‘Our project was born of despair’: why Russia’s media start-up pioneers are looking beyond Moscow

23 July 2020

Yelena Trifonova and Olga Mutovina were journalists in the Siberian city of Irkutsk when a conflict with the regional governor brought their newspaper to the brink of bankruptcy. Some staff left, and the salaries of those who remained went unpaid. Trifonova took a job as a manager at a hostel to make ends meet. Faced with the newspaper’s likely closure, the pair realised that there was no other news outlet in the city where they would want to work. Their answer: launch their own. “Olga came to see me at the hostel,” Trifonova recalls. “We sat down for a couple of hours and came up with a project. We decided we would find an investor or quit journalism. In some ways, this project was born of despair.”

Trifonova and Mutovina’s media outlet People of Baikal launched in February. It uses long reads and photo stories to report on Irkutsk Region and the area around Lake Baikal, drawing attention to social problems and how ordinary people live. It is a huge geographic area to cover: the Irkutsk region is three times the size of the United Kingdom. “Journalists simply don’t get out to these villages because newspaper offices are in the towns, and the huge distances mean it’s difficult to travel,” says Trifonova. “We thought this was a big omission and we wanted to write about it.”

“We decided we would find an investor [for our project,] or quit journalism.”

With its unusual approach, appealing design, and shoestring budget, People of Baikal is typical of a handful of independent media outlets that have popped up across Russia’s regions in recent years. Just as Moscow journalists have set-up a series of small news sites to evade stifling state censorship — like The Bell, Batenka da vy transformer, Proekt, Mediazona, and iStories— so regional journalists are also looking for innovative ways to be able to continue to write about the topics they see as important. Some refer to this shift in the media landscape as the emergence of a “new media”, which is innovative, usually small-scale, and has built in protections from many of the tactics used by the Kremlin to limit free speech.

But if the challenges of building a “new media” outlet in Moscow are daunting, at a local level they are almost insurmountable: an almost total absence of funding, the dominance of state-sponsored television and print, a small potential readership, few experienced writers, and flimsy defences against pressure from officials or powerful businessmen. “The situation is extremely unequal across different regions. There are regions where there are lot of good media outlets and you see the appearance of new, independent projects. But there are regions where everything is in a bad way,” according to Anastasia Sechina, the coordinator of Fourth Sector, an independent media collective based in the Urals city of Perm. “It’s very hard for those sorts of small media projects to find the funds to survive.”

Yelena Trifinova conducts an interview in the Baikal region. Image courtesy of People of Baikal

The obstacles mean independent journalists outside Moscow often look for unconventional ways of operating. The Syktyvkar-based 7x7 describes itself as a “horizontal media project” that includes professional journalism and a platform for civil society. In the city of Belgorod, a group of reporters publish news via Belgorod01, a channel on messaging site Telegram. Sometimes commercial success can be found by expanding to cover large geographic areas: for example, Yekaterinburg-based Znak,which covers large swathes of the Urals and Siberia, or Novosibirsk’s Tayga.info.

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Perhaps the most unusual regional media project is Fourth Sector in Perm. Founded in 2017, co-ordinator Sechina describes Fourth Sector as a “freelance community”. Its four members coordinate with other journalists and write long-form articles that are published by both local and national outlets. Their recent publications include an investigation into the business links of a local politician appointed a federal minister, and testimony from the parents of LGBTQ men and women. Financed by a mixture of commission money, reporting prizes and grants, Fourth Sector does not want to develop its own online platform. “As freelancers, we are unconstrained from the point of view of both experimenting and our agenda, and we can choose topics that we think aren’t being covered enough. We can choose a genre that’s not often used by regional media, or we can package a project in an unusual way,” says Sechina.

Successful independent city media portals, often with a focus on culture and lifestyle, are another option for independent journalists. Earlier this year, 21-year old journalism student and blogger Viktoriya Ripa co-founded Kurmyshi, a website about the Volga river city Samara that avoids political topics and highlights positive cultural and social trends. “We don’t focus so much on the in-crowd, but on personalities and people’s stories,” she says. “We’re not a website about what’s going on, but about the good things. We try and do it so it’s not demanding for people to read us, so you’re not left with a headache.” Kurmyshi, which is a Samara slang for ‘back of beyond’, has published profiles of bloggers, ballet dancers and web-camera models, and gives cultural tips and recommendations. Other dynamic city media portals include St. Petersburg’s Paper, Kazan’s Indie and Irkutsk’s Camel on Fire.

Mikhail Danilovich, Vladimir Sokolov and Anastasia Sechina on the streets of Perm. Image: Yaroslav Chernov

Many of these outlets cannot offer competitive salaries, and many are run on a purely volunteer basis. None of the journalists and editors at Kurmyshi are paid (they are all either students or have other jobs), while Trifonova and Mutovina at People of Baikal have an arrangement with a local newspaper that pays their salaries in exchange for shortened versions of articles. Funding issues exist partly because these projects are in start-up mode, but they also reflect fears that money always comes with strings attached. “We don’t want someone to interfere in our editorial policy; we don’t want someone to dictate to us what to write and how to write about it,” Ripa says. “Kurmyshi is a project made out of enthusiasm; one that has a real character, and I don’t want that character to be dragged through the mud. When you get shareholders, or investors, they want to control the project.”

“You can’t continue doing journalism in Russia and avoid the risks that arise from these [“fake news”] laws. You’re always at risk.”

Like national-level independent media, local outlets are reluctant to reveal the identity of sponsors or grant-givers — if they have them — for fear they could be pressurised by the authorities. Sechina at Fourth Sector says that although anonymity is important, it offers little defence against legislation that stipulates large fines on media organisations for ambiguous transgressions involving funding and “fake news”. “You can’t continue doing journalism in Russia and avoid the risks that arise from these laws,” she says. “You’re always at risk.”

Despite these challenges, innovative new media projects continue to emerge. Many quickly disappear, but others manage to cling on and establish themselves as part of the local media scene. Few are simple carbon copies of national news outlets, and most are tailored to local communities. Ripa says she did not have any national media outlet in mind when she founded Kurmyshi and that a “desire to make Samara better” is a key motivator for writers and editors. Fourth Sector’s Sechina says there are no other projects like Fourth Sector in Russia, although freelance collectives do exist in Europe. Asked if Fourth Sector could be called “new media,” Sechina laughs. “I would rather call us a unique form of journalistic life.”

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