Inside the TV2 newsroom: how an independent publication survives in Russia

Editor-in-chief Victor Muchnik tells us how an online media interacts with the authorities and experiments with new formats

Oleg Uppit

Author

Natalia Loginova

Photographer

Accent continues our series on publications around the world, digging into everything from the tools they use to the principles they work by. This week we talked to the editor-in-chief of TV2, Victor Muchnik, about his clashes with the government, the issues facing an oppositional publication in Russia, and new story formats.

TV2 is a Tomsk-based publication, founded in 1990. For a long time it was a TV channel—one of the first non-government television companies in the USSR—but after “an order from up high” it was taken off the air on New Year’s Day 2015, and the journalists transformed the channel into a news website.

In the years the television company existed, it became the foundation for the largest regional media holding company, TMG, which included three television companies, four radio stations, the Online News Agency (established in 2010), and several advertising agencies. The company also helped found the The National Academy Of Television, and later became a co-founder of the National Broadcasting Network, which subsequently became the foundation for a network of regional TV channels called RenTV. The total number of employees exceeded 200 people. TMG and TV2 were successful and relatively profitable businesses, by regional standards, and journalists and programs from TV2 have received 24 TEFI awards—an annual award presented by the Russian Academy of Television.

Despite the fact that almost all of this was taken down by the Russian authorities, TV2 is coming back strong with it’s new format—oppositional online media.

City: Tomsk

Audience:
130 000 – 150 000 unique users per month

TEAM:
11 people

Tools: Google Calendar, Facebook Messenger, собственная CMS

Conflict with the authorities

We’ve understood the risks of our work from the start—the independent editorial policy of the channel has always a sore point for many. The first attempts to revoke our broadcast license were made in 2007. The pressure against us was quiet but steady from then on, and by 2012 it became clear that our existence could be terminated at any moment.

In the later years I would always warn people I were hiring that this job could suddenly disappear. That was hard for some people to believe—after all, the channel was a quarter century old, it seemed an integral part of Tomsk life. But in 2013 and 2014 the pressure grew, and then the channel ceased to exist in the first moments of 2015.

We know now that the final decision about our network was made in Moscow at the level of the Presidential Administration (I know, sounds crazy, but it’s true). According to a knowledgeable source of ours we were accused of intending to use now-exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s money to launch a Russian satellite TV channel with an alternative informational agenda in order to promote separatist ideas. While we did have a relationship with Khodorkovsky, we weren’t doing business with him. Still, we were considered terrible people who presented a major threat to Russian Statehood, and when he got out of jail, we were taken off the air. Trying to find a way to bypass or escape the authorities would have been pointless.


I would always warn people I were hiring that this job could suddenly disappear

Victor Muchnik

So we created the Online News Agency, which continues to live under pressure. Our only weapon is publicity. We protect ourselves legally of course, as much as it’s possible in today’s Russia. But then we tell people about what’s happening between us and the authorities. The struggles of a small regional media business against the Russian authorities is actually quite a good story for our journalists, but the price of this story is quite high.

Some plans for a potential “strategic retreat” for TV2 exist, but given the circumstances, we prefer to keep them to ourselves. Even with sources of insider information you still can’t confidently predict where an attack will come from. The capabilities of our opponents (I’ll use this word specifically) are significant and varied. But if I lived constantly thinking what nasty thing they would inflict on us next, it’d mess me up and interfere with my work. I personally have no plan B. I intend to do what I do, what is interesting to me, as long as I can.

TV2 today

Today there’s 11 editorial members at TV2, including the editor-in-chief/director (that’s me). However, I prefer to call myself a producer (an old television habit). Under me are seven journalists, a cameraman/director of video editing, and another cameraman/driver (also the archivist). Plus the advertising department, legal and finance services, and IT—but all of that is outsourced.

Having a small editorial staff allows us to use fairly modest tools: tasks are assigned in Google Calendar, and discussions take place in Facebook Messenger. We don’t have a strict hierarchy—a horizontal structure is more stable—but we haven’t completely left behind the “vertical component” of the editorial staff. We’ve had to rebuild the structure and processes of the team multiple times in several years and it reminds me of the editorial staff of the TV channel in its early days, primarily in the lack of tedium in how processes are organized.

In addition to a horizontal structure, we are versatile. For example, the team does not have a designer, the journalists themselves work with images, processing them with the tools built into our proprietary CMS, with a little help from Photoshop.

Shifting focus

After the website relaunched at the end of January 2017 we focused our categories to what was most valuable: news, stories, multimedia, tips, science and technology. This involved dissolving the opinions section (it’s part of “stories” now), taking away the eyewitness category where our users could send in photos (it wasn’t used frequently enough), and taking out any categories that were connected to the former TV channel, like a rush hour beat.

When the channel was active and the news team of TV2 was several times larger, authors had clearly assigned beats, but today our editors cannot afford it. Although our journalists today are not tied down to specific topics, certain specializations still exist. For example, Tomsk has a closed satellite city called Seversk, which used to be one of the main Russian centers for the production of nuclear weapons. Journalist Rinat Miftakhov, who lives in Seversk, is better equipped to talk about topics related to the city.

But everyone also works on pieces outside of their specialization. Since the team is smaller now, they constantly have to learn how to cover new topics.

Pitches can come from the editor, but most of them are suggested by the journalists themselves: TV2 has always welcomed this sort of initiative. Those who just follow orders do not last long here. In this sense, the principles of our work have not changed.

Explanatory journalism

We’re trying to shift the focus from breaking coverage to big stories, but it’s not a quick process.

In our days of TV, we always taught our reporters that almost any of news story has a history, which should not be overlooked because it could clear up a lot of things about the story. We maintain this principle when working online. For example, we often write explainers, where the current news is placed in the context of history and we give a forecast for the situation.

An important “explanatory” element of our website are our in-depth interviews. For example, we did a recent interview with “Dr Z,” one of the founders of “Dissernet” (an organization that monitors plagiarism in scientific works), which is a topic relevant to the University of Tomsk. A fact-checking format is also valuable, like when we fact-checked the statements of Governor Sergey Zhvachkin during his presentation on the Tomsk oblast.

What other publications do we read? Of course we like Meduza and their in-depth journalism work. We closely follow investigative journalism, for example, the work done by another Russian opposition media Novaya Gazeta. We look at Vox with their thorough approach. Although we have fewer capabilities than any of the publications above, with time we will grow. TV2 channel was started a quarter century ago with only five people, one camera, and a couple of home video recorders. Now we have to start almost from the same point again, but we have more skills and experience this time.


We often write explainers, where the current news is placed in the context of history and we give a forecast for the situation

Victor Muchnik

Attracting an audience

We primarily use social networks to get our work out there. Authors write the social copy for their articles themselves since we currently lack the resources for a separate social media department. Sometimes headlines or ledes are rewritten to boost conversion rate if we think a potentially “hot” piece of content isn’t gaining enough traction.

Before the website was transferred to a new domain (in order to leave the .ru domain zone due to the unpredictability of our nationwide regulator) TV2 had about 230,000 unique users a month. We’ve lost about 40% of our traffic since, but the team is actively fighting for its recovery, working hard using SEO and SMM tools.

Looking towards the future

Of course, online and television journalism are different. Initially we tried to make our news programs for the internet: a pavilion, lights, an anchor, quality editing, a lot of effort and time. But these efforts were not justified. Two minutes shot on a phone can give significantly more traffic, so a big part of our television skillset is not useful anymore.

We also have to think about shifting our perspective from reporting on the past to talking about the future. For example, we recently published an article covering a lecture by Andrey Pozdnyakov about how current technological trends are going to lead to global changes, and it saw the most traffic of any article on our current site, over 100,000 views. I see this and I say to myself: It’s important to find these forward-facing stories and promote them. Our country is now living in the past, and I, as a historian, also love to talk about the past. But here’s a conversation about the future, which almost doesn’t exist in modern Russia. And you see the results.