Swiss Ambassador to Armenia Lukas Gasser: Switzerland will try to contribute to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict without questioning the established formats such as the OSCE Minsk process
ArmInfo News Agency is one of the key independent providers of impartial, full and reliable news on Armenia for the local and international political and business information markets. Our mission is to be a reliable source of information and knowledge for the people who make important decisions. We keep pace with the times, but it is not enough. We must provide our items, analysis and forecasts ahead of time to help our customers achieve their goals.
ArmInfo News Agency will celebrate it “de-jure” 10th Anniversary in July 2011. ArmInfo is the successor of SNARK News Agency that was founded in 1991 by a small group of professional journalists. Immediately after its reorganization into ArmInfo, the agency began extending the sphere of its “information influence.”
ArmInfo News Agency is considered one of the most successful private independent projects in the sphere of mass media in Armenia. It is well connected both in the territory of the former Soviet Union and outside it. The Agency successfully cooperates with such authoritative media-structures as REUTERS, BBC, EUROMONEY, RBC and others. ArmInfo’s hot news from Armenia and South Caucasus are present in the information markets of China, Iran and Middle East.
The Agency makes boast of its close and time-tested partner ties with the news agencies of the neighbor-states: Georgia (Black Sea Press) and Azerbaijan (TURAN).
In the domestic market the Agency closely cooperates with almost all foreign diplomatic missions in Armenia, commercial banks and big companies. ArmInfo is proud of its partnerships and friendly ties with such highly professional print media as “Golos Armenii”, “Aravot”, “Delovoy Express” newspapers as well as Shant and AR TV channels.
The agency seeks to be universal in its widest sense. It provides intensive coverage of such spheres as politics, economy, finance, sport, culture etc. ArmInfo News Agency has the following departments and services:
ArmInfo News Agency issues up to 100 news items and tables daily.
Over the last 10 years, due to active development of Internet and new information reality, the traditional mass media have been trying to find new forms of existence, becoming more flexible and trying to meet new challenges. Read about Mass Media development trends and the problems of Armenian journalism in our interview with Emmaniul Mkrtchyan, Director of ArmInfo News Agency. During 22 years of its activity ArmInfo has been applying various marketing strategies, which made it possible for the agency to achieve the tasks set.
Mr. Mkrtchyan, ArmInfo News Agency is 22 year old. What were the key development stages it has passed over that period?
Well, we launched activity in 1991, when the Soviet Union still existed formally. There was just one dominating agency in the market then, Armenpress state news agency. So, many foreign news agencies, newspapers and TV channels were seeking independent sources of information. To meet that demand a group of journalists founded the SNARK News Agency, ArmInfo is the legal successor of. Then we covered mainly the Karabakh conflict, the war in Karabakh, and, further settlement of the conflict, not economic issues. It was in that period that we established good partnerships with our regional news agencies – TURAN (Azerbaijan) and BS Press (Georgia). We have been cooperating since then.
The second stage of our development commenced in 1994 when the country began to slowly get out of darkness, in the ordinary sense of the word. We began gradually developing the economic component as we were realizing or, at least, hoping that strong economy will sooner or later recover and the country’s intellectual potential will work again. The banking sector began to rapidly grow in that period: there were over 40 commercial banks in the country by 1996-1997. It was new and interesting segment for us. We studied foreign experience and even made a couple of foreign trips to learn how Reuters writes and what problems it covers. We began learning ins and outs of market economy, financial sector. Then stock exchanges opened and we began covering that market. The new stage began in 1994 when we started diversifying our activity by covering economic and financial sectors alongside with international news and the Karabakh conflict.
Over those years you have expanded the news content staking on analytical and other products unique for our market. When did you arrive at such decision?
It was the market that has pushed us into that niche. It is normal, I think. We have never requested or received any special grants in the course of our activity. In 90s we received a not big grant for creation of our website. Another grant we received not long after and acquired several computers (we started our activity with teletype and phone). That’s all for 22 years. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but we could do without grants, as we have always billed ourselves as a business organization that sells interesting content both abroad and in the country. We were realizing that information development trends lead to the so-called ‘open sources’ and already starting the second half of 90s we became the first to offer special products such as analysis of the banking system and the credit market. Later, we understood that insurance market will start developing sooner or later. So, we issued our first bulletin on the financial analysis of the insurance market. Later, we developed special bulletins on energy, transport sectors as they were developing.
We tried to provide information on Armenia from the viewpoint of the region, which is especially important for foreigners that study developments in Armenia as part of the regional processes. Although, we have preserved the background of the classical news agency, inside the agency we have had services and employees specializing in specific sectors. This was done to diversify our business, as we realize that we will face the challenge of Open Cloud. On the other hand, we hopes that the interest in Armenia will increase and besides donors, the country will become interesting also to strategic and institutional independent investors, portfolio investors, world speculative dealers, and, in fact, demand for information will grow. Unfortunately, it did not happen.
What helps you sustain competition with other news agencies? As a user of news content, I can state for sure that nearly all the news agencies provide the same information. There is no exclusive information as such.
It’s not like that. Simply, in the countries that lack development - I’d not like to call them degrading states – economic life is stagnating as well. Therefore, there is nothing to dig up. There is no ‘fertile soil’. We still live on ‘saline’ we created in 90s. If the situation were different, there would be big opportunities in the information sphere. In addition, a big quantity of Internet resources has emerged in Armenia over the last three years. These online news resources are backed by politicians pursuing their political interests and ambitions.
What is Mass Media in Armenia: a business or an opportunity to lobby your own interests?
It’s a business, but not always commerce. Business and commerce are different things. I have recently watched a brilliant film “Robbing the casino” wherein Brad Pitt’s character says quite an interesting phrase in response to Obama’s calls for a single nation that is the strength of the country. He says: “America is not a country. America is a business.” Actually, we all follow that path. Unfortunately, due to oligarchic system in the country, it is difficult to say where is business and where is politics. Nevertheless, those open Internet resources are instruments for specific figures of our political and economic life.
There is little advertising on your website. A question arises as to where your financing comes from?
You will hardly find Armenian websites overloaded with advertising, because advertising is mainly on television now. Our financing comes from sale of our products, mainly news products. The point is how and whom to provide these news products. Many customers understand that open Internet resources are PR-instruments for influence. This is what creates demand for independent information. And we keep going on these ‘embers’. As for the other part of incomes, we have managed to open another interesting segment, the so-called information PR in the economic sphere. The companies demanding this product realize that information PR for business must be organized by professionals.
You have always billed yourself as a neutral resource. However, over the last years you have become more judgmental…
It’s not so, actually.
The news content is neutral, but copyright items have become more judgmental, I think. I understand that the problem is not you.
That’s what I’d like to speak about. We have become more judgmental as the situation demands it. We have never provided information by order of political parties, the presidential administration or the Department of State. We have become more judgmental, because we are ordinary citizens of this country, and we experience the same problems and stagnation as our citizens, and we have our own civil stance. When the public realizes the need for fundamental reform “because the rearrangement of summands does not change the sum,” all this cannot but be reflected in our information materials. At the same time, professional and technological moderation of items is still the key factor for us. If you read an item containing no alternative point of view, you should wait for another one that will present another views on the problem, because we try to keep the golden mean.
Team has the key role in any company. How do you settle the problem with human resources?
It is the most painful issue. For me personally, it is the most interesting issue. Yet 22 years ago our agency was already based on the rules adopted from the Telegraph Agency of Soviet Union’s (TASS) mode of operation. The agency was established building on the people that had relevant work experience, including at the Russian-language TASS groups, where items were to meet specific criteria. So, we keep working on the same way. Several generations of employees have changed over 22 years. Various people have applied for job. There were average journalists or persons having all the makings of a journalist but no post-secondary education. In conditions of permanent crisis of human resources, we had to choose between education base and inborn talent for journalism. We were reluctant to work and train our cadres for long. Sometimes it took us several years to make a good journalist. But, it was justified. I am very glad that many of our journalists now work abroad. Local and the Russian language Internet information resources are full with journalists that underwent professional training at SNARK-ArmInfo. They present a competitive content very close to ours. I am glad even despite the fact that some of those people try to distance themselves from us having forgotten where they started their career. Anyway, I am really happy to be useful in my quarter-century professional activity. I am proud also of the fact that I have continued the work of my father Boris Mkrtchyan, who had been editing the key Russian-language newspaper in the country for long years and had trained dozens of highly professional Russian-speaking journalists, who, in turn, become teachers for me.
Our biggest problem is economic journalism...
I agree with you. I have worked at Slavonic University and Yerevan State University, and in both places the level of training was low. As for economic journalism, we don’t even have such a department. All my efforts to change something were in vain. At Slavonic University I faced a system of narrow group interests and decided to quit. At Yerevan State University the case was even worse: they invited me to give elementary economics and economic journalism lectures to a group of post graduates for six months, and after six months the head of that group Aram Mkrtchyan (now he is the marketing manager of Orange Armenia) and the head of the journalism department, roughly speaking, stiffed me: they didn’t pay a penny for my work and each said it was the other’s fault. I got so sick of it I didn’t even complain to anybody but just let it go because it was not money I was doing it all for. Such a sad experience. A real criminal affair. And this is our education system.
Still, how do you solve the problem of personnel?
We train them on our own. Each year we take five-six graduates and start working with them. As a rule, one of them stays. But their level of education, it really kills me.
You mean general education?
Both general and professional. Some people think that just a diploma is enough to impress. Somebody comes and shows you a diploma with honors in Russian philology, you test him and see that in reality he does not know the language well. I also have a group of economic journalists and see that economic journalism in Armenia is also at a low level. I, personally, set very high standards for myself. After 15 years in economics, finance, exchange trade and banking I understood that I needed one more profession and began studying MBA at the selfsame Slavonic University because there was no alternative. I did it for myself. I wanted to understand: perhaps there actually was no demand for analysis or maybe our products were not good enough. I also needed a basis for progress. So, I am really amazed to see how unprofessional our economists are. Of course, there are very clever guys among them, but they are few and they are engaged in self-education. The rest are a big gray mass of people who do not even know the ABC of economics. This is what we have for the moment.
Let’s talk about the future of the mass media and journalism as a profession: today many people believe that those who are 25 now will not read newspapers or even news sites any more. All they care for is social networks. What do you think about this?
I don’t agree with such a forecast. It comes from America. For some reason they believe that Facebook is an alternative to the mass media. But I am sure that sooner or later we will feel the need of classical mass media – for the easier it will be for people to access the Internet and to use it on an interactive basis, the more trash they will find in the information field in the form of political PR, misinformation, commercial ads.
Will the demand for professional journalism become higher?
Of course, it will as the professionalism of classical mass media implies information support for people adopting decisions.
You mean a small group of people.
Yes, media working for the masses will always be jst a means of entertainment. Things are just starting to change, and classical media will have to work hard and to wait for a couple of years or perhaps even a couple of decades until readers learn to tell the wheat from the weeds.
What can we do with the habit to get information for free?
There is such a habit, but I am sure that sooner or later things will change. Yes, pure news, as a genre, with no analysis, no forecast, no development scenarios, will go to social networks. And there will be no more classical news agencies, except for ones owned by the government and serving their interests. All the other news agencies will turn into information analysis companies.
In the developed countries we can already see this process. Many companies abroad started as news agencies but later turned into brokerage analysis, investment analysis, information analysis or rating organizations. We did it in 2006, when in cooperation with Russian partners and with the support of western investors, we established AmRating rating agency. Its prototype was a team that was engaged in studying markets and investment opportunities in Russia and Kazakhstan. We hoped that in Armenia that model would also work. You know, before the crisis our banking system was not bad.
There was plenty of big easy money coming into the country and feeding its financial sector. Despite the problem of poor financial infrastructure, we managed to create rating technologies and to adapt them to local conditions. That process took us half a year (we had to adapt foreign books of accounts to our books of accounts so as to be able to create scoring and other rating systems). Everything was going well. We assigned credit scores to three commercial banks, who said that our reports were even better than the reports of some U.S. rating companies. The point is that those companies worked at a distance, while we were here and knew all the ins and outs of our market.
But once the crisis came, our banks began experiencing problems with returns. The number of overdue loans was growing. And we lost our clients. But the real problem was that commercial banks were not our final goal. What we had in mind for the future was to start assigning ratings to companies and their securities.
Ratings are meant not so much for banks but for debt securities and shares. Our mistake was that the corporate market was deteriorating, while the stock market was showing no signs of early recovery. Instead of being demonopolized – something everybody was expecting - the market was getting even more monopolized. For a crisis-stricken market monopoly can prove really dangerous – as monopolists can use the money they earn by not paying taxes to buy SMEs and to make themselves even bigger. That’s exactly what happened then. And it was all but the time for rating activities. Our partners saw that Armenia had no prospects in this field and stopped to cooperate with us.
But you are not losing heart and keep appearing with new products...
And what you suggest – not to live, not to work? Some three years ago we created a unique product, the financial analysis of Armenia’s biggest industrial, commercial and service organizations (over 100 companies, mostly those you can see in the biggest taxpayer list). This is a ratio analysis. We already have dynamics for three years. Though most of our companies are in shadow, even if 40% or 50% of their accounts are true, their three-year dynamics are already a unique product for analysts, market players and investors. But it seems we were hasty again.
You mean you don’t have demand?
Yes, this is the problem. You make a good product, but there is no demand for it. Not that we are naïve or bad at marketing. Our problem is our belief: when you believe that even an imitation of a process can sooner or later set that process moving. Sometimes our customers say, “give us the truth, we don’t believe these figures.” But do they mean we should pry into others’ off-the-book finances? We have external demand for some local companies, mostly for importers: their foreign partners need to know who their real stakeholders are, how they actually perform and have performed in at least the few last years. Foreigners appreciate such information as they are afraid of risks. But in general, as a product, such analyses are not in high demand. Only several big local banks are impatient to get a new product from us because they have strong teams of analysts, who are engaged in risk assessment. The same is for our banking information: the first rankings were issued in 1997, but we still don’t have the demand we hoped for. Let’s hope this is a product of the future – the future that is taking a bit too long to come.