The road to journalism continues: Why we choose to be journalists


This is intended to be an occasional series in which practising journalists or students of journalism at the end of their studies give a personal account of why they are pursuing journalism as a profession. The current article is the second one in this series. The first was about Sydney, a Liberian journalism student in Moscow.

It is a modest attempt to piece together the ethics and motivations that drive future and current journalists.

Dmitry Babich, you are a journalist in Moscow, currently working at the English-language magazine Russia Profile, and have seen many changes in your profession in the last 20 years. There have also been changes occurring in Russian society in the last 20-30 years. As a journalist you are well placed to witness these changes and reflect upon them. But first, let’s discuss the reasons why you became a journalist.
What inspired you to become a journalist? Was anyone else in your family a journalist?

No one in my family has ever been a journalist. Originally, I wanted to be a philologist, because books and languages have always interested me. Journalism surfaced on the eve of the entrance exams to the university as a more practical alternative. I am glad I chose it.

What was your personal image of the journalism profession before training for and entering the profession? Did this image/impression change after gaining insights and experience in journalism?

In fact, this image changed several times. Before perestroika the image of a journalist was that of a bureaucrat with access to foreign trips and powerful people (the most recognisable journalists in the Soviet period were “international political observers” working ona television). During the perestroika period it was a member of a fraternity uncovering interesting people and facts (I was a member of that fraternity while working in Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1990-1993). Beginning from the mid-‘90s there was no longer a unified image of a journalist. There were many types. The type that I like and respect is the one of an honest reporter, fishing out news and honestly trying to get the right information. The type that I hate is that of a yellow press cynic, which is usually a young person with little education, good multimedia skills and a huge desire to get money. Don’t trust a journalist who is younger than 35!

Unfortunately, the type of journalist who is a “champion of the people” is virtually extinct. This led to a tremendous fall in the media’s might and prestige. Journalists are no longer influential people as they used to be in 1980s. 

What kind of ideals and hopes did you take with you into the Journalism faculty? What did you hope to achieve?

I wanted to write well, get a decent salary and may be, in 10-15 years go abroad on an assignment. Everything happened so much faster.

You began your studies in journalism at the prestigious Moscow State University in 1990 (completing them in 1996). These years witnessed moments of tremendous change in the mass media and journalism. In1990 you witnessed the passing into law of the 1990 Media Law that changed the nature of journalism in the Soviet Union, which was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union one year later and the chaotic years of the President Boris Yeltsin. Just how different were these periods from a professional point of view?

I entered in 1987 and graduated in 1992. To be frank with you, I did not notice much of a change when the media law was passed. What I remember was the gradual “defrosting” of previously forbidden themes by Gorbachev and the media itself in 1986-91. This was a real achievement. The press was not free under communism, it is not free under capitalism, but it was free in the transition period.

How do you cope with this lack of freedom? Do you have any dilemmas to face with this situation personally?

Yes, I do have dilemmas to face, but I think no more than any journalist in the United States, Britain, France or Germany. May be, I face even less dilemmas since the rules in Russian society are generally lax, so freedom often is to be found “between” the laws, not inside them.

A number of students of journalism in Russia work as a journalist at the same time they are studying. Did you? If so, did you notice any contradictions in what was being taught at university and what was being practiced in the newsroom?

Yes, I studied and worked. The work in the newspaper was much less formal than our textbooks described it. But working was a hard thing to do. In mid-‘90s people started to write irresponsibly, inventing or ignoring facts because the “company” wanted it. The company became a private enterprise and needed money.

What strategies were needed in order to cope with the rapidly changing environment?

To study, to drop being shy when calling people, to realise that there are no geniuses whom you are not worthy of talking with.

You started your current job at Russia Profile in the beginning of 2004. What are some of the other media organisations you have worked for in the past? What differences and similarities have you found between these different media organisations?
I worked in Moscow News in 1999-2003. Before, I worked on TV-6 television in 1996-1999. The audience was different, but the subjects were the same. In fact, there was not much of a change, except the language.

President Dmitry Medvedev is the third president of the Russian Federation. What have been the consistencies and the differences for journalists under the presidencies of Yeltsin, Putin, and now Medvedev? Are there any defining characteristics in the approach of these three presidents in their relations with the mass media?

The only true democrat was Gorbachev. The current limitations on media coverage of the president and other high officials were imposed under Yeltsin, not Putin. Medvedev tries to be more open, but obviously he has little to say (just like Gorbachev in 1988-1991, who actually had no clue as to what was happening and how he could set things right again). Maybe, Russians need ceremonies around the president. Otherwise he looks a weakling to us (not to me, though).

Many regard Russia as one of the most challenging environments in which to practice journalism. From your perspective, what are the greatest challenges that you face when going about your work as a journalist in Moscow? Have you been able to overcome these obstacles?

I don’t think Russia is more difficult to work in than the United States or France (the two other countries where I worked as a journalist). Regular people are open and not afraid to talk. Rich and powerful people invent various ways of not answering your questions, but rich and powerful behave in that way everywhere.

Please tell me some more about your experience as a journalist working in France and the United States. What were your impressions? How does compare to working in Russia?

In the United States there was a lot of work to be done before the interview – lots of phone calls, appointments etc. In Russia it is still less formal, people don’t plan their schedules days or weeks in advance. However, an important exception is the special caste of high-placed officials. They try to imitate their Western peers and even outdo them in creating all sorts of hurdles for journalists. However, the words that I hate most in my journalist career – “pool,” club and copyright – all of these words are of Western origin and have nothing to do with the Soviet regime.

Do you have any advice to offer those wishing to be journalists and students of journalism, who are about to or wish to enter the profession?

First become a reader of press and see if you like it. Remember that yellow papers are easy to read but nasty to work in. Remember that yellow press and especially television only need young people and will get rid of you when you are no longer needed. See if there is a market for quality journalism in your country. If there is none, better become a schoolteacher and prepare an audience for yourself.

What are your future hopes and aspirations?

To work in my profession as long as possible - beyond the age of 50 or, if possible even 60 or 70. If yellow press wins and I am fired, I shall go to a school or a university to teach.

What is your opinion on the future of journalism in the Russian Federation? Why?

I wish to be an optimist, but I have some grave concerns now. Not only for journalism in Russia, but in the whole world. Serious journalism is under grave threat. I hope it will not join serious fiction in becoming marginalised.