Nargiz Shukenova, producer of the Clique Film Festival: “In my opinion, a demand for Central Asia has formed in various areas of culture.”
Economist Kuanysh Onalbayev, “Many people have no clue that they could know about the budget.”

Callum Voge, Project Syndicate: “To us, it is important not only to deliver the content but also broadcast opinions from Central Asia.”

The non-governmental organization Project Syndicate is the largest media network of columnists in the world, which collaborates with leading experts in various areas: from politics to medicine. Among their authors there are Nobel laureates and renowned politicians. Currently the project is expanding and it is planned to attract authors and media partners from Central Asia to the network. We had an opportunity to speak to Global Relations Manager Callum Voge and pose the questions of concern.  

Callum, please tell us about Project Syndicate and your job in more detail.

Callum Voge: Project Syndicate is a non-profit media organization with the headquarters in Prague, in the Czech Republic. We collect comments of international experts from all over the world on a variety of topics, among which are politics, economics, environment, human rights and other topical issues. The Project Syndicate team collects comments of experts, edits them, verifies facts, approves the final draft with authors and distributes texts among our media partners. Right now we are working with over five hundred editorial teams in 156 countries. Our media network is the biggest in the world, and since we are a non-profit organization, it enables us access various markets. In Kazakhstan, we have operated not that long – just over two years. Here we are collaborating with the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan: we translate materials of our authors into the Russian and Kazakh languages, depending on the publishing house. Our main aim here is to bring new ideas and perspectives into Kazakhstani media. Especially if highlighting this or that topic has not been possible before.

What is the selection process of publishing houses that you cooperate with?

Callum Voge: Project Syndicate is the only one which selects partners. In my first visit to Kazakhstan, I met potential partners, got to know them, consulted with independent experts in order to know more about the local media market. Based on the information obtained, we selected the partners. To us, the level of independence of the media and its content is very important: whether the editorial team covers international agenda, presence of columns and so on.

Exploring the local market, what conclusions did you come to?

Callum Voge:  I think that the media in Kazakhstan faces a lot of challenges, which are not unique, unfortunately – many countries encounter those. One of the aspects is a financial one – a business model. For instance, the Kazakh-language media does not receive that much advertizing budget unlike the Russian-language media. Also, the government order impacts the situation on the market. Another matter is the freedom of the media to address certain topics. Anyway, the local media are doing a great job. We take into account the language peculiarity as well. Of course, it would be easier to publish our content only in Russian as there is more of deeper content and thorough analysis in Russian – all these do help perceive and understand texts because somehow, the reader is familiar with the topic. As you know, education and business is done more in Russian than in Kazakh. In terms of economics and politics, it is a bit unusual to see texts in the Kazakh language. It is a challenge for us too, that is why growth of the Kazakh-speaking audience and development of the content in Kazakh is our long-term goal.

Do you have any tools which you use to measure the effect of the project on the media audience?

Callum Voge: We take views into consideration. This information is provided by our partners. We use not only this index since our content is targeted more at quality than quantity. It is not that important how many people have read an article. It is more important who these people are. Some of our media partners get very good feedback from readers. Even one piece of positive feedback is a success. We also pay attention to involvement, for example, comments on posts. In general, it is rather hard to measure the impact. In the long term, we hope to see an increase in page views, especially for the Kazakh-language mass media. It would be amazing.

– How do you see your reader?

Callum Voge: We publish material on our English website. I believe the audience of this site is similar to the audience of our media partners. Normally, these are people with higher education. Among them there are lots of leading entrepreneurs, politicians, representatives of academia, professors. We write about sustainable development, medicine, so experts from these fields read us. These are people aged 30-40, even 50 and more. Looking at gender, we have female and male readers too. The number of women is growing, but in the beginning the number of male readers prevailed. We always try to vary authors of Project Syndicate. Our mission is to encourage debate. One of the ways to complete the mission is to invite people who represent various views so that they could express their own opinions and, the reader could get access to a range of viewpoints and choose the one which resonates with your standpoint.

– Do you have a program which supports authors and may attract different voices?

Callum Voge: This is what we are working on. One of our aims for this year, which my colleagues have been working on, is to attract more female authors and youth as well. The thing is that many of our authors, who have been writing for us for the last 20 years, have grown older. On the one side, adult white men popular in many countries, on the other side, young authors who are treated with skepticism. We are working on maintaining the balance.

Now we are thinking of the age of our authors, their gender. Also, we have set up projects related to regions recently. For example, we have launched a big project recently, which specializes in Africa, the Middle East. We prefer to involve authors from respective regions in such projects rather than to invite authors from outside.

– What do you think current editorial teams should work on to develop their projects?

Callum Voge: It all depends on goals. As many readers get on websites via social networks, we need to consider operating algorithms of social networks. For instance, Facebook has set new rules for the video content. Since Project Syndicate also creates the video content, some editorial teams came up with a solution for their web pages, some didn’t. It depends on the strategy, on whether editorial teams consider moving from social networks to somewhere else. Today many media are working on new forms of presenting information.

One of the problems that journalists and thoughtful audience in Kazakhstan confront is the freedom of expression. In Central Asia, this is a quite widespread problem. Furthermore, most media belong to representatives of the so-called oligarchy. To what extent do you think it is possible to develop independent media in such circumstances? How professionals may plan the work process under such conditions?

There is no easy answer for this question. I assume journalists have to think of safety and at the same time to keep the balance between the latter and the idea of the freedom of expression and press. If you work in the media where there is self-censorship, you need to realize it is an unhealthy situation for the society and development of the country; which is why the independent media and joint work with the audience are crucial – by uniting it is possible to change the situation somehow. I work with the Chinese media within Project Syndicate. The situation in China is much more difficult than in Kazakhstan. Chinese independent journalist realize in what conditions they exist, and do their best. Editors that publish our material take every decision on this or that text very carefully – whether to publish or not. If they realize that they might have a problem because of the text, but its ideas are absolutely essential for the society, and it is worth the risk, then, of course, they do publish it.

– What can you tell about Central Asia and your plans for the local media market?

Callum Voge: We are very interested in the Central Asian region. Kazakhstan is the first country in Central Asia which we started to liaise with. We are grateful to the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan because it would be very hard without translation into the Russian and Kazakh languages, since editorial teams we work with cannot undertake responsibility for translation of articles. We would like to expand cooperation in Central Asia. It all depends on the local market, audience and financial resources. We have a partner in Kyrgyzstan that publishes our material. At present we are exploring the market of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Project Syndicate is aiming at increasing the quantity of not only readers but also authors in Central Asia. We have a few authors in Kazakhstan, say, Nargiz Kassenova. In future, we hope to attract other authors too. To us, it is important not only to deliver the content but also broadcast opinions from the regions.

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