The goal of the seminar was to discuss current economy of mass media in restrictive environments, primarily in Russia, as well as best practices of revenue, advertising and other income sources for independent news. Besides political and legal pressure, independent media outlets are limited in their access to capital, advertising market and cannot not rely on foreign media development funding. Yet, there are numerous examples of sustainable business models that work – not only in Russia but elsewhere.
The seminar was planned to have an open access general discussion and participants-only workshops. On the first day, March 23, the seminar opened at Nathan Bodington Room at University of Leeds. Julia Taranova (Russian Readings) welcomed the participants and guests of the seminar and conveyed the hope that both discussion and workshops will be useful for all the attendees and provide valuable input to the practice of mass media survival in these harsh times. Vasily Gatov, who moderated March 23rd sessions, also greeted the guests and outlined seminar’s proceedings (as changes in speakers’ lists required some urgent editing of the programme).
In the opening presentation, Roman Dobrokhotov of The Insider shared his business practice with the audience. The Insider focuses on investigative journalism, exposure of corruption and law enforcement malpractice, therefore it may not safely operate as Russian media outlet and is registered and conducts business in Riga, Latvia. As an offshore (for Russia) and EU-based independent media organization, The Insider can access both capital markets, media development funding from EU and US institutions and conduct usual advertising and fundraising business with traditional operators online (like Google, Facebook and fundraising platforms as well as direct donations). Mr. Dobrokhotov also elaborated on diversification of income sources: initially, The Insider almost completely depended on media development grants, but as some publications gained good traction (with hundreds of thousands of reads), programmatic and banner advertising grew, bringing in almost 18% of income in second half of 2018. He also noted that “traditional” investigations that uncover corruption or misconduct of Russian government officials still provide most of the interest from readers, though the GRU-related series (Salisbury poisoning, uncovering of GRU agents, etc.) brought in much bigger volumes of traffic.
Roman Badanin, the founder and editor of The Project, shared with audience his experience with other type of offshore media. The Project is a US non-profit media, seeking donations from individuals and institutions for their well-researched, long-form investigations covering issues from corruption and bad governance to persecution of religious minorities or poor state of national health system. The Project developed as a part of Mr. Badanin’s study at the Stanford-Knight Program which includes media leaders from all over the world. The Project builds relations with donors on a combination of clear mission statement and high standards of reporting (“self-selling evidence”, as Mr.Badanin put it). Operating outside Russia’s restrictive legal system, Mr. Badanin underlined, provides both freedom and transparency; both are great assets for independent media but they also bring serious responsibility.
The following discussion included questions of sustainability and the issues of physical and digital security of journalists and media organizations. Panelists provided audience with a deeper insight into current operations and elaborated on growing restrictions in Russian internet space. Mr.Dobrokhotov detailed The Insider’s relations with Roskomnadzor (Russia’s Internet censorship agency), mentioning 18 current litigations the publication has with the agency. For Mr.Badanin’s The Project, major challenges lie in the physical security of journalists who are being intimidated by those exposed in the journalists’ publications. Anyway, both editors asserted, the goal of investigative journalism is to serve the interest of the public, and detail the misconduct and crimes of those in power.
The second panel ‘Sources of income in the digital media’ was an open discussion about subscription model in Russian media, based on experiences at The Republic (ex-Slon.ru). Maxim Kashulinskiy, former editor-in-chief and publisher at The Republic, presented the journey for digital subs income with the “Paywall or not Paywall?” lecture.
Slon.ru was not the first Russian publication to use a paywall, but the only one– at a certain moment of time – that opted for “hard paywall” when subscription is required to access almost all content on the site. Mr. Kashulinsky detailed the decision-making process and vital statistics of The Republic’s paywall development: “It took six months for us to sell a critical amount of subs that make the publication sustainable, Mr.Kashulinsky noted, but then another problem arose – how to retain them”. For digital-only media, Kashulinsky said, the value of the content itself is not enough to attract and maintain subscribers. A sizable part of them pay initial subscription not to read daily, but to demonstrate their support to the mission and values of the publication. As The Republic had very sophisticated system for tracking user’s interests (who reads what, for how long and where stops reading), the editor became fixated on following the subscribers ongoing interests. Therefore the publication, as Mr.Kashulinsky said, “was becoming sort of sect that had very few items on its agenda”. That “sectarianism” was not good for attracting new subscribers, and The Republic started a new wave of experiments that consequentially lead to the current model. Six different editors manage six “zones” of The Republic, curating a collective of authors that are paid by an automated system that measures article success rates, which is based on the total number of reads, the length of stay and the return rate). At present, Mr.Kashulinsky said, The Republic is breaking even and does not need the investor’s capital input; but the leadership of the publication will need a lot of creativity and flexibility to grow its audience further and expand income.
The following discussion grew into broader debate about sustainability of paid products online. Tatiana Lysova, former editor-in-chief of Vedomosti (daily newspaper that started paywall experiments around the same time), discussed the limits of paid model: slower growth rate, shortening of the agenda and a slower pace of technological innovation.
The afternoon workshop, moderated by Vasily Gatov (visiting fellow at Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California), was organized as a practical exercise to use collective intelligence to form a sustainable income models for independent media in today’s Russia.
Initially, participants listened to a short lecture of Prof. Jeff Jarvis (Newmark School of Journalism at City University of New York) who energized the discussion with his own experience in entrepreneurial journalism and current teaching at US’ most innovative media school. Prof. Jarvis also answered questions from audience, providing valuable advice on issues like editorial independence, narrow focus of media coverage and digital tools and services that expand journalists’ capacity for impactful reporting.
The participants listed and evaluated existing income sources, collectively measuring their current state and perspectives. Under Mr. Gatov’s guidance, the discussion delved into audience engagement, and ran a simulation of a possible “traditional” model (double conversion), “donation-based” media and “media enterprises” that execute multiple revenue streams.
On March 24, the seminar continued with the opening session involving Dmitri Navosha (founder of Sports.ru and CEO of Tribuna.Digital, the parent company) and Kirill Artemenko (Bumaga, St Peterspurg based media organization). The session was moderated by Vasily Gatov, with help from Prof. Sarah Oates (University of Maryland).
The session, tentatively named “Non-news, Non-Media” discussed “other forms” of journalistic organizations that exist (and thrive) in restrictive environments, while still maintaining good editorial standards, ethical reporting and economic sustainability. Mr. Navosha presented the 10-year journey of Sport.ru – by far the most popular online source of information, opinion and analysis of sports in the Russian media space (also leading in other post-USSR markets like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan). Evaluating the components of Sport.ru’s success, Mr. Navosha insisted that community building and management was and remains the critical competitive advantage of his media company. “Building a community of readers is impossible without making a community of authors, – said Mr. Navosha. – Without our volunteer editors and reporters we could never create coverage verticals on literally every sport in Russia, or worldwide. But more importantly, we created a conversation – and it is conversation in the first place that led us to success’. Sports.ru has the best retention rate of all Russian-language media, with an average user spending 40 min daily on the site. Better engagement brings more advertising money, more sponsorship and more content diversity. At the same time, Sports.ru does not restrict the editorial and user-generated content content to plain sports: authors bring in important societal issues like education, racism, xenophobia and collective action. Mr. Navosha shared his experience when Sports.ru campaigned for responsible behaviour on stadiums (cleaning up after matches, helping staff and the general positivity of fandom experience).
Mr. Artemenko of Bumaga presented the case of a grass-roots, bootstrap media that grew out of pure professional passion of a student group in St. Petersburg: “10 years ago, we just wanted to write stories; today, we run a company that covers issues important for all people of the city, organize events, cater corporate media and actively organize community. For Bumaga, the central point of mission was always the joy of living in the best city on the globe – St. Petersburg. That joy and pride is a foundation of our community, and we are very serious about it”. Mr. Artemenko detailed the tools Bumaga interacts with readers, including events the publication organizes for the general public, membership-only events and city-wide festival. “With all this combined, Bumaga is a sustainable business providing good stipend for our authors, an interesting workspace and friendly collective – and this works”, Mr. Artemenko said.
The discussion touched on issues of internet censorship as well. Sports.ru maintains hundreds of forums where their readers write almost a million comments every week, and many of these may violate Roskomnadzor regulations (not only politically, but because of cruel language, hate speech and racial slurs). Mr. Navosha explained in detail how the system of collective moderation helps Sports.ru to minimize the workload of moderators “buries” bad comments almost immediately, effectively preventing the censorship watchdog from issuing “warnings”. Still, Mr. Navosha concluded, the danger of intervention by Roskomnadzor is significant. Over 2018-2019 Sports.ru received numerous demands from Roskomnadzor to take down USG and even editorial texts, and maintains a list of litigations. In some cases courts sided with Sports.ru rather than Roskomnadzor. Mr. Artemenko answered questions on native advertising on Bumaga, explaining the policy of publication: “we do not do native advertisement when it has no connection with our core purpose and mission”, citing ongoing sociological research on impact (Bumaga employs a sociologist who consistently researches users and their feedback).
The second workshop, again moderated by Vasily Gatov, was an exercise that empowered participants through the business technology of SWOT (Strength-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats) matrix. Building on the experience of the participants, two teams discussed SWOT-model for the Russian journalist community, detailing the possibility of further empowering independent news organizations. Two hours of discussions produced a valuable collection of business ideas that may be employed both in current professional practice and used as a foundation for future start-up planning.