All posts by agorbachev

World of Echo

This week another outrageous media scandal happened in Russian, which made me think about something we talked about in class earlier this semester.

Global Voices has the story. In short, Aleksandr Plushev, a radio host for Echo of Moscow, one of the leading — and most objective, albeit controversial — Russian news radio stations, was fired for posting an inappropriate tweet about the death of the son of Sergey Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff.

(Of course, there’s much more context to it, such as: a) Ivanov’s son had a notorious reputation and allegedly get away with a hit-and-run that resulted in the death of a woman; b) Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov personally knows Vladimir Putin, and many people think that the Russian president guaranteed a certain degree of freedom to the station.)

Was this tweet really inappropriate? In my opinion, yes. How evil Ivanov and his son might be, it’s irresponsible for a journalist to imply that a person’s death was a “proof of God’s existence or cosmic justice”.

Could a journalist be fired for that in the U.S.? Yes, as it seems, and there are a lot of examples.

But here comes the difference between Russia and America. The journalist wasn’t fired by his editor-in-chief. In fact, it was Mikhail Lesin, head of Gazprom-Media, the main shareholder of Echo of Moscow, who made the decision without even noticing the editor-in-chief. Which, of course, is completely outrageous and also illegal. And many people believe that this situation is just a pretext to get Venediktov, who refused to agree with Lesin’s decision, fired, too.

This is a good example of the importance of editorial independence, I guess. Yes, it is obvious that, when it comes to journalists being on Twitter, the border between a private opinion and a professional one is blurred, and pretty much anything that a reporter tweets publicly can be inflammatory for his organization. But it’s up to this organization, and not its owners or government officials, to decide whether a reporter crossed the line and whether he should be punished for that.

Chance Meeting with a Sewing Machine

Another story is out. This one was done for my beat — and yes, it came together much faster than the previous one. I guess I’m learning something! Well, hopefully.

And yes, it’s a centerpiece in the paper, and I’m an old-fashioned person in a way, so that makes me especially proud of myself
And yes, it’s a centerpiece in the paper, and I’m an old-fashioned person in a way, so that makes me especially proud of myself

But really: basically, everything I had to with the story after sending the first draft to the editor was just to rewrite the opening scene (the initial one felt a bit out of place, I should admit). And that was it. I guess the story itself wasn’t as complicated as the previous one — it’s basically about a new business, a person who opened it and some market trends, — but still, I was really pleased when this e-mail titled “the story is terrific” popped up in my mailbox.

Working on this story reiterated for me why I like being a journalist so much. Because it’s essentially a never-ending self-education, that’s why. (Which, by the way, makes my current situation even more multi-level, since I’m basically studying how to study life.) I mean, before coming to Straight Grain studio I didn’t even know what tassels were — and that’s not because my English is that bad, as a matter of fact, I still don’t know how these things are called in Russian. But now I know, and I even can make one, and I learned a whole lot about sewing and draping and stuff, and probably now I’m even able to participate in a discussion about sewing for some time.

Which, of course, is unlikely to happen, but I hope my nonexistent readers gets the point anyway.

Between The Barricades

Well, this day I was so excited about finally came.

Unfortunately, I was able to attend only two out of six master classes. Not my fault, though. Just schedule conflicts. I mean, whose idea was it to hold the lectures by James Ball from the Guardian and Mark Robinson from Wired at the same time?! It was cruel.

Anyway, one of the classes I managed to attend was given by two editors of Kyiv Post, a Ukranian English-language newspaper. Obviously, they talked about covering the dramatic events that have been happening in their country for the last year.

You can probably understand why I was interested. But I won’t get into the whole argument Maidan, Crimea and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk right now — this is too complicated and, admittedly, sometimes even painful.

I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of the master class here. I even asked the Kyiv Post’s editors a question about it. When Katya Gorchinskaya, the deputy editor of the newspaper, was talking about the importance of retaining objectivity even when one side of the conflict seems to be pure good and other pure evil, I asked if their reporters actually went to Maidan to express their views as citizens.

She said no. And that got me thinking about my own experience in that kind of situation, which was completely opposite.

As you may or may not know, in the winter of 2011-2012 we had our own Maidan in Moscow — well, kind of: it was far less violent, which is good, and ultimately unsuccessful, which is bad. From December 2011 until May 2012 there were a lot of massive protest demonstrations against election frauds and the Russian government in general, but, since the opposition didn’t win (honestly speaking, they never really tried), eventually things got even worse, leading to the ultraconservative revival we can see now in Russia.

More than 50,000 people came to the protest demonstration against the election fraud to Bolotnaya square in Moscow on December 10, 2011
More than 50,000 people came to the protest demonstration against the election fraud to Bolotnaya square in Moscow on December 10, 2011

Anyway, Russian liberal media played an important part in this so-called revolution. Many journalists participated in the demonstrations themselves — as citizens, not reporters. It just felt natural; for the first time in our lives my generation, it seemed, had a chance to speak up and make a difference, and why should journalists stay away in such extraordinary circumstances? We didn’t even have any discussions about it. Now I wish we did.

Moreover: right before the first massive protest demonstration that happened December 10, 2011, we decided to publish on our magazine’s website several op-eds in which our reporters and editors explained why they are going to participate in the protest. I contributed to this story, too. Now I regret it.

All these questions have been bothering me ever since, and they won’t go away, and I’m not sure they have any right answers. Did we do the right thing? Shouldn’t we have retained our principles even when we thought there could be a revolution, and we can contribute to its cause? And didn’t this revolution fail, at least in part, because journalists abandoned their principles, thus in a way mirroring the actions of the government who abandoned its commitment to listen to the voice of Russian citizens?

I don’t know, but I kind of feel ashamed that I started asking myself these questions only afterwards, when it was already too late.

She’s Got Medals

Surprise: I had another GA shift this Tuesday — even though I usually have it once in two weeks, and there’s been only a week since the last one.

The reason? Well, there was an opportunity — one of my classmates asked if anybody wanted to switch, — and I went for it, because next Tuesday a lot of great people are coming to the J-School to receive Missouri Honor Medals, and I really want to go to their master classes. Which wouldn’t be possible if I had to be on my shift that day.

And guess what I ended up writing about today? Exactly: the medalists and those master classes they are going to give. Here’s the story, and I wouldn’t be able to put it shorter, since all these people are really very interesting and there’s a lot to tell about them.

Not much to add here, either. And I really look forward to next Tuesday.

Oh yeah, and it was the least stressful GA shift yet, because all I had to do was to find some information about these great journalists and news organizations (and at least I know something about journalism, instead of, say, the Columbia City Council or the Missourian weather records). I guess I deserved it in a sense, since I had to write stories about dead people three times in a row before that, you know.

Paint It White

You probably won’t believe it, but my first story for the Community beat is finally published. And it’s a centerpiece. Well, at least it was for several hours.

Man, it took a long time to do this. A lot longer than I expected, to be honest. I started working on it in the end of August, receiving a tip about Jeffrey Moore (the story, if you don’t care to read it, is basically a profile of a local artist who managed to recover from bankruptcy and start a new life in Columbia) from my editor Jeanne Abbott. The first draft was ready in the middle of September. Than I had to rewrite it. And again. And — well, partly — again. The fact that at some point Jeffrey was so busy that he couldn’t respond my calls or e-mails for days didn’t help (of course, I don’t blame him — I was bugging him, not the other way around). At some point I almost thought that the story wasn’t going to be finished ever.

You should know that the Community beat is different — we get to write these long stories about interesting people, and these stories can be fairly loosely connected to the current news events. Of course, for me as someone who used to work in a magazine and write these big pieces that took weeks of reporting, it seems that articles like these deserve to be called “stories” much more that this stuff I write when I’m on GA.

It was my first story for my beat, and I learned a lot. In terms of style — initially the story was completely inappropriate for a newspaper, since it consisted of endlessly long paragraphs (again, I’m used to them, because I’ve been writing for magazines for the last 10 years). I had to totally change its rhythm and make it more, as they call it in the newsroom, muscular.

There were also some structural problems I had to overcome. Obviously, Jeffrey Moore has had a long life full of different events, and initially I tried to put all of them into the story. That wasn’t a good idea, since the story ended up being “all over the place”, as Jeanne put it. So I had to take a lot of stuff out to make it more coherent and focused.

Anyway, it was an enriching experience — and not only from the professional point of view, but also psychologically. I mean, Jeffrey is a great guy, and for me his story was a telling one. Ten years ago he lost pretty much everything he had, and he was already in his 40s. But he managed to build a new life for himself in another city, and he seems to be enjoying it. Of course, phrases like “never give up on yourself and your dreams” are totally cliche. But you actually meet someone who followed these principles in his life and — at least to some extent — succeeded, it’s a different story. And an inspiring one.

Celebration Day

I had another GA shift yesterday, and it was, well, especially productive. Meaning: I managed to write not one but two stories!

(That said, I have to admit that the use of the word “story” here still seems a little bit weird for me — probably because I’m a foreigner. I mean, I always thought that a story should have a plot, right? Like, there’s a reason they call it a storyline. But that’s how a journalistic slang is, I guess.)

Here’s the first one: Columbia police seek public’s help in downtown shooting investigation.

Well, that was an easy one, since I basically rewrote the release issued by the police. Still, the news itself puzzles me a bit. Just think about it: someone obviously fired a gun Saturday night in downtown, right after bars and clubs closed, so the streets  should have been crowded. And the police can’t find any witnesses and has to ask for help. How is it even possible? I guess we’ll have to see how this develops.

And here’s the second story: Almeta Crayton’s legacy to be celebrated at Douglass Park on Saturday.

Well, technically, here I had to follow-up a release, too. Still, it was more interesting, since I got to do some actual reporting and talk to people about this city councilwoman who died a year ago.

This kind of thing is always challenging in a way, because you get to talk to people who knew this person very well and actually care about her, and you’re just a reporter on his GA shift who spent maybe 15 minutes learning some information about the woman. But that’s how our job is sometimes, I guess. And I did OK, as it seems.

The most frustrating about this story (and this happens more often than it should, I have to say) was calling all these phone numbers, talking to voicemails and waiting for someone to call back. Fortunately, they eventually did.

The best thing about it? Well, this is easy: talking to Curtis Soul, a local DJ and a really passionate guy (maybe even to passionate for some people, but I liked him). Basically, I even didn’t have to ask a question — I just explained to him that I was a reporter writing a story about this celebration of Almeta Crayton’s legacy, and he just started to talk, and his speech almost sounded like a sermon. And his brilliant quotes made this formal story much more lively and humane.

Here’s for you, Curtis.

Read the Blessed Pages

To be honest, I am not sure if anybody reads this (to be brutally honest, I am pretty sure that nobody does). Still, somehow I though that I should post something actually useful here — and another round of my musings on some random issue is hardly likely to be characterized as “helpful” by anybody, I guess.

Since this is a blog by a journalist about journalism for (probably) journalists, I decided to post here a bunch of links to some great stories that I’ve read this week. And since I’ve already used the word “great” once, I’ll try to restrain myself from using it from now forth, but keep in mind that each of these articles could be perfectly described with that word.

George Clooney, South Sudan and How World’s West Newest National Imploded by Alex Perry in Newsweek

A thoughtful journalistic analysis of what’s been happening in Sudan during the last decades and what part international humanitarian organizations played in creating the mess that the country is in now. It turns out, a big part. It turns out, as much as humanitarians honestly want to help people, the collateral damage of their actions can be devastating. It also turns out that the UN’s behaviour in situations for which the organization was initially created can seem suspiciously useless and ignorant — but we knew that much already. And yes, you would be amazed by the importance of George Clooney for the recent history of Sudan.

Mr. Clooney even appeared on the cover of Newsweek — although he probably didn't know the whole story at that point
Mr. Clooney even appeared on the cover of Newsweek — although he probably didn’t know the whole story at that point

Love and Ruin by James Verini in The Atavist

A story of an American couple that for the last 60 years has been trying to preserve Afghanistan’s cultural past and transform its horrific present. Mostly in vain — but at least they tried, and they did it gloriously. And it’s also a beautiful love story — both in terms of love between a man and a woman and love between a man and a country.  And it’s also a spectacular insight into the dramatic history of Afghanistan in the 20th century. And they also have a soundtrack!

The Target by Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair

A profile of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and human rights activist who has just received the Nobel peace prize (thus becoming its youngest recipient ever). This story was written in April 2013, soon after Yousafzai was attacked and shot three times by a member of a Taliban-affiliated islamist group. And it’s not only a comprehensive story that tells us how it happened that a 14-year-old girl became one of the most prominent activists for female education in the world. Journalism itself and possible implications of reporters’ decisions are also discussed here — and you can’t help but thinking what you would do if you had to make the same choice as reporters mentioned in the profile.

The Best Monster by Vanessa Veselka in Matter

Well, this is weird — but, at the same time, awesome. Basically, Zak Smith is a successful contemporary artist (and a good one, judging from the illustrations in the story, at least), who is at the same time an alt-porn actor and a fan of Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game, which he plays regularly with his fellow porn stars, one of whom has a rare Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (and she’s still a porn actress). I mean, don’t you want to know more after reading this sentence? I’m sure you do. And Veselka has a lot more — and even if “The Best Monster” is still a story about life’s curiosities, it’s a compelling one.

"She's Trouble, She's Trouble, She's Trouble", one of Zak Smith's paintings
“She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble”, one of Zak Smith’s paintings

Drones and Everything After by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine

How do drones change our life — and our perception of reality? To some extent, it appears. Wallace-Wells examines the evergrowing world of drones (I haven’t even known there were SO many) and tells a lot of great stories of their inventors, owners and users. It looks like a personal drone will soon be something as common as a cell phone — and one can only wonder what happens next.

(And another impressive story about a new technology — a sort of profile of GoPro cameras in the New Yorker.)

The Last Amazon by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker

How early comic books were connected with the fight for women’s rights in America? Lepore explore this intriguing connection by telling an incredible life story of William Marston, a psychologist and, so to speak, a feminist who created the idea of Wonder Woman, the first female superhero. Toward the end of the story it becomes clear that the fight for women’s rights is still far from over, and we still need Wonder Woman.

What if the print newspaper had been invented after the web? by Mathew Ingram in Gigaom

Not a proper story, but a short blog post — and a very entertaining one. What if we try to imagine that a newspaper is not an old, but a new technology? That’s what people behind a project called Neuze did — and got some amazing results: it turns out even in a digital era a newspaper still has a lot of advantages comparing to news website — especially if you can provide it with some good and contemporary marketing. It’s all a joke, of course, but a telling one.

An old media concept presented as new: an advertising for Neuze
An old media concept presented as new: an advertising for Neuze