Q&A with Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times

Streets of Saint-Petersburg (Photo credit: Ben Stone)

Nievsky Prospekt, Saint-Petersburg (Photo credit: Ben Stone)

by Ben Stone

I recently conducted an interview over e-mail with Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times. According to his biography on the Times’ website, after Schwirtz studied Russian in college and interned at the US Embassy in Saint-Petersburg and Kiev, he worked as a reporter and researcher for the Moscow bureau of The Times from 2006 until 2012. I began reading Schwirtz’s articles a few years ago, and was inspired by his ability to illuminate contemporary Russian news in a concise and insightful way (for example, his March 2012 story and video about the complicated psychological reasons for Putin’s strong political support). Schwirtz is back now, based out of New York City, and reporting regularly for Times. Because he is basically the man I want to be, I asked him about his experiences reporting in Russia. And because he is crushingly busy by definition, I had to keep it short.

Why did you want to write about Russia?

I did not really set out to become a reporter in Russia. I kind of evolved into the role. I spent two years in St. Petersburg and I was living in Washington pretending to be a freelance journalist when I heard about a job as a researcher/translator with the Times in Moscow. I got the job, moved to Moscow, and slowly–over several years–learned how to be a reporter there. I had a few good teachers as you can imagine.

How would you say reporting on events within Russia differs from reporting on events in, for example, America?

I can only speak for myself. I don’t think my reporting in Russia differed that much from what I’m doing now. In New York, where I do most of my reporting these days, I’m still fighting with cops and public officials to get information they don’t really want to give up. I’d say sources respect me more here in the States. The level of cynicism in Russia can be astounding, particularly when it comes to journalists. I found it difficult to convince people there that the Times was anything more than a sophisticated PR firm for the White House.

How hard was it is to gather sources for your stories and build a network in Russia?

Because of the cynicism I described above, building trusting relationships with sources was very difficult indeed. I had very few people that I could seek out regularly for advice and information. And whenever I did develop a relationship, say with a government official, it did not last long. There is an unfortunate expectation that as a journalist you are to take whatever an official feeds you and reproduce it untouched for your readers. When this did not happen, the relationship usually ended.

Have you ever received significant blowback from within Russia for a story you have written?

Only occasionally. I’ve tussled with Channel 1, the main government tv channel, and with some of Ramzan Kadyrov’s lackeys. I’ve had more problems in other post-Soviet countries like Belarus, where the blowback is often physical.

Have you encountered problems with press censorship while reporting?

Never.

Do you have any advice for me, as a journalist aspiring to write about Russian news?

Move to Russia. Get your hands dirty. Let me know if I can help with anything else. I have plenty of contacts in Moscow to help you get on your feet.

Guy cooling out on Nieva River in Saint-Petersburg

Guy cooling out on Nieva River in Saint-Petersburg (Photo credit: Ben Stone)

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