Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party and one of Xi Jinping’s closest associates.
Independent observers have noted that SCMP published twice as many articles mentioning Alibaba in the year after the company bought the newspaper. The publication now faces questions about its political reporting and allegations that it cooperates with the mainland’s intelligence agencies. Hong Kong’s media situation bears some resemblance to Russia’s insofar as newspapers of record in both places face acquisitions by businessmen with close ties to the national political leadership, and both are home to small publications that zealously defend their editorial independence.
At the same time, SCMP’s new owners have invested in the development of the newspaper, which now draws several times more readers online and has attracted high-paid journalists from the BBC, New York Times, and other Western media outlets. The paper has also maintained balanced coverage of political events. Its relatively independent opinion section, moreover, publishes relatively independent columns. SCMP does not observe the Chinese media’s ban on symbolically important and taboo subjects, like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In Mainland China, you have to circumvent state Internet censorship to read The South China Morning Post. The newspaper doesn’t enjoy a full life, but it’s not dead, either.
Consenting to a half-life
The Wall Street Journal and The South China Morning Post have very different histories, but both newspapers demonstrate how complex, authoritative journalistic organizations and internal codes can survive in changing political and economic conditions. Both publications “struggle with politics,” while SCMP has problems with business reporting thanks to its new proprietor, which has failed to resist the opportunities presented by owning the paper. Both publications have also faced the same accusations leveled against staff at Russia’s remaining authoritative newsrooms, like Vedomosti. You could argue that WSJ and SCMP are saved publications, but are they saved institutions? They’re half-saved, it’s probably fair to say.
There are many examples of such “half-survived” media outlets in the hands of powerful owners, from France’s oldest newspaper Le Figaro (which belongs to the family behind the “Dassault Group” aircraft manufacturer) to Russia’s own Kommersant (owned by the billionaire Alisher Usmanov). The United States is home to happier coexistence between media outlets and big money.
In 2013, Amazon founder and co-owner Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. It’s believed that Bezos does not interfere in the paper’s editorial policies and his managers are involved only in the publication’s commercial activities. In 2017, Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s widow) bought The Atlantic. South African-American media mogul Patrick Soon-Shiong recently acquired The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2018, the billionaire Marc Benioff bought Time Magazine, which he called “a treasure trove of our history and culture.” Benioff vowed not to interfere in the newsroom’s work and said he was “honored” to be a “steward of this iconic brand.”
The appearance of a custodian-owner is probably the best thing that can happen in this day and age with authoritative media outlets. On the other hand, treating publications like architectural monuments can render them less dynamic and become self-fulfilling.
Newspapers of record — large, established publications — have long lifespans. They outlive their creators and original staff. These outlets must often face compromises their journalists cannot influence and can avoid only by physically leaving the newsroom. But newsrooms and the cultures that shape them endure, just as allegations of conformism persist.
As sad as it sounds, an authoritative publication can maintain some of its reputation and still manage to influence the public sphere. It is worth fighting to preserve as much of an outlet’s journalistic standards and editorial agency as you can. The people now defending Vedomosti understand this and they are right. Despite all the damage to its reputation, The Wall Street Journal remains the country’s most authoritative business publication and even its political coverage sometimes features unexpectedly hard-hitting exclusives.
Quality journalism perseveres where it doesn’t conflict with the interests of owners. Some sections at major newspapers — particularly the culture desks — tend to live their own very respectable lives even after the politics and investigative departments at the same publications died long ago. In this sense, the fate of outlets like Kommersant and probably Vedomosti is not unique.
It’s also not unique for journalists to find themselves in the position of “foreigners” in a complex, often hostile environment. Good media outlets and real journalists are always, to some extent, foreigners in their own country, and the better protected this distance is, the more opportunities a publication has to earn a good reputation. This protection can be found in an economically sound publishing model (very rare, these days), reliance on paid subscriptions, or a nonprofit approach with owners who view themselves as brand stewards. Many authoritative media outlets combine these three components to varying degrees.
If you look at Vedomosti’s history in the context of everything said above, what stands out is hardly the venality of journalists worried about their mortgages or the impossibility of being a foreigner in your own country. An authoritative news publication is almost inevitably a reservation for skeptical observers, built on an institutionalized compromise. The journalists who defend the institution and the profession’s standards have neither fallen low nor soared high. They’re doing the same as their colleagues around the world: striving to accomplish as much as possible in hostile circumstances.
What stands out in Russia is the difficulty of preserving any organization’s internal culture and the astonishing narrow-mindedness of Russia’s potential media stewards. They could choose to create a respectable publication — something it would be an honor to own. But the men who call themselves Vedomosti’s new owners could think of nothing better than to bring in incompetent managers, turn the newsroom against itself, and demonstrate to everyone that they’ve learned nothing since the 1990s.
The half-life mentioned above refers to the institution and to the form of curiosity that for the past two centuries has been associated with magazines, newspapers, and everything we still call the traditional media. The word “half-life,” of course, doesn’t refer to those who seek to abide by the principles and rules of their professional ethics. It’s precisely the opposite: these people are free to determine how to protect this institution and how to push its boundaries.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock