Digging up data on Russia’s media


Almost every journalist these days knows what its like to be courted by media managers, public relations people, and other communications specialists. But how many of you have ever been handed cold, hard cash to publish a story?

In Russia, money has been an inherent aspect of the media landscape. And Timofey Pletz, a former journalist in the Kremlin press pool and public relations specialist for a Russian natural gas producer, knows this all too well.

Common place trades of cash for stories led him to found MediaDigger – a platform that uses data to help demonetise relationships in the media. We spoke to him to find out more about the data driven aspects of his project, and how it can benefit journalists in Russia.

DDJ: What is MediaDigger and how did it come about?

Timofey: MediaDigger is a software as a service that helps companies, NGOs and people find and contact the right journalists. We are the first such service specializing in Russia and the CIS region. Over the past year we’ve gathered, analyzed and systematized data on thousands of journalists and tens of thousands of media outlets that are based in this region or covering it.

I’m a former journalist myself, so building MediaDigger was a logical thing to do to help my former colleagues with their work. I’ve also spent time in PR, both in-house and as a consultant, and understand how others build their relationships with journalists. So after almost a decade in PR and journalism it became clear to me what a mess communicating with journalists has become. This mess occurred due to advances in technology, (i.e. email, social media, search engines, etc.), yet the same technology wasn’t really offering anything to ease the burden on journalists. Not in this region, at least.


Image: MediaDigger.

You have done a lot of work analysing the mediascape in Russia, which has both informed the development of a platform to connect journalists and media managers, as well as working against monetary relationships between these groups. Which of these was MediaDigger's primary goal?

It was a combination of factors. The more data you have, the more impact you can make. One problem in Russia, specifically, and Eastern Europe, in general, is corruption. In fact, it's become so widespread that just last year during the biggest conference on communication in Eastern Europe the CEO of one marketing firm openly admitted that they tried to bribe Forbes. This is an unthinkable and suicidal announcement to make in the UK or US and goes to show just how widespread this practice is. The reason why that CEO was so nonchalant about it is because a significant number of professionals in the PR industry feel it’s easier to bribe their way through into a publication, than actually find a different journalist that’s willing to write about them. So instead of finding other journalists and pitching the story to him or her, they try to take a shortcut and use money as an incentive.

However, when there’s a platform like ours, where you can easily find a large number of journalists in one place and who you can reach in two simple clicks, you don’t need to participate in any shady schemes. When I worked in PR there were several occasions when I was asked how much I paid for this or that publication and always found these questions insulting and infuriating. A good story told to the right journalist sells itself and I do hope that we can do our share in getting rid of corruption.

By the way, the CEO from the conference found himself in hot water and with a tarnished reputation soon after making the announcement.

You refer to MediaDigger as a platform to 'democractise journalism'. What do you mean by this?

We’re using data and technology to make it possible for anyone that has a worthy story to be heard out by the press. Giving more people the chance to directly talk to journalists increases transparency and accountability. I don’t just mean PR professionals. Average people have been using our platform to report incidents of crime or injustice to the media, too. Obviously, social media still exists and gives people a voice. Increasingly more and more Russian-speaking journalists are using social media for work, but the figures are still relatively low compared to Western Europe and the US. The other problem with social media is that there’s an overwhelming amount of content on it and hard to get noticed. Also, it can be quite tricky to find the right journalist on a social media platform as there’s no way to browse them.

To tackle the problem of not knowing which journalist covers which topic we've analyzed data on thousands of journalists working in the region. MediaDigger lets you search for the right journalist to pitch to by beat, publication name, media outlet type, geographic location and many other criteria. In turn, this means that journalists are receiving only relevant pitches from various sources, including those which they wouldn’t normally hear from.


Image: Searching for journalists by category.

In its creation, you analysed all 83,000 media outlets registered in Russia over the past 25 years. Can you explain the data collection and analysis steps involved in this?

This was quite a challenge. I actually ended up having to self-teaching myself how to code in Python to be able to work with all of the data. It was a lot of work, which involved some crawling, scraping and parsing. Some of the information we obtained from Russia's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor. It was a very tedious process.

We went beyond answering basic questions about the media landscape, i.e. percent of online publications (which is 11%) and really dug deep. For example, there are 2,465 media outlets that were founded by just 16 organizations. We’ve also discovered that media outlets in Russia broadcast in 102 languages! Another thing we examined was where the press is located and what regions it covers. Surprisingly, almost a third broadcast abroad.

Nobody before us has done anything like this, which is why our analysis of all 83,000 media outlets spanning 25 years was used by several government agencies and ministries, including Russia’s Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications.

How does the MediaDigger platform benefit journalists?

The obvious benefit for journalists is that they will be hearing only relevant stories on topics that they’re covering from different sources, including those that usually wouldn’t be able to reach them.

Another area that we’re improving for journalists is the way they’re pitched to. It’s hard to say how many good stories have gone unnoticed because a journalist just couldn’t figure it out or didn’t have time to get through three pages of text.

To do that we produce educational content on best practice and the latest industry trends. This content is aimed at those responsible for working with the media and helps them become more successful at their job. We also encourage and allow more experienced professionals to share their knowledge on our platform. All of this activity is aimed at increasing the quality of the stories and pitches.

What's next for MediaDigger?

It’s been a very exciting year. MediaDigger went from non-existing to being recognized by the government. The strong demand that we’re seeing is a clear indication that we’re on the right track of putting technology and data to good use in our field. There are a lot of opportunities in media intelligence and monitoring and we’ll be further developing our platform. If you look at some of the big names like Cision, Meltwater and Isentia you get a feeling for just how big and diversified you can become and this is the direction I want to be moving in.

Visit MediaDigger here.