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‘Frankly, this is a catastrophe’ Outgoing ‘Vedomosti’ editor explains how his newspaper fell from grace

Source: Meduza

On June 15, five deputy chief editors resigned from Vedomosti, after the newspaper’s new parent company made Andrey Shmarov its permanent editor-in-chief. Shmarov was named acting editor-in-chief three months ago, in the midst of a deal with another buyer. Almost immediately, Shmarov came into conflict with the newspaper’s other editors, who openly stated that they could not work with him. In an interview with Meduza, outgoing Vedomosti deputy chief editor Dmitry Simakov explains why the newsroom’s leadership held out hope until now.

Have you already written your resignation letter?

In our statement, we didn’t write that we had already quit — technically, we can’t do that yet. Our statement was a reaction to today’s news about Andrey Shmarov being named editor-in-chief, but, of course, physically we haven’t gone anywhere yet and have not written our resignation letters, and formally we are all still Vedomosti employees. Everything depends on when the HR department will be up and running. Now we will find out technically how to do all of this, and we will do everything. But we are determined to complete this process as quickly as possible. 

Since you haven’t quit yet, is it possible that you might still reach some kind of agreement with the newspaper’s new owner and editor-in-chief to stay under certain conditions?

The time for negotiations has passed. We talked and stated our position almost three months ago — they didn’t listen to us. Now a final decision has been made, with which we do not agree. Before that, since March 17, we were still living with some uncertainty: we had an acting editor-in-chief, so we still hoped to explain and convey our position to the investor. We tried to do this, but eventually the investor made a different decision. After all of these conversations the two previous potential investors [Alexey Golubovich and Konstantin Zyatkov] felt that it would be better not to take part in this transaction. It turns out that they were listening to us, but not to the end. 

Why did you wait all of these months and only decide to leave now?

Immediately it was clear that the situation was bad, that it would be difficult, even impossible to work with such leadership. There was, in fact, only one consideration — to convey our position and try to explain to people that to leave it as it is now means ruining the publication, fundamentally revising its philosophy, and moving away from independent journalism towards something else. Since we didn’t know the final decision up until today, there was still some kind of hope. Now there’s nowhere left to turn, so why sit this out any longer? In the current situation, we can’t continue to work.

Why do you think the editors’ opinion on the candidacy of the new chief editor was ignored?

Logically speaking, it’s obvious that this was an independent, objective publication, and from what has happened to us recently it’s clear that they want to trample these principles. It follows that someone doesn’t need an independent and objective publication, obviously they are preparing to make something servile out of it, under the respectable banner of Vedomosti. 

There was information in a number of publications and various media outlets about the fact that, according to sources, Andrey Shmarov takes his cues from the Kremlin. From your perspective, was his candidacy for the post of Vedomosti chief editor coordinated with the Putin administration?

I don’t know for sure, but this theory [exists]. It doesn’t matter now — the appointment took place, and it’s clear that the publication will change for the worse. It’s very unfortunate.

Did Ivan Yeremin [Vedomosti’s new owner] try to explain to you why his deciding vote was for Andrey Shmarov and not for the editorial office’s candidate, Anfisa Voronina?

To me personally, no. Today at the editorial office Yeremin called the General Director of [Vedomosti’s publisher] “Business News Media” Gleb Prozorov, our lawyer, and an HR specialist, [and] presented them with the minutes from the board of directors meeting, which, as I understand, was held close to midnight on June 11. Our colleagues informed us about this, and at that moment we decided that there was no place for us here, we are leaving. You may have seen [that] Yeremin wrote another column for Vedomosti, but he didn’t explain why he appointed Shmarov, who didn’t have the endorsement of a single member of the newspaper’s editorial staff.

What’s the attitude of the journalists in the editorial office?

We’re all sitting around at home and only communicating in chats, so it’s hard to say definitely. Of course, people are sad, because hope dies last, and until recently we all still hoped that common sense would prevail. Not everyone has the luxury of getting up and leaving — [some] will have to work at Vedomosti for a some time at least, until they find themselves another job. I am very sorry that everything turned out this way. In this case there won’t be such a beautiful story as when Sergey Kurchenko bought Ukrainian Forbes a few years ago, and after the deal closed the entire editorial office got up and left. But, incidentally, there was such an awesome story with Ukrainian Forbes: after that the publication’s license was revoked, and Forbes Ukraine started up again this spring, led by Volodya Fedorin, who originally launched Forbes in Ukraine. This is a very inspiring story about the fact that such things happen and everything can change for the better.

Frankly, what’s happening is a catastrophe — and that goes for me on a personal level, too. For example, I worked at the newspaper for almost 18 years. Yesterday, on June 14, was the latest anniversary of my arrival at Vedomosti. There are people who have worked at the publication 20 years, there those who [have worked there] more than 10 years. And if we have been doing all of this for so many years, it means that someone needed it. And if someone needs quality, objective, independent journalism, then someone else will simply take this niche. Some outlet will just grab Vedomosti’s audience and all of these actions by the paper’s new leadership will turn out to have been one giant misfire.

Why, in your opinion, did Ivan Yeremin buy Vedomosti at the last moment, and not those people who were initially announced as the potential buyers?

In my opinion, all of the potential buyers were cut from approximately the same cloth — that’s Zyatkov and Yeremin. It’s clear that there are no professional media investors in Russia, with the possible exception of Forbes investor Magomed Musaev, who acted as a “white knight” and saved the editorial board. This is arguably the only example.

What do you plan to do next?

First, I need to visit the newsroom and hand in [my] resignation. I’ll also start looking for a new job, which is something I haven’t done in 18 years. I’ll have to recall some old skills.

Have you thought of finding investors and establishing your own media outlet?

In Russia and, in my opinion, around the world, as well, investors are not seeking to invest in media now. Yes, we tried to find someone, but in the current situation this is a very difficult task. The sphere that you and I work in is not very profitable for investors, since the prospects for making money are not very great, but losing money is very easy. And the coronavirus has messed everything up in general, it’s difficult to do anything when everyone is sitting at home. Yes, we are trying, but it’s not really happening so far. New media has appeared on the Russian market in recent years — The Bell, Proekt — but this is not the story this year, and with every year the situation in the media sphere in Russia gets more and more toxic. 

Interview by Maria Kolomychenko

Translation by Eilish Hart

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