FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND CRITICAL JOURNALISM IN RUSSIA
Taking Stock of Current Realities
24 October 2017 – 14:00-17:30 hours
@University of Helsinki, Aleksanteri Institute, 2nd floor (Unioninkatu 33)
The Russian Media Lab is hosting an afternoon seminar on freedom of speech and critical journalism in Russia to precede the Aleksanteri Conference (25-27 October). At this pre-conference event, Russian Media Lab researchers and members of our international research network will present their (ongoing) research. The second part of the seminar is dedicated to discussing joint publication plans and exploring areas for future collaboration. If you would like to join in our discussions, you are kindly requested to register your attendance before 21 October.
In an exclusive interview with Vlad Strukov, Ivan Kolpakov, Editor-in-Chief of Meduza, discusses the current editorial trajectory of the online media outlet. Watch the full interview below, or read excerpts from the interview that reveal what it means to be an independent media active on the Russian market – economically and politically, as well as in terms of audience participation.
Ivan Kolpakov is the Editor-in-Chief of Meduza.io, a Russian-language media outlet based in Riga. Since its establishment in 2014, Meduza has become one of the leading independent Russian media outlets.
Vlad Strukov is an Associate Professor in Film and Digital Cultures at the University of Leeds.
Vlad Strukov: Could you identify two or three pivotal moments in the making of Meduza that helped it to develop to the way it is now?
Ivan Kolpakov: The first point concerns the content: we are trying to combine traditional investigative journalism and reporting with new formats. We have been doing this ever since we launched the project in 2014, which was a tough year for Russian and European history, but a good time for starting a new Russian-speaking media project. Six months ago, we started with videos. We are not trying to make viral video clips but sophisticated journalism. Further, a couple of months ago we started making podcasts, which is a huge thing in the US and Europe, but in Russia the market is non-existent. So we are trying to become pioneers and leaders in this sphere in Russia.
The second important thing is the way we think about ourselves as a media and as a brand. When we started in 2014, we decided that Meduza is not going to be a website media. We started from creating an application for iOS. It was the first time in the history of Russian media when somebody created an application first and a website afterwards, even if the website eventually became our main channel. We consider Meduza to be a multiplatform media. This means that we do not see channels of distribution as buttons for making traffic to the website, but instead we want to create a brand everywhere simultaneously: in the applications, on the internet, on Facebook, on Vkontakte, even in messengers.
And thirdly, I think one of the biggest problems of Russian journalism is that we have a huge lack of journalism focusing on general interests. How does post-Soviet journalism look like? There are two main streams. The first stream is business journalism, which is top Russian journalism. In the 1990s the major media was Kommersant, ten years later it was Vedomosti, then RBK. All of these are business media and this means that they talk to an audience which consumes business news, which again implies the use of a special language. The other mainstream form of media are tabloids. — There is Komsomolskaya Pravda, Argumenty i Fakty and LifeNews. — Even the main stream television speaks to you using tabloid language. So there are these two points and an empty space in the middle.
In Meduza we are trying to build the media in the middle. We are trying to reconstruct the language of media and to speak to our readers using all the new practices that have appeared on the internet in recent years. That is why I think we are successful especially among the young audience.
VS:You described Meduza as a media outlet that exists in the Russian media market. Could you confirm whether such market actually exists in Russia, and describe it: Who drives it? Who regulates it? What does it consist of?
IK: It is not a market. The media market was destroyed during the last ten ‒ fifteen years. The monopoly is taken by the state. If we’re talking about television we have two independent TV channels – or two and a half, I would say – TV rain, RBK and RTVi. There is a small range of independent media and they include some important regional media.
VS: As you are such a technologically infused media, how would you describe people that work with you? What kind of categories would you use? Are they IT-personnel, journalists, lifestyle specialists?
IK: When you are a media today, it’s impossible not to be a technological company. For example, we have ten people out of fifty doing technological stuff, which is a lot. It takes a lot of resources to make applications, to constantly support them and to develop all your channels of distribution. Fifteen years ago journalists would go to a tech company and tell them that they wanted to make a website. Company would make the website and journalists would use it without any developments for years. Nowadays, you need to develop these things every day – and we’re not talking only about the website.
So I think Meduza is also a technological company. But we call ourselves journalists and everyone who isn’t making advertisements in Meduza is a journalist. — When we started it was absolutely clear that we need to create a special space where programmers and design people can meet with journalists to discuss new projects together. Usually our coders and our design people are involved throughout the process. They take part in everyday editorial meetings. — They always have what to put on the table. Sometimes they bring topics, sometimes they suggest to make a project, a game or something like this. —
VS: How do you work with your – I don’t even know what to call them – viewers, readers, users, fans, audiences? About ten years ago there was this hype about user-generated content. Is this something Meduza is developing? Could you tell us about an instance when you found a fantastic guy somewhere and you brought her into Meduza as a freelancer or something like that?
IK: This is a really good question. We started Meduza in really difficult circumstances in 2014. There was the information war, right? What does it mean from the reader’s perspective? It means that the agenda is depressing and negative all the time. If you’re an average consumer of the so-called liberal Russian-language media you are getting news about prosecutions, stupid laws that were made by our previous Russian parliament. But if you switch to the television, it’s the same or even more scary. Because what kind of news can you see on television? The world is a disaster; ‘migration crises happening everywhere’, ‘Muslims are conquering Europe’, ‘the institute of family is being destroyed by the LGBT people’, ‘Russia is being surrounded by enemies’ and so on. According to these programmes, the world is not really a good place because there is no truth and everyone is bad. This is the ideology of the current regime. It’s hard to consume this kind of news as your mood depends on this.
And what is the consequence of this depressing and negative environment? Apathy! People don’t want to consume news at all. Trump boosted media in the USA. Putin doesn’t boost media in Russia, because he has existed since 1999; he became a president when I was at school. People just prefer not to read, not to watch, not to listen. And I totally understand that. I wouldn’t consume Russian news if I wouldn’t be a journalist. So our first and hardest goal was to bring back interest to news, especially among young people who are not interested in news at all.
Our answer to the question of how to return readers to news is – and it’s a very popular word among media people – engagement. So we started creating a community around Meduza. We started from reconsidering the relationship between media and readership. Because the problem with American media and why they didn’t expect Trump to happen is that the US is a huge country and there is a left liberally-biased media, a huge part of which are in the same relation with their readers as newspapers in the middle or beginning of 20th century: the media is on the top and below are the masses consuming it.
In Meduza we started from the idea that we’ll try to make this distance smaller. We started creating an infrastructure to actually have an opportunity to communicate with people. We started with newsletters. We have this extremely popular everyday newsletter which is called Evening Meduza [Vecherniia Meduza] and we call it the shortest newspaper in history.
Meduza itself is a fact-based media and we do not publish opinions because propaganda always uses opinion journalism. However, Evening Meduza is exactly the space where we talk to our readers directly and editors of Meduza can say what they think about different stories.
Then we have this platform project where you can push a button and send ideas to the editorial team and we also have this chat under every article. It is literally a chat, this is the place where you can talk to other readers, with the author of the article or the editor, or with me. It is so important that we do not save these conversations because everything is saved on the internet and, you know, ‘Big Brother is watching you’. It is a kind of a snapchat idea, it’s just happening, you just have a real chat.
We get a lot of relevant, smart letters with ideas, critiques, topics, and they are really helpful. We really know our readers. For example, one day some school boy from some Russian city – not Moscow – contacted us and offered to code something. We have small resources and, as we always have something to code, we said ‘yes’ and he made a couple of projects for us. Another example is the school of journalism for journalists from post-Soviet countries called The Farm, which we started last year. We invited 54 people from the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus, from everywhere. Eventually, one girl from Belarus became a journalist in Meduza.
VS: This takes me to my last question about Storm, a professional conference for journalists. You’re clearly working at the grassroots level but you’re also working with professionals. What is the point of such activities for Meduza?
IK: Firstly, we wanted to make something offline, and secondly, we have an ambition to be the leader of the market in many ways. And even if we are not the biggest media on the internet and also not the biggest media on the internet in Russia – though we are not far away from the leaders – sometimes we act like a mainstream media. This year the conference is dedicated to new things happening in the media, podcasts, videos, virtual reality…. I understand that nobody creates virtual reality projects in Russia, even we are not producing these projects. But let’s pretend we have a real media market and we are making world level journalism – because we are trying!
VS: Ivan, thank you very much for your inspiring conversation.
The interview took place as part of the international seminar on Russia and freedom of expression ‘Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between’, organized at the Aleksanteri Institute on 19 May 2017.The seminar was jointly organized by the Culture Cluster of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies ‘Choices of Russian Modernization’, Russian Media Lab research project, and the Leeds Russian Centre ‘Russia[n] in the Global context’.
Reference info: Interview with Ivan Kolbakov by Vlad Strukov, 19 May 2017, University of Helsinki (Aleksanteri Institute), at the seminar ‘Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between’. Transcribed and edited by Roosa Rytkönen and Vlad Strukov.