Internet users in Belarus and Russia will soon see access to many of their favourite resources threatened. The government will not be the censor this time, but rather the economic crisis will serve sufficient, forcing editors to impose financial restrictions to help their projects to stay solvent. The worsening economic situation in the three countries is forcing projects to close down and journalists to seek new work to feed their families. In short, online media is suffering largely because it does not have the resources to continue as an industry.
The crisis, which has already caused the Russian ruble to tumble by more than 40% and the Belarusian ruble by two thirds, has already caused global changes in the traditional and digital media markets. Expectations are that in Russia more than 20% of existing media companies will disappear, while others will have to close projects and lay off their staff.
The cuts (original in Russian) are already falling. RBC Holding is among the first companies to announce its anti-crisis and restructuring measures. The changes are big: the Holding is closing sport.rbc.ru and Style, divisions will be merged, at least fifty people have already been laid off. There are conflicting reports on the layoffs; press secretary Zlata Nikolaeva says that the people left voluntarily, while some employees state they received voluntary retirement offers or bilateral settlements. TASS faces the same challenges, laying off 20% of the staff and cutting the pay of those still on the job by 20%. General Director Sergei Mikhailov states that the cause of the firings was the worsening economic situation, which led to a 10% decrease in TASS funding in the State Budget. This is not limited to Russia:
According to my data, a wave of redundancies is sweeping across the leading Belarusian Internet-media outlets: website owners are “slaughtering” even “cash cows,” i.e. journalists who have successfully generated traffic by providing exclusive material. Quite a few of my acquaintances have to look for new jobs now. Contracts are usually terminated ‘by the mutual agreement of both parties,’ with a promise to ‘invite you back one day’ in order to avoid scandals.
Owner and Editor, BY24.org
But it is not all bad. Andrei Shubaderov, Director of the State Information Agency Vayar, a division within the Ministry of Defence of Belarus, has a different opinion.
It is certain that during the crisis unprofitable and unpopular projects will be closed. Perhaps, the drop of advertising revenue, circulation and thus total revenue will force print media outlets to close, as well as shut down their Internet versions. However, this might also serve as an impetus to the development of online editorial offices of the traditional media.
Social projects will still be in place, because they are always of utmost importance in a time of crisis. There is no doubt that the largest number of Internet-platforms will be closed in the advertising sphere. In other words, websites providing only advertising services are under threat. Internet trading platforms, which mainly specialise in imported goods and do not have influence and their own audience, may also leave the market. And, of course, the paid entertainment websites will lose the majority of their audience.
This can be read as either an evolutionary thinning of the herd in tough times, or a government-sanctioned purge of opposition outlets, outlets that have no access to the same funding that Vayar has.
Clearly, hard times have arrived.
Are aggregators the future?
Independent media consultant Alexander Amzin believes that there are four main factors which can lead to valuable and relevant projects disappearing. In an interview with DR, he stated three key reasons for the closure of Internet spaces in Russia:
Economics: Internet sites are not able to survive a downturn in mobile advertising.
Regional: Provincial news sites that are breaking through to the national level are folding. There are many reasons for this: pressure of local authorities, reduction of already reduced advertising income, consolidation of media holdings, and the inability to meet the federal agenda, thus making them expendable.
Political: Strict enforcement of Russian media law creates serious risks for any social and political critiques, especially if they are not financed by the government. This applies to both blogs and user-generated-content platforms.
“A journalist should be especially concerned with her future if her job is considered independent, social/political, regional, or without government support,” concludes Mr. Amzin.
Mr. Amzin’s three factors can lead us to describe the characteristics of a website that would succeed in this new world. First of all, it would have to produce a lot of content at virtually no cost in order to maximize its chances of success. Either that, or rely upon grants or government funding. It would have to be national, and largely apolitical. It would also have to be online with no associated costs in the offline world.
There is a kind of journalism that fits these criteria perfectly: aggregation. Mr. Chudentsov notes that news requires financial investments, and the role of the aggregator will likely slip back into both fashion and use. If, instead of creating content, journalists merely refine content that is brought to them, they can produce more content on a faster basis because they will not have to find stories, just write them. Combine this with ingenuity on social media you might be able to make enough in American dollars to feed your family and support an employee. In Belarus, there is no shortage of content to aggregate, both from Western-supported grant-based news outlets such as Belapan, or state-funded news agencies like Belta. No-one is losing their funding; one does not skimp on the information budget during tough times.
The economic crisis will accomplish what governments could not via restrictive legislation. Only the most resilient news sites will survive the crisis, and the state mouthpieces and information agencies are not going anywhere.
Aggregators will still keep people employed but will not broaden the media spectrum. Aggregators by definition do not produce original content, simply reproducing that which others have already produced. In this case, if content is limited to national viewpoints to appeal to foreign funders and state content, naturally a plurality of voices will disappear. While ignoring local issues that receive little coverage, aggregators will also serve to amplify the voices of the state-run media outfits, throwing their content to new audiences.
Even more problematically, the public may not even realise the changes. Some websites will cease to exist and aggregators and other media will slowly and organically fill the gaps. Social networks will remain, only the links will be to aggregated content, not necessarily as much original content. Subtle changes will occur, fewer voices will contribute to discussions, less original content will appear, and a plurality of thought and debate will deteriorate as time goes on.
Edited by Alex Babaris