Judith Soal, The Guardian: Finding a cross-over between coverage for local and international audiences is the biggest problem in reporting about Belarus

April 22, 2016 19:37

An interview with Judith Soal, one of the judges of Belarus in Focus 2015 and editor of The Guardian’s New East network  - founder of the special prize for competition participants from Belarus.  

- When did the first article about Belarus appear in The Guardian’s New East Network? What was the topic, who was the author and what was the feedback from your audience about this article? 

Judith Soal: The first story we ran when we launched The Guardian’s New East network last year was about Belarus, so it’s been there from the beginning. It was a broad look at the state of the country under 20 years of Lukashenko, and it was written by one of The Guardian’s foreign editors, Mark Rice-Oxley. We had really positive feedback from our audience - the story was well read and well received, as it offered context and information about the part of the world that many of our readers know little about. It was shared more than 3,000 times and received more than 200 comments. We also translated the story into Russian.

- How often does The Guardian’s New East Netwok reports on Belarus? 

JS: We report on Belarus regularly - all our coverage can be found here.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel prize received a lot of attention, as did theelection and Lukashenko’s inauguration (and his decision to take his son to the UN general assembly). Recent features include the blind district of Minsk, a cultural guide to the city as well as a review of a Belarus Free Theatre performance in London. There’s a lot more - it’s worth having a look. We’ve even published a story in Belarusian, about how the language is making a comeback 

- What kind of difficulties do you see in preparing the articles about Belarus for your audience? Did you achieve the results you expected from the articles? 

JS: I think the biggest problem, like with most international reporting, is finding a cross-over between coverage for local and international audiences. For example, I know this is controversial but if we ever call Belarus ’the last dictatorship in Europe’ we are widely criticised inside the country - and I understand why, I’ve heard all the arguments - it’s a cliche, it reduces the country to one man, there’s much more going on, etc etc. But for international audiences it’s a useful device and quick way to interest them in a region they may otherwise not care about. There is so much news out there, so many important stories to be told and so many countries competing for attention that I believe journalists should use every tool at their disposal to get their message across. It is not enough to write important stories if they are not published, or to publish them if no one reads them. We’re always trying to find a balance between being overly sensational or simplistic and finding a good interesting angle that will engage readers. Sometimes journalists believe their stories should be run because it’s a good cause, but in a competitive media environment stories have to earn their place with a strong news hook and/or particularly interesting angle.  

- What kinds of topics about Belarus are interesting for The Guardian’s audience today? 

JS: That’s a good question - it’s hard for me to answer because I’ve not been to Belarus and haven’t heard all the untold stories. Obviously we’re interested in the politics, the country’s role in Europe, its mediating between Russia and the west, etc. But I’d bet there are a lot more - like the blind district in Minsk - that would be interesting if we only knew about it.  

- Could you describe please the special prize for Belarus in Focus 2015 offered by The Guardian? Why did The Guardian’s New East Network decide to support this competition? 

JS: The special prize is a result of the collaboration between The Guardian and Belarus in Focus. It’s great for us to increase our coverage - last year’s winner spent a week in our offices recently and is working on several stories for us. It was a good experience, we learned a lot from him and he said he also found it beneficial. I’m looking forward to hosting another Belarusian journalist after the next competition. 

What kind of skills of Belarusian journalist will be taken into account during the competition? What kind of candidate you are looking for to host in The Guardian?

JS: Next year’s prize will be awarded according to the strength of the story submitted to the competition. We’ll be looking for someone who is observant, has good ideas, is well informed about Belarus and understands the importance of finding interesting and engaging ways to write about important issues. Also, it should be someone who can benefit from spending time at The Guardian, so English language skills are necessary. 

Judith Soal is the editor of The Guardian’s New East network which focuses on coverage of the post-Soviet world.

Belarus in Focus 2015 is the international competition for journalists who have written about Belarus in 2015. You can apply for the competition now by filling this form. The deadline for submitting articles is January 19th, 2016.