Discover more from Mapping Journalism on Social Platforms
How Telegram helps Radio Free Europe reach people in censored countries
Plus: social media jobs and some good reads
Hello! I'm Francesco Zaffarano, and this is Mapping Journalism on Social Platforms, a biweekly newsletter featuring chats with people pushing journalism's boundaries on social platforms.
Welcome to new subscribers from the BBC, Google, and The Guardian. If someone forwarded this email to you and you want to subscribe, you can do it here:
A couple of announcements before we start:
📌 The Reuters Institute has decided to republish my interviews, and I hope this partnership will be a chance for more people to be inspired by great journalism projects;
📌 Starting today, you will find here (see below) a selection of social-media-related job listings curated by Daniel Levitt, founder of Inside the Newsroom.
And now, let’s start.
Q&A: How RFE/RL avoid censorship while building communities on Telegram
I spoke with Alina Živanović, the digital strategy manager responsible for social media at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for this issue. RFE/RL is a US government-funded, non-profit organization that covers news in 23 countries and 27 languages. Alina works with their newsrooms on distributing on social media platforms in every country where RFE/RL is active, managing accounts on various platforms, and establishing and sharing production and distribution best practices.
“We try to meet our audiences where they are. In many places, largely due to significant State censorship, this is Telegram,” Alina told me. RFE/RL counts more than 30 Telegram channels to share reporting in closed media spaces, including Russia and Iran.
FZ: What is the rationale behind the launch of a new channel?
AZ: The rationale in RFE/RL’s markets is two-fold: building dedicated subscription offerings and gathering audience input.
Our standard rollout process for new channels starts with defining the audience, their informational needs, and a plan for best meeting them.
RFE/RL’s rollout process also includes a competitive review to see what other outlets in the market are doing. This process sometimes makes it clear that a Telegram channel is not the answer to our publishing plans. But sometimes Telegram is the perfect answer. Our experience shows that it is particularly useful when major news breaks, like Russia’s war in Ukraine, and a dedicated audience with shared information needs that we can access directly.
FZ: How is Telegram different from the other platforms?
AZ: Telegram can be powerful because of its dual nature: it serves both as a direct messaging service and as a broadcasting tool; users can communicate with each other and subscribe to channels and large private groups.
Telegram is very easy to use for publishing. The browser and mobile app both have multiple editing options and direct posting. It’s also easy to schedule and create polls and host audio or video streams. It’s a great platform to get information and feedback from the audience. RFE/RL frequently uses it to crowdsource information.
Telegram can also be a good indicator of news fatigue. No matter how often we publish, we can’t provide enough content during big news moments. But when news fatigue sets in, or the moment subsides, people mute or leave the channels. When this happens, we adjust workflows and adopt a “less is more” approach.
FZ: How does Telegram fit into RFE/RL strategy and goals?
AZ: At RFE/RL, we consider Telegram channels subscription offerings like newsletters. They aren’t great for discovery because we don’t benefit from algorithmic amplification. Our audience growth is largely driven by user recommendations, meaning we must offer content people want to share.
Critically, Telegram is unblocked in countries like Russia, where other social media platforms and websites are strictly censored. While we use various tools to circumvent censorship on other platforms, the open availability of Telegram for users makes it an important component of how we reach audiences – particularly new audiences – and counter disinformation.
While RFE/RL operates in difficult media climates, like all news organizations, we only stand a chance to reach our audiences by being immediately interesting and relevant. Otherwise, people will unsubscribe or mute. When our reporting is at its best, Telegram gives us a great way to build community and stay connected with loyal users who build habits around our offering.
FZ: How many people work on RFE/RL Telegram channels? What do they do?
AZ: Each of RFE/RL’s 23 Services approach Telegram differently depending on the platform's role in the local context. From two to 20 journalists in each Service contribute to publishing, editing, reposting, scheduling posts, and gathering community input. In some teams, we have individual colleagues running the channel. In others, it’s a task shared by the team.
FZ: Do you produce content specifically for Telegram channels?
AZ: We adapt content for Telegram but usually don’t specifically create content.
There are exceptions, though. During Russian drone attacks on Ukraine, Tetiana Savchuk, senior social media editor with the Ukrainian Service, shared how the Service created graphics for its Telegram channel with instructions on identifying an attack and staying safe. The idea was that followers could download the image and reshare it in other messaging channels with family and friends or forward or post in stories on social media.
RFE/RL is also experimenting with briefing formats that don’t require clicking links to get more information. In some locations, like Iran, we natively upload video or audio files, which can be useful when communities are exposed to internet connectivity outages. In the Donbas, our regional project Donbas.Realii published the “Battle for Donbas” series – daily summaries of the war situation.
At the Russian Service, we have a dedicated podcast channel for audio files, a reflection of Radio Svoboda’s strength in this format. We carry short summaries of podcasts, pull quotes from podcasts, and the full audio files. We also try to understand our audience’s behavioral habits and format preferences, so we do questionnaires and surveys.
We have also experimented with live audio and live video streaming, but neither has caught on. In countries where RFE/RL is blocked, we use so-called mirror links to ensure people can access the links despite government bans on our sites.
FZ: What are your most popular channels, and what is their reach?
AZ: The most popular RFE/RL Telegram channel is of Current Time, a 24/7 TV and digital network for Russian-language speakers worldwide. It has more than 220k subscribers, and each post reaches more than 44k accounts on average.
FZ: How much traffic to your website comes from Telegram?
AZ: Only one percent of RFE/RL’s website traffic comes from Telegram, but this is not what we use the platform for in our markets. Often we publish on Telegram without any links to the website. We are interested in building a community on the platform.
FZ: What metrics do you use to analyze your content performance and why?
AZ: We check overall subscriber numbers on RFE/RL channels monthly. Daily, we keep track of reactions, engagement, video views, and audio plays. TGStat is a great resource for advanced analytics.
FZ: One thing you would like to change on Telegram?
AZ: Two things: Improve security and better platform-native metrics.
(Note: all RFE/RL channels on Telegram are listed in the Telegram tab of the Mapping Journalism spreadsheet)
Daniel Levitt kindly put together this list of social-media-related jobs. To see hundreds more listings, subscribe to his newsletter: Inside the Newsroom.
• Amnesty International Researcher, Algorithmic Harms of Social Media
• Lighthouse Reports, Social Media Specialist
• World Vision, Senior Paid Media Officer
• USA Today, Social Media Contributor
• Channel 4, Social Media Apprentice (x3) in Leeds
• Sky, Social Media Producer in London
• The Law Society, Social Media and Digital Community Executive in London
• Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Audience Engagement Assistant in Guildford
One question for you
Two weeks ago, I asked you which platforms I should cover in this newsletter – Telegram was the runner-up after Instagram, so here we are. Today, instead, I want to know more about you.
Things to read
📌 A harm reduction security guide on using Telegram
📌 Telegram 101 for journalists to read and watch
📌 Some key facts about Telegram by the Pew Research Center
📌 The Kremlin’s battle to convince people to join its war on Telegram
That’s all for this issue. If you liked it, please share it on social or forward it to your colleagues and friends.