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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.

Light is a perfect medium according to Marshall McLuhan, who was the first to seek a deeper understanding of electronic communications. Modern media, however, have become the means not only for conveying facts but also for managing meanings — which is why the current agenda is shaped, to some extent, by the media. Dmitry Elovsky, Deputy Chief Editor at Dozhd TV and graduate of the Applied Politics programme at HSE, told Success Builder about the media’s strength as the so-called ‘fourth estate,’ how journalism is taught in the West, why working in Russian media is the province of the young and why the risk of ‘burnout’ is so great in this country.

Was political science your first choice for university studies?

Actually, I studied law at an HSE preparatory school with the goal of entering the Faculty of Law. Then I just happened to see an announcement at HSE that a department of business and political journalism would be opening for which a creative competition would be held. I had always been good at composition and literature, so I decided to submit my application. As a result, I scored a ‘9’ and raised it to a ‘10’ with my interview. It was clear that there was a reason I should join the department and study journalism.

It was the first class for the programme so I was taking a bit of a risk: there were no graduates or feedback about the curriculum. But it was the early 2000s when instability was still the norm. You could take risks and it was all the more reason to try an unknown. As it turned out, those years of my university studies were a heyday for journalism. Important business magazines appeared that became the new word in journalism, including Kommersant, Expert, Profile, The Firm’s Secret and Russian Life. Because the industry made it possible, part of the educational process included meetings with practising journalists who shared their real-world experiences with us.

At that time, HSE University itself was an innovation against the backdrop of traditional universities. How did students view it?

It was a delightful, promising time in general. Yeltsin had left, and in his place came a young and energetic Putin who, during his first term extended numerous courtesies to the West. It seemed that we were about to become part of the European community. HSE University was very much in tune with this. It opened joint international programmes and gained recognition abroad. Students could study different foreign languages. I understood that HSE taught journalism very differently than at Moscow State University. They had done a lot to overcome the traditional university hierarchy by having journalists and editors from top publications teach classes and giving students direct access to them 24/7. And perhaps the most innovative thing at that time was that they respected our opinions.

Why did you decide to continue your education abroad?

I made an attempt to study for a master’s degree. Then, after a summer internship at Russia Today, I stayed on there to work and did my best to combine the job with my studies, but it didn’t work out. After several years at Russia Today, and later at Dozhd, I decided that I still needed to study and chose a British programme at the University of East London. I wanted to see with my own eyes how media was taught in the West and what they think about media in general.

The journalistic environment of England has its own legendary concepts and laws that have been built up over centuries. I love English culture and London, so that’s where I decided to go. Then I had to get my employer to allow me to combine work and study.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

At that time, the channel’s chief editor was Mikhail Zygar, who recalled asking permission from Andrey Vasiliev of Kommersant to go study in Cairo. 'This is a karma boomerang,' he said in response to my request. 'Of course, you can go.' Thus, I became a Dozhd correspondent in London, and it turned out to be a jaw-dropping year from the standpoint of events in that city. There was the Summer Olympics, the Abramovich v Berezovsky case, spy scandals and my studies — it was unlike anything I had ever known before that.

How did studying in London differ from Russian universities?

It is a completely different paradigm. You can’t earn an undergraduate degree in journalism in Great Britain. You can only earn a master’s or a PhD in it, and those require a colossal volume of independent work. It involves spending hours and days in the library, the study of materials, meetings with people and fieldwork. At the same time, you have access to an incredible number of sources and technical facilities.

For those who work with media, cameras, computers, archives, data and programmes are very important. Curators monitored our work, providing important suggestions and guidance. When working on your thesis, your academic advisor practically becomes your co-author, kindred spirit and partner. It’s a great experience.

British education has a certain ‘craftsmanship’ aspect and focuses heavily on real-world practice. Students are given a global and comprehensive approach to everything they do. From my experience with the West, and with England in particular, I understood one thing: in Russia, journalism is considered a creative profession, so my colleagues here often have problems coming up with an ‘approach’ or realizing their ‘idea’, and can even experience a crisis of ‘inspiration’.

The Russian journalist is in a never-ending state of creative suffering in search of self, writing style, intonation and hidden meanings

In British journalism, as in any other profession, it is customary to work out a practical approach. That is why universities teach students a particular algorithm — what you need to do, as well as when and why you need to do it in order to make your creative product work. My studies there have helped me a lot, and now, I respect and understand all attempts at systematization and think about how to apply them.

You were part of the industry’s evolution while you worked at leading media outlets. How would you describe the changes you witnessed?

My career took shape during the second half of the 2000s. It was a sort of ‘Victorian era’ of Russian media, before the colossal social, informational and ideological stratification we see now in all areas of life. The list of divisive factors includes the Yukos case and the arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian-Georgian War and the constant detentions of Strategy 31 participants. The battle lines had not yet been drawn — there had not yet been any Crimea, Donbas, Pussy Riot and the other events that led to censorship and the narrowing of journalistic freedoms.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

I was fortunate to spend those years in Russia Today. At that time, RT was a very cool project. It was an expensive and ambitious media startup. It had a young team that made a new product to present Russia to foreign audiences. Dozhd TV appeared a little later. That was an amazing media outlet funded with private money and enjoyed complete independence. It was not associated with any ideology at first. Now, the ‘battle lines’ have been clearly drawn, and this trend has only been growing stronger.

Which journalistic assignment played a key role in your career?

It was probably the interview that my colleague, Anton Zhelnov, and I conducted with Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London. Berezovsky was a very unique person, one in a million. We had the opportunity to learn his opinion about some historical and socio-economic phenomena, and it was unlike anyone else’s. Also, the trip to Maiden in Kiev. That was a unique journalistic experience. The whole world was interested in those events, and it is tough to imagine anything more gripping or exciting. It is important for journalists to get right into the middle of events — happenings that become a part of history, and of you as a professional.

What can you say about the Russian media market in terms of career? Why has it become a place for young people to work?

In addition to the political agenda, investment and technologies influence the market, shifting it away from TV and towards the Internet. It will be a challenge for today’s students to find their place in the industry because the work is now done at the intersection of various competencies — and there are very few places that are truly engaged in journalism. There is some demand for journalistic skills in political PR, where newcomers can expect lots of rules, modest resources and low salaries. All these factors create a high turnover in the Russian journalism industry and make it extremely unstable. The result is that very young specialists usually fill vacancies but don’t stay in the game long enough to reach any real degree of professional skill.

In England, for example, you don’t go onscreen until you have grey hair — television broadcasters should command respect and exude professionalism. In Russia, you can count the number of 50-60-year-old correspondents on one hand.

Already by the age of 35, it is no longer prestigious for a Russian journalist to run around shooting with a camera crew, and if you’re not in the presidential pool by that time, you look suspicious

Because post-Soviet journalism was, in some sense, re-created, and because of the notorious ‘creative’ [read in English with a Russian accent – Ed.] approach that is supposedly peculiar to younger people, a stereotype has developed which says that business trips, ambitious projects and news shoots are for young people, after which you get a job in management. Maybe bureaucratic reasons play a role in that a correspondent with 40 years of experience should not receive the same salary as a newcomer. What’s more, many media professionals simply burn out and cannot cope with the emotional strain, constantly moving between cities and deadlines.

But everything seems to be going well for you. What are you doing now?

I rarely go out on shoots because I lead a more sedentary lifestyle as deputy chief editor. This is management work related to content, editing, planning resources and setting editorial policy. I like system management more than content creation and my experience makes that possible.

How do you avoid burnout?

I have Russia Today and a gradual start to my career to thank for that. It was a very good school. Everything was balanced and extremely professional, which toughened me up while avoiding an overload of work. I am generally very calm and resistant to stress. I remember when I started at Russia Today, I had to look through lots of videos and then tell the editor what our competition — Russian TV channels and agencies — were airing. You sit there and scan, sometimes on fast forward, hundreds of minutes of news agency footage showing terrorist attacks, armed conflicts, natural disasters and deaths. At some point, you simply cease reacting to what this all means, the individual fates, lives and conditions they represent. Such activity becomes just a job and, to some extent, this is what is meant by professionalism.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

You say it was a good school. Where can someone go now to acquire the best skills for this profession?

Each person should decide this for themselves based on what they read and watch, and on their values. If I were looking for a place to get on-the-job training, I would consider how well and professionally the media outlet works with information and whether it winds up producing fake news. At Dozhd, we even have a programme called Fake News in which we analyse false news and refute for-profit media stories. In the same way, I wouldn’t want to tell students whether they should opt for official or liberal media outlets: some people like Meduza, while others prefer the approach taken by federal and municipal outlets such as Rossiyskaya Gazeta, etc. Try working wherever you feel comfortable, but work with professionals.

Are there any brands in Russian journalism that would make a portfolio worth its weight in gold, the way McKinsey does for consulting?

A young woman recently interviewed at Dozhd who said, ‘Unfortunately, I have worked at Channel One’ [a state-owned television channel – Ed.] I asked, ‘Why “unfortunately”? Why do you take that attitude about your experience?’ I am sure that Channel One is a colossal school, that it provides an enormous amount of experience, has powerful resources, budgets in the billions of roubles, and that it has excellent technical facilities and specialists. This is the only way to approach work experience and internships — any media outlet will appreciate quality experience, regardless of where you got it. Even if someone from Dozhd were to apply for a job with the 60 Minutes programme, I think they would take him without listening to the rest of it. And they would turn it into a PR story of how liberals go over to the side of the good.

As an employer, which plays a greater role in an interview — the diploma or work experience?

This is a paradox. Very often, the people who come to us from non-elite universities turn out to be better workers than those from HSE, MGIMO and MSU. Perhaps this is due to the 'loser syndrome' when you need to prove how cool you are. But yes, we do look at an applicant’s diploma: it’s important for us. It is a good start, but it is no guarantee that the person will do well in practice.

We do not expect new employees to be highly qualified, but rather, to demonstrate a strong interest in what they do, a capacity for work and the ability to work with sources

Unfortunately, it is rare that all three qualities appear in one and the same person. Strong initiative is also important. I often encounter inert staffers who, despite all their positive qualities and knowledge, wait until a storyline is handed to them from above so that they won’t have to think one up or search out leads on their own.

Is it important to start out specializing in just one thing, such as TV or print media?

Basic journalism skills are the same in all areas, whether it is TV, online or radio. But when you work with video, you also need to have visual thinking or at least understand how to construct a story with images. You pick up many professional skills on the job, but in my opinion, what matters most is that you are really interested in the task at hand and that you develop every story thoroughly. And, you should have a huge desire to tell that story.

What do you like most about your work?

It’s important for me to be the first to hear the news; it makes me happy. It’s like the thrill that travellers had during the age of great geographic discoveries. But in my case, I also get a great deal of satisfaction out of reporting that information to others and receiving a response. It gives me the feeling that there is purpose in all of this and the media is the 'fourth estate' after all. People make decisions, make changes in their lives and build values based on our materials.

What is special about Dozhd as a company?

The people there work very hard and passionately and experience strong emotions in the process. That’s why you develop a close bond with the people who have gone through that with you. This is true of those who work in the editorial office, those who broadcast live programming, and when you travel with the cameraman to a hot spot somewhere. This creates the feeling of a community and united family. Dozhd provides lots of opportunities to carry out your ideas and there is always an interest in new projects and creative people. Dozhd really shows respect for people and their ideas.