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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

In November, Ilya Azar, a journalist and graduate of the Higher School of Economics, won the HSE Alumni Awards in the category ‘Fourth Estate’. In this edition of Success Builder, Ilya speaks about how to get a job in the media, what journalistic ethics are, and how to survive in the hot spots without body armour.

You studied in the Faculty of Political Science. Why did you pursue journalism?

I have loved writing since childhood. In high school, my friends and I would flip through Kommersant-Vlast under our desks instead of listening to the teacher. When I started at the university, I confused political journalism and political science, and already in the first year, it was clear that political science wasn’t for me. I didn’t really like to study, but because political science was a rather liberal faculty in how it related to students, I was able to finish my studies, although it wasn’t easy.

Another factor for my popularity is social media. Thanks to it, people occasionally learn about me in unexpected places, and I'm waiting for them to throw a punch. There are many such threats out there.

Along with that, I began writing. I then realized that I had become a journalist. When I was in my third year, Beslan happened. After this, gubernatorial elections were abolished and the screws generally began to be tightened. It became clear that opportunities to work as a political scientist were disappearing before our eyes.

Of the people I studied with, it seems that no one became a political scientist. I went into journalism because journalism is a very simple profession. You do not need to know anything special – you only need to be a reasonable person who can understand everything on a surface level. In essence, the work is to ask questions and write down the answers.

Do you believe that journalists don’t need any particular kind of education?

Excessive education only serves as a hindrance for many journalists. I cannot stand interviews where the question is longer than the answer. An education in economics is obviously necessary for journalists who cover economics. A journalism faculty is needed in order to make it easier to find a job. Especially in Russia, because every day here there are fewer and fewer news media. A faculty of journalism, in theory, should provide students with useful connections while they are still studying. Although I studied political science, I met with community activists and journalists, so it was easy to bring me on board at Gazeta.ru.

Unlike most other professions, a resume does not work in journalism. None of the editors I know ever post job openings online; rather, they go to their employees asking, ‘Hey, do you know anyone good?’ In the office, you can partially forget what you learned in the journalism faculty, because each media outlet has its own format and editor, and after a month or two of real work, you'll get a concrete idea about journalism as a profession.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

At what point did you realize that you were a popular journalist? When did you begin to receive awards?

It was only this year that I started receiving awards. This is a very momentary thing. This year, I did pretty much everything as I had in the past. It's just that this year everything coincided with Ukraine and the firing of Timchenko and me from Lenta.ru (Galina Timchenko was the chief editor of Lenta.ru from 2004-2014, and since 2014 has been the editor in chief of the Meduza news project. - Ed.). Another factor for my popularity is social media. Thanks to it, people occasionally learn about me in unexpected places, and I'm waiting for them to throw a punch. There are many such threats out there. But now, for some reason, people are only shaking hands. The first time I was asked for an autograph, I refused, but my mother said I shouldn’t do that since I might upset a person. Autographs are no longer in style, though; everyone takes selfies.

What does a person need to do to 'take off' in journalism? Keep in line with the trends? Always be at the centre of conflict?

I don’t think one really needs to do that. I didn’t travel to Ukraine to become famous. It just quickly became clear that this was a very important and interesting topic. You need to do a good job, and sooner or later, it will work. On the other hand, becoming famous as a journalist covering academic topics is harder, so if the goal is to become famous, it is best to write on the most popular topics. I still consider personal interest to be the main motivator; you won’t write a good text if you don’t feel the desire to immerse yourself in the subject. If a person is not interested in the topic, don’t force it – nothing good will come of it. Unfortunately, not all editors hold this view.

My sources in Kazakhstan faced questions. People in these situations can be imprisoned. A big question is whether or not the journalist has a moral responsibility for this.

Salary and popularity in journalism – are these things related?

Journalism generally isn’t something you can get rich on. There is money for beer, of course, but as for buying an apartment or a car, or starting a family, it's not the best choice. Journalism is not the most profitable business, although people have a different opinion, which is the stereotype that journalists are people who are for sale, which means they are rich. Journalism is not about the money, though, because it has a very low ‘ceiling.’ In terms of a career, it’s a horizontal profession: newsman - reporter - correspondent. You can rise up to become an editor. Personally, though, I like to write. As for reading, I’d rather have a book than someone else's notes.

Your signature genre is the interview. Has there been at least one good person among the people you've spoken to?

I don't like it when people say that interviews are what I do best. Much more important to me are my texts. Interviews are easy enough, especially when it comes to producing them.

Whereas an ordinary text might take a week to put together – traveling somewhere, talking with people, digging for information, and then writing – an interview can be ready in only a few hours. That’s why I consider it a lowly genre. But a popular one at that. An interview can show a person to a reader. Of course, nobody will stop you from lying in an interview, but it’s still a portrait.

At one time, I would often take interviews that we would jokingly call ‘interviews with a***oles’, and I was frequently asked why I chose these types of people. Conversation with complex people is definitely more interesting; the material is never without conflict. Just imagine an interview with Sakharov. I would begin, nicely, by pressing him about the hydrogen bomb. A universally recognized human rights activist and dissident, he invented a tool for evil. But that would somehow be inappropriate. I don’t find intimate conversation about enduring things interesting as a genre, so a discussion with uncomfortable questions posed to unpleasant people is a lot more relevant to me. But defending and proving one’s point during an interview is not right.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Should journalists behave diplomatically, or is necessary for them to provoke the people they are interviewing, to ‘eat’ their negative emotions?

Of course, they should provoke. Why have the interview otherwise? Especially in news reporting.

In this case, are there journalistic ethics that you practice?

There can be very difficult situations. Recently, we published a story on Oskemen in Kazakhstan, on the possibility of events taking place there similar to what was taking place in Donetsk. This central Asian nation is even more authoritarian than Russia. You can leave the country, write a story about the people, report their observations and quotes, and then, it’s unclear what will happen to your sources. One person asked that he be concealed as the source, but the rest did not ask. Nothing serious happened, thank God, but my sources in Kazakhstan faced questions. People in these situations can be imprisoned. A big question is whether or not the journalist has a moral responsibility for this.

A colleague recently told me that because of her reporting a woman who had been the main breadwinner in a family had been fired and that her husband had late-stage cancer. Or the journalist who covers films writing that a movie is shit, with the director going and hanging himself. Does this have anything to do with journalistic ethics? Who the hell knows.

The other day I had trouble sleeping. I turned on a video interview that Gazeta.ru had taken with Igor Strelkov and fell asleep right away.

What is your opinion on experimenting with different formats – multimedia projects, infographics, more emphasis on the visual side of the material at the expense of text?

Text will never be replaced; there’s not a single publication that doesn’t use text as its primary content. Take VICE News, for example, which many people cite as an example of a new model for online media that emphasizes video from conflict zones. This is great, but there’s still text.

The other day I had trouble sleeping. I turned on a video interview that Gazeta.ru had taken with Igor Strelkov and fell asleep right away. TV interviews are a completely different genre. There journalists have to constantly interrupt the people they’re interviewing to keep everything on time. But those who write, on the other hand, listen at least three hours and then cut out what is unnecessary to keep the reader from getting bored.

You have found yourself reporting from places where there are conflicts and where people are killed. How scary is it?

There are war correspondents – that is a separate profession that I’m not a part of. I am interested in communicating with people and in stories, not just massacres. Maidan is a frontier story, so it was interesting to me. When I was young, I travelled to the war in Ossetia, but if two armies are at war – trenches, planes, shooting – then what exactly is there to do? A pop there, an airplane flying – so what? It is most interesting to work right before a war and immediately after it.

Hot spots are generally terrible places for photo- and TV journalists. For example, take Maidan and Grushevsky Street that had protesters on one side and Berkut on the other. I could tell from far away what was going on, but it was easier to talk to people at a safe distance. In the centre of fighting people say little except ‘Die, bitch!’

I have never used body armour. I have colleagues from the international media whose contracts require them to wear body armour, but we have always gotten by.

Do you work out of two homes with Meduza?

No, unlike my colleagues, I’m not in Riga, but here in Moscow. I don’t see the point of traveling from Riga to Kazakhstan via Moscow, which itself is an ideal hub for reporting on the CIS. Plus, my parents and friends are here. So I’m happy that I have the opportunity to stay. My colleagues are gradually turning into Europeans. I travelled there and saw people I hadn’t seen in three months. We went to a bar to have a beer, and around 11.00pm everything closed down and people went home to sleep. In Moscow at that hour, the party’s just getting started.

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