Unite or disappear: Russian media startup ‘istories’ wants journalists to join forces — before it’s too late

Unite or disappear: Russian media startup ‘istories’ wants journalists to join forces — before it’s too late

Russia has seen a wave of innovative independent media outlets emerge in recent years as journalists try to find ways of avoiding increasingly common censorship. Investigative outlet Important Stories — or istories — joined the fray last month, calling on reporters to work together to hold the authorities to account.

13 May 2020

When the Panama Papers story broke in 2016, it revealed the identities of hundreds of corrupt officials and businessmen using offshore accounts to hide their wealth. Exposing the millions of dollars and the thousands of shell companies had taken hours upon hours of tedious, painstaking work, as well as a 100-strong international reporting team — a rare example of cross-border collaboration in the supposedly cut-throat journalism world.

“We have the advantage — the privilege — of being able to concentrate on what we really think is important”

The story dominated international headlines for weeks, leading to political resignations and criminal cases. But it also inspired 33-year-old Roman Anin, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Russia’s latest investigative journalism outlet, Vazhnie Istorii, (known as Important Stories, or the shorter istories in English). It was taking part in investigations like the Panama Papers that convinced him of the need for journalists to work together to expose corruption — an ethos at the heart of his latest project. “The Panama Papers proved the effectiveness and power of cooperation,” he says.

Formally launched at the end of April, istories is modelled on New York-based ProPublica, a not-for-profit investigative journalism outfit. It is a status which gives the site a lot of freedom, according to istories co-founder Olesya Shmagun, 32, who has spent half a decade at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. “We have the advantage — the privilege — of being able to concentrate on what we really think is important,” she says. To boost impact, istories will work alongside both Russian and foreign reporters, distributing its investigations for free to other independent media outlets. Four of the 10 journalists working for istories, including Shmagun, were part of the Panama Papers team.

Image: istories co-founder Roman Anin.

istories marks another addition to a group of independent media outlets in Russia that has emerged over the last five years as journalists seek ways to avoid the censorship that is increasingly commonplace at other mainstream publications. Many characterise years of unrelenting pressure on the country’s independent media as a Kremlin-directed proxy campaign to shut down or contain critical reporting. Once respected daily newspapers like Kommersant,Vedomosti, and RBC are all now seen as tainted by state interference.

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“Journalists are flocking to these new, smaller projects because it has become clear that the traditional media in Russia, owned by individuals or big holdings, is censored by the Kremlin,” says Anin. To ensure their independence, these online outlets are often based outside Russia, and do not have a single owner. They include projects like general news site Meduza, business-focused newsletter The Bell, investigative journalism site Proekt, policing and security news outlet Mediazona, long-form writing outlet Kholod, and the quirky Batenka, da vy transformer. Together, these outlets have changed the Russian media landscape, but Anin says this was far from a natural development. “It’s not because that’s how the world is developing or because it’s fashionable. It’s an entirely enforced trend. This new media was created by people who ran up against censorship,” he says.

A former investigative reporter at independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Anin says he has not experienced censorship first hand — but he knows many people who have. Meduza was founded by a group of journalists from Lenta.ru who resigned in protest after Galina Timchenko, their editor-in-chief, was removed by the news outlet’s billionaire owner. Both The Bell and Proekt were set up by top editors from leading business news outlet RBC who were forced out of their jobs after turning the outlet into a hard-hitting business news website with critical reporting that was read by millions of people a day.

“There are hardly any independent media outlets left in Russia. They are simply being destroyed. And if we don’t band together then we will gradually disappear”

Set up in 2014, Meduza was the first of Russia’s new wave of “small media” and pioneered the use of a Riga-based company as a way to avoid pressure from the Russian authorities. This model has been replicated by istories, which keeps its office and administrative staff in the Latvian capital, while most editors and reporters are based inside in Russia. Discretion regarding funding arrangements is another way to avoid unwanted attention. Like most of his counterparts at independent media outlets, Anin refuses to reveal the identities of the donors that provided istories’ seed capital. “I am not an idiot who will make it easier for the Russian authorities to close down our small project,” he says. As soon as it is more firmly established, Anin says istories plans to support itself via crowdfunding.

Even if the use of a foreign company and financial secrecy offers some security, there are still many ways the Russian authorities can hinder the work of investigative journalists. Nevertheless, istories is unlikely to face any pressure while its readership remains small, and its articles have little public impact. Anin even suggests the existence of such independent media outlets may be welcomed by Russian officials. “The Kremlin is indifferent to our project, or Proekt or The Bell, because they are small media outlets that don’t influence anything. In fact, I think they are even to the Kremlin’s advantage, because if the Russian authorities are accused of being undemocratic and destroying the media, they can always point to these projects, and say ‘look they exist and we don’t touch them’.”

Image: istories co-founder Olesya Shmagun.

The idea for istories came to Anin last summer as he was finishing a year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford University — the same course taken by Yelizaveta Osetinskaya before she founded The Bell, and by journalist Roman Badanin before he set up Proekt. “Apparently, it’s impossible to return from Stanford and not open your own small media outlet,” jokes Shmagun. Anin says he had no desire to become a media manager before he went to Stanford, but was inspired to try by the entrepreneurial atmosphere of Silicon Valley.

There will be no daily news on istories, which will instead focus on investigations and longform reporting. All their output so far has been linked to Russia’s coronavirus crisis, with deep-dive articles on ventilator production, the medical mask market, testing deficiencies, and domestic violence suffered by the elderly. Shmagun says they were supposed to launch the website with investigations on which they had been working for months, but were forced to find new topics as a result of the pandemic.

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Alongside articles, istories is also investing in an education section on their website, which uses video and text to explain some of the techniques of investigative reporting, and data visualisation. These tutorials are targeted at those who live in Russia’s small and medium-sized cities, and Anin and Shmagun hope to be able to both build an audience for istories in these places and work with local journalists to highlight regional problems of corruption and abuse of power.

“When I travel in Russia it becomes clear that people are not bothered by stories about high-level corruption — they are not surprised by them. What people are really bothered about is the corruption that affects their lives,” says Anin. This sort of approach might also go some way to help address the biggest problem faced by investigative reporting in Russia: apathy. Even big corruption exposés rarely have political consequences because they are not covered by state-owned outlets and there is little accountability. According to Shmagun, this de-motivates investigative journalists, potential whistle-blowers, and readers.

Neither Anin nor Shmagun are optimists when it comes to the future of independent media in Russia. Shmagun wonders whether the new wave of “small media” outlets are necessary for anyone except the journalists who work for them. And Anin says that “experience shows nothing good happens to media in this country under the current authorities.” Either way, istories’ cooperative model may yet give some hope to Russia’s embattled journalists. “There are hardly any independent media outlets left in Russia. They are simply being destroyed. And if we don’t band together then we will gradually disappear,” says Anin.

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