‘A Whole New Ecosystem’: Independent Journalism Learns To Survive In Putin’s Russia

MOSCOW — The decades of President Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia have been unkind to the country’s independent media.

Since Putin was first elected in 2000, the Kremlin has stifled independent national broadcasting, closed down or taken over other commercial media projects, exerted pressure on media owners and advertisers, pushed out foreign investors, and repeatedly blocked access to various nonstate Internet resources.

And that is to say nothing about the unsolved killings of prominent journalists like Igor Domnikov, Yury Shchekochikhin, Paul Klebnikov, and Anna Politkovskaya.

Meanwhile, the nation’s airwaves have been filled with a round-the-clock stream of Kremlin-directed propaganda and spin via a fistful of lavishly subsidized state television channels.

“Over the past five or 10 years, the situation with major media has been like a game of musical chairs [for journalists],” said journalist and media consultant Ilya Klishin. “In every round, you find one fewer media outlet. The number of remaining possibilities gets very small.”

And it could get worse at any moment, Klishin says.

Journalist and media consultant Ilya Klishin

“We — people in the media business inside Russia — live in a state of anxiety, depression, existential alarm,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “We live and we don’t know if tomorrow they might launch some sort of new [version of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror] and arrest 5,000 journalists or block their bank accounts as they recently did with [opposition politician and activist Aleksei] Navalny.”

“If it doesn’t come in the spirit of Stalin, it could be something a la [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” he added.

But despite the pressure, high-quality independent journalism continues to exist in Russia and is taking on new forms across the country, adapting to a seemingly uninhabitable media environment.

The Kremlin’s hostility has hobbled major publications traditionally lauded for their hard-hitting investigative reporting, says Roman Dobrokhotov, editor in chief of The Insider website. He pointed to publications including Vedomosti, Forbes, and Kommersant.

“And unexpectedly at that precise moment, completely new media appeared — media of the new wave,” he said. “First, there was The Insider. But then a lot of others appeared. From The Bell to the various small media projects of [former oil tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. Meduza is somewhere in the middle between larger and smaller projects, but it is also part of the new wave where a new generation of journalists is working.”

And all these new media, Dobrokhotov says, are emerging in “a supertoxic environment.”

“Because of this, they are stronger,” he argues. “It is simply the law of evolution.”

Sergei Smirnov, editor in chief of Mediazona, another relatively new independent online outlet, agrees.

“Journalism is doing fine,” he said. “It was just the classic forms of journalism that came under attack.”

Business Abroad, Content At Home

Dobrokhotov says the creation of The Insider was typical of these new-wave outlets. From the beginning, all the company’s finances were abroad. Several of the outlets, including Meduza and The Insider, are anchored beyond Russia’s borders, although all of them report from and about developments in Russia.

The Insider, Dobrokhotov said, had no central office — everyone worked on laptops wherever they could “so that they couldn’t just come somewhere and sweep up all our computers.”

And they installed state-of-the-art protection against hacking and DDoS attacks “that even many Western media don’t have.”

The Insider, Dobrokhotov insists, is not a lone flower in the desert, but part of a whole “new ecosystem.”

Roman Dobrokhotov, editor in chief of The Insider website

What’s more, he says, most of these outlets are rejecting “clickbait” and entertainment content in favor of creating a reputation for “social significance,” a reputation that is essential for the various forms of crowdfunding that is a cornerstone of their business model.

“In a peculiar way, the greater your perceived social significance, the more money you can raise,” Dobrokhotov says. “So there is incentive to prove your social significance. It is a very positive stimulus. We at The Insider are very pleased with this tendency because now more than half of our traffic is drawn by our large investigative pieces. We understand that this is what our audience expects.”

In addition, serious journalistic investigations into official corruption are regularly published on the Internet by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. His YouTube channel has more than 3 million subscribers and his videos regularly reach more than 1 million views. His March 2017 expose on alleged corruption by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been seen 33 million times.

A similar evolution can be observed at the local level, says journalist Klishin, who regularly conducts journalism and media-management seminars around the country.

Klishin says there is an increasingly outdated stereotype that there are no local opportunities for young journalists and that the future for them consists either of working for a local branch of Russian state television or of moving to Moscow and getting a job with RT or Rossiya-24.

But many young journalists are finding a different path.

“The kids are coming up with some very interesting projects. For instance, they came up with ‘City Media in Syktyvkar.’ It is actually working via VK and podcasts,” he said, referring to the popular VK social-media website. “It is a niche that is essentially a continuation of the old Soviet samizdat.”

He notes that just two or three years ago it would have sounded very strange to answer the question “where are you working” by saying, “on Aleksei Pivovarov’s YouTube channel” or “at Lika Kremer’s podcast studio.” Pivovarov is a journalist who runs the popular Redaktsia YouTube channel with nearly 1 million subscribers; Kremer is a popular actress and television moderator who last year founded the podcast studio Libo/Libo (Either/Or).

Under the conditions of Putin’s authoritarian government and facing the looming prospect that he will maintain his grip on power for years to come, independent journalism and pro-democracy activism are increasingly vital, Dobrokhotov says.

“There are only two organized forces capable of resisting — activists and journalists,” he said. “And they have found themselves in such a narrow common niche that it is often difficult to tell them apart. Navalny, who began as an activist, is now doing journalistic investigations that are sometimes better than those of major media. While Ilya Azar, who began as a journalist, is now conducting a series of one-person pickets more actively than many activists.”

“If we have any hope of restoring a law-based state, it lies in these two forces somehow helping society to accumulate the energy needed to put this mechanism into reverse,” Dobrokhotov added.

“Information is power — particularly in the 21st century,” he concluded. “How does Putin manage? He simply deprives people of information, just doling it out in isolated bits as he deems necessary. It is up to us — journalists and activists — to resist this and to present more objective and accurate information.”

Written by RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Robert Coalson and based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service Correspondent Sergei Medvedev
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