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Natalia Belogrudova, media expert from Saint Petersburg, Russia: “The problems faced by Moldovan online portals are common to all post-Soviet countries”

02 November 2017
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Natalia Belogrudova has worked for several publications in St. Petersburg, including the newspaper Delovoy Peterburg [St. Petersburg Business]. For several years she has been providing consultancy to journalists from post-Soviet countries on issues such as editorial management, improvement of online content and other aspects. Recently, invited by the Internews representative office in Moldova, the expert analyzed several Moldovan portals. We used this opportunity to ask her opinion on the main issues faced by online media in our country and in other post-Soviet countries. Ms Belogrudova, what aspects did you focus on during analysis of the online portals that you visited?
Natalia Belogrudova: Internews Moldova offered me to analyze the quality of content of some Moldovan portals based on my methodology, and, since I am a Russian-speaking journalist and I write in Russian, I stopped at Russian-language websites. I focused on several aspects of these websites’ activity – to what extent readers are interested to access them, how comfortable is their navigation, how active are these portals’ contacts on social networking websites, etc.
I was also interested in how the managers of media outlets organize their work. To learn about it, I conducted small interviews with editors and journalists and attended editorial planning sessions, so as to see from the inside how tasks are assigned. In the end, the quality of content depends to a large extent on these editorial procedures.
Then, based on such observations and on the materials I will read on their websites, I will give them some recommendations on what they should do to improve, to expand their audience and to attract more advertisement. The actual task of any online media outlet is this: to do quality journalism; to become a leader on the market; and to be financially independent.
M. A.: Could you speak in more detail about the problems faced by the portals you analyzed?
N. B.: It was my first visit to Moldova, so some things surprised me. I couldn’t understand, for example, why some portals use Facebook for promotion and practically don’t work on other social networking websites, such as VKontakte or Odnoklassniki. In Russia, all media outlets, including the more serious ones, are present in such networks as VKontakte. I believe that some media should give up the stereotype that only teenagers are there and should make more use of the potential of these social networks. We should post materials in as many places as possible, creating pages on any network where our readers are.
Overall, however, the problems faced by Moldovan online portals are common for all post-Soviet countries. First of all, it is obvious that online outlets don’t know their audience. They lack the knowledge of web analytics, used by Western and American media, which constantly study their audiences. It is not mere chance that the most often question I am asked is this: “Why aren’t we read?”
M. A.: How do you answer such questions?
N.B.: You need to know who you are writing for. Web analytics should be the main criterion according to which a media outlet working online should guide its activity. And by this, I don’t mean only the number of views, likes and shares. Web analytics mean thoroughly examining the entire activity of readers on the website. Who visited the website, how much attention they paid to each story, how much time they spent on each page. Most of the time, these indicators are not studied very well, sometimes they are even neglected, and as a result some stories are barely read.
Google analytics can be of great use to any journalist. It is enough to learn how to use this tool with the help of YouTube videos. Trainings are welcome, too, but you can do it even by yourself.
M. A.: As an expert, you also focus on editorial management. What does efficient management start with?
N.B.: The first step in ensuring quality management is strategic planning, which helps you to get where you need. The second step, which results from the first one, is to have knowledge of management.
There is no point in having a strategic plan spanning for more than 2.5 years, because everything changes very quickly now. After you make a business plan, you can start building based on it: looking for the people you need, depending on their qualities and knowledge; determining the income you want to get; and so on. That is how you become an entrepreneur in the editorial business. Well, this is exactly what media in post-Soviet countries lack, as people here are used to doing everything intuitively. Hence, lots of meaningless steps, which lead nowhere and don’t give the expected results. We should understand that quality management means not only good intuition, but also strategic planning.  
M.A.: What does a modern reader expect from a portal? How should journalists write in order to win readers’ trust?
N.B.: Readers are waiting for stories about the things that affect them in everyday life, suggestions or even practical and useful solutions to certain situations. The experience of journalists in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries shows that the websites focusing on social issues have greater support from readers. Journalists should take this into account and, before they write anything, they should ask themselves: Will my story be useful to readers?
In terms of writing style, I would recommend the narrative, but the story should be not only correctly told, but also interesting. The text should contain a strong dramatic element. A well-written material is like a good documentary, which you can watch in one sitting. It is not enough for a journalist to just collect facts, verify them and operate with several independent sources; a journalist should also be a good storyteller. I would say that not many journalists in post-Soviet countries have this skill. When they choose their stories, they often start from what they would like to write, not from what their reader expects to read. It is a great illusion!
M.A.: Are journalists prepared to address topics of public interest?
N.B.: Journalists in post-Soviet countries are not quite ready. A good journalist writes deep and well-grounded materials, but this requires general culture, knowledge not only of superficial aspects in a field, but also of the things familiar to the person who provides information. Sources immediately realize a journalist’s level of documentation, and if the journalist doesn’t understand enough the specifics of the subject, they can hide the truth or provide information selectively. I’m not saying we must specialize in certain fields. But if you write about a city, for example, you need to know everything about it – about the state of its ecology, economy, transports, constructions, health, culture, etc. Only then you will be able to see real problems that affect citizens. Only then you will be able to ask specific questions and get precise answers. Unfortunately, journalists get to do fieldwork completely unprepared, and in their stories they only repeat the things they are told by sources. Thus, they are often easy to manipulate. Especially young journalists.
M.A.: Who is responsible for this situation? The university?
N.B.: There is no one to blame. In my opinion, the problem is that the already formed professionals massively leave the system. Today, nearly all the journalists working in post-Soviet countries are very young. Usually, after the age of 30 people start leaving the media because of small wages. If you have a family and you can’t count on help from parents, you can’t really survive on a journalist’s salary. That is why you will see young people born in 1990-1991 dominating the journalistic community in various post-Soviet countries. Obviously, they can’t have very deep knowledge of economy, culture, education and other areas. It certainly helps when editors-in-chief show a responsible attitude and help them learn. In fact, good management takes into account this component, I mean the professionalization of young employees, too. For example, in our newspaper, Delovoy Peterburg, we have training programs for journalists in different areas. If someone writes about real estate or construction, he attends a training course and learns the strengths and weaknesses in that area. The editorial office offers such courses free of charge, so they could become competent.
M. A.: Your methodology contains recommendations about the motivation of journalists. How could experienced people be motivated to stay in journalism?
N.B.: There is much to say about it. First of all, good specialists must be offered financial incentives. It means that media institutions must learn to make money, have strong advertising departments, and never neglect commercial aspects, which happens a lot, but make greater efforts to develop them. In short, this aspect of editorial management deserves much more attention than it currently gets.