BBG Watch Commentary
President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Steven Korn tells anyone who would listen that Russian American writer, author of “The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” and gay rights activist Masha Gessen, his choice for the director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, is the best thing since sliced bread. But her critics in Russia point out that contrary to Mr. Korn’s claims that Masha Gessen is the best person to lead Radio Liberty’s digital transition, she lacks any substantive experience in digital media — Internet, video, audio, television, and mobile devices– and has actually lost web visitors for her last employer, the Russian magazine Vokrug Sveta. BBG Watch has also learned that some of Ms. Gessen’s new web editors worked with text only.
Critics challenge Korn’s claims that about 40 Radio Liberty journalists had to be fired to move forward with the digital transition, especially since about half of them were young and talented members of Radio Liberty’s Internet team who have created one of the best multi platform news websites in Russia. The other half included some of the best independent journalists, commentators and human rights reporters.
Critics argue that Mr. Korn became so fascinated with Ms. Gessen that he decided to fire almost everybody so that his new favorite manager could bring in her own team. Ms. Gessen accused some of the independent journalists who have suggested a link between the mass firing and her employment of slander, which has recently become a criminal offense in Russia under a new law signed by President Putin, with fines of up to $150,000. Critics suspect that these accusations of slander were designed to stifle independent media inquiries into Ms. Gessen’s employment record and some of her embarrassing online interviews.
What emerges, however, according to these critics, is that that neither Ms. Gessen nor the people she is likely to bring on board know much about new media and that she has no record of achievement as a manager.
The old Radio Liberty Internet team, on the other hand, was highly successful. Independent journalists, some of whom she accused of slandering her, will not want to work with her after what had happened to their colleagues. Democratic opposition leaders who have condemned the firings, like former President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and a slew of other politicians and human rights leaders, are also unlikely to want to have their names associated with new Radio Liberty or Ms. Gessen. On top of that, all the best and the most respected Radio Liberty journalists have been forced out. Ironically, Ms. Gessen’s only choice may be to seek cooperation with TV media outlets controlled by the Kremlin or with old Soviet propaganda master Vladimir Posner, whose school of TV journalism is located in the same building to which the Radio Liberty bureau is moving.
Without the talent and the reputation of the old Radio Liberty behind her and without any significant experience or achievements in digital media, Ms. Gessen will miss the Internet team fired by Mr. Korn, which has made the website until recently svobodanews.ru a remarkable presence on the Russian Internet.
During the last three years, the number of Radio Liberty (Svoboda) website’s visitors grew eight times and the number of constant visitors – 20 times. Radio Svoboda’s quotation index reached the second place among all Russian radio stations. The fired team created active and rapidly growing communities on Facebook (more than 17 thousand subscribers) and Twitter (more than 21 thousand followers). The number of comments on Radio Svoboda website increased hundredfold. Radio Svoboda’s Russian Service website was the first one among all non-TV media in Russia to video-broadcast live from the places of politically important events – including protest rallies, some of which took place in the depths of Russia. It was the only website in Russia which broadcast live the latest plea from the nation’s most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The fired editor-in-chief of Radio Liberty’s website Ludmila Telen said that her team was turning the Service into a comprehensive multimedia platform with all deliberate speed, “but not through a revolution that ignores the station’s reputation, discards its best human talent, and produces a scandal in the blogosphere and in traditional media, as well as among our audience, which may now be lost forever after the deluge of negative publicity.”
Any sane manager would want to hold on to such a successful team. But in an op-ed in The Moscow Times newspaper, Steve Korn heaped praise upon Masha Gessen and justified the mass firings. “Anyone who thinks that we are retreating or shrinking in the face of a hostile Russian administration should look no further than to the hiring of our new director, Masha Gessen, who holds both Russian and U.S. citizenship,” Korn wrote. “She is widely recognized as a pre-eminent journalist, editor, author and leader,” he added.
But Ms. Gessen’s abilities as a manager are being widely questioned. Critics cite Russian media reports that she “has never held down a job for more than three years, and has been fired in the past from managerial posts due to scandal producing conflicts with employees and senior management on all levels: government officials, entrepreneurs and publishers in Russia and abroad,” one former Radio Liberty employee wrote. But Steven Korn is quoted as telling various people in Washington that Masha Gesssen’s accomplishments and acclaim as a journalist, executive editor and above all a leader are far greater than those of any other language service director in the entire history of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. We can just hear the laughter.
A report [link to PDF copy] put together from open sources by some of the former members of the fired Radio Liberty Internet team shows that Ms. Gessen actually lost website visitors at her most recent former employer, the Russian magazine Vokrug Sveta. This comes as no surprise to us.
“Vokrug Sveta” http://www.vokrugsveta.ru/ Website Statistics Analysis – Counter – liveinternet.ru
Report compiled by former Radio Liberty staffers
1. Very small number of main body (present every week during a month) – 1400. 20 times less than the number of visitors, who visit the site every day (around 30 000).
This shows small loyalty of the majority of website visitors. People visit the website mainly accidentally.
(For comparison: the main body on Radio Svoboda website http://www.svobodanews.ru/ is only four times less than the daily visitors number).
Ms. Gessen came to “Vokrug Sveta” in 2012.
We compare the statistics from February 2012 (January statistics is rarely significant) with the one of the same period in 2011.
The main body mainly increased throughout 2011 year (2204 unique visitors in February 2011, the top – 2583 – in June).
During all months of 2012, excluding March, the main body decreased and was lower than in 2011.
The sharpest decrease of the main body started in May and continued throughout the whole summer.
The result – the smallest main body in two and a half years (1177) was in August.
In September 2012 main body reached 1278 – 1,7 times lower than in September 2011 (2240).
2. The number of visitors during a day in 2011 mainly increased. In 2012, after Gessen became the head of Vokrug Sveta, the number of visitors during a day CONSTANTLY decreased, excluding February.
33943 visitors during a day in January 2012;
27406 visitors in September.
There were no such low numbers in 2011, as there were in July and August 2012.
The names of columns: – Visitors during a day
 – New visitors (or the ones who didn’t visit the website for 31 days)
 – Ever present visitors (visit the website daily during a week)
 – Main body (visit the website each week during a moth)
 – Frequent (visit the website each week during 3 months)
Date      Jan 11 23538 17856 586 1888 637
Feb 11 25545 19386 653 2204 673
March 11 28194 21716 671 2428 695
Apr 11 33732 26210 694 2379 753
May 11 35358 26821 881 2204 756
June 11 29551 21782 877 2583 723
Jul 11 24475 18060 680 2348 567
Aug 11 25322 18821 684 1979 521
Sept 11 31374 24126 801 2240 504
Oct 11 37784 29771 819 2546 520
Nov 11 38791 30524 801 2564 581
Dec 11 34400 26622 812 2551 686
Jan 12 33943 26666 691 2019 590
Feb 12 39184 30585 816 2184 544
March 12 35763 27678 809 2461 563
April 12 33979 26685 740 2177 624
May 12 29457 23262 624 1727 535
June 12 25072 19448 538 1533 471
July 12 22006 17121 408 1241 366
Aug 12 21297 16601 442 1177 278
Sept 12 27406 22052 527 1278 246
3. Visitors numbers, in comparison to 2011, didn’t increase at all and even decreased in some months.
The numbers in the last three months before Ms. Gessen came to Vokrug Sveta:
Oct 2011 – 960010
Nov 2011 – 958871
Dec 2011 – 866478
The numbers in three last months of Vokrug Sveta with Ms. Gessen:
June 2012 – 610629
July 2012 – 554562
August 1012 – 536335
4. Pageviews indicator didn’t change in the first months of 2012 since 2011, but then decreased much.
The numbers in the last three months before Ms. Gessen came to Vokrug Sveta:
Oct 2011 2619242
Nov 2011 2519210
Dec 2011 2363494
Three last months of Vokrug Sveta with Ms. Gessen:
June 2012 – 1800900
July 2012 – 1646192
August 2012 – 1555955
The diagrams are available here –
This all shows that the work of attracting traffic to the Vokrug Sveta website with Ms. Gessen was insufficient or didn’t take place at all.
After Ms. Gessen came to Vokrug Sveta the important statistics indicators either didn’t change, or even decreased.
The only activity in attracting traffic to Vokrug Sveta website in 2012 was in social networks (Facebook and VKontakte, but Twitter remained undeveloped).