American media outlets have dedicated significant coverage to the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as larger themes concerning national security and threats to democracy. But what is the Russian perspective on this controversy? A panel of Russian independent journalists and founders of digital media startups will provide their perspective on U.S. coverage of the discord between the two countries, and discuss how it relates to their own experiences as online activists and entrepreneurs.
NOSSEL: Hello, everyone. Welcome, I’m Suzanne Nossel. I’m the executive director of PEN America, and also a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m delighted to be here in one of what has become a series of partnerships between the Council and PEN America.
A word of introduction to PEN America for those of you who may not know us. Our mission is to celebrate and defend freedom of expression around the world and here in the United States. Our celebrations are large and small, intimate dinners all around the city focused on individual authors; and the PEN World Voices Festival, which takes place every spring and brings over a hundred writers from around the world for a week of dialogues and performances and presentations and readings here in New York City.
All of our celebrations at PEN America are in service of our work to defend free expression worldwide. And a key element for us of freedom of expression is that it be expression not confined by borders geographic, political, or ideological. So we work to transcend those boundaries. We’re part of a global network in over a hundred countries of PEN centers.
Two years ago, we published a report about Putin’s Russia called “Discourse and Danger” where we documented a whole range of constraints on artistic freedom and cultural freedom. And we brought over a delegation here to New York and Washington, led by the renowned novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya. And she described it when she was here, talking about the Russian elections which time after time result in 85 or 87 percent support for Vladimir Putin, she said she felt like this was their 15 percent talking to our 15 percent. And at the time, of course, we thought, well, we’ve got a solid majority here. So we may feel a little—a little differently about that now.
But growing out of that visit, and speaking to Russian journalists and novelists and writers and thinkers, we became focused on the imperative of sustaining independent voices in Russia and maintaining their lines of communication to colleagues around the world. And we’ve created a program over the last couple of years that focuses on that through advocacy and solidarity and visits back and forth.
And we’re delighted this week to have a very distinguished group of digital journalists and entrepreneurs. There are eight of them, so—you’ll be hearing this afternoon from just three. But they’re here in New York, and then going to San Francisco and Silicon Valley for a whole series of meetings with technology companies, social media companies, traditional media companies, and all kinds of other outlets to help build and nurture those connections, forge relationships, and raise the profile of these essential independent voices, better equipping them to do their vital work.
At this fraught moment in relations between our two countries, challenges that a succession of presidential administrations has been unable to resolve, it’s our view that if we are ever to get past this moment, it will be because the leadership that comes next, whenever it comes, has the goodwill and the understanding and the relationships so that they have the impetus to connect and the ability to see past the impasse. So that’s why we work to nurture these connections, and why we’re so delighted to be here today. Thank you for coming, and I look forward to a great discussion. (Applause.)
COOPER: OK. Welcome to “Digital Discord: The View From Russia.” I’m Ann Cooper. I’m going to be presiding today on this discussion.
But first, I want to thank Suzanne Nossel and the staff at PEN America for co-sponsoring this with the Council.
And I want to welcome our three panelists. Kirill Artemenko is founder and editor in chief of Paper Media, which is based in St. Petersburg and covers everything St. Petersburg, from investigative reporting to city magazine-style coverage of culture, history, and lifestyle in the city.
Egor Mostovshchikov, whose online company covers Russia and the world. And one of the innovations of his company has been to give a platform to young and experienced—or inexperienced authors to write about politics, health, technology, and taking a car expedition into deep Russia, which sounds interesting.
And Lisa Osetinskaya. She is the newest digital entrepreneur in this trio, worked at some of Russia’s most prestigious media houses before last year founding The Bell, an online site that covers business and politics in Russia.
So, when we think about Russia today, we are looking at it through our American lens, which is very much focused these days on investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. I’m going to ask our three guests here to take us away from all of those headlines that we’re so accustomed to seeing every day and talk about what they’re doing in the digital information sphere inside of Russia, and what their work can tell us about the flow of information and conditions for free speech in Russia today.
(Phone rings.) Cellphones need to be off. OK.
So all three of you have worked in some capacity for established media in Russia: Lenta.ru, now Meduza, Kommersant, Novaya Gazeta, Forbes Russia, Kommersant. These are all independent outlets that have come under pressure in one form or another for their independent journalism.
Lisa, your last position was as editor at RBC, which ended with you being fired, probably because of RBC’s reporting on the Panama Papers and links to the Kremlin. You’ve now started The Bell. And I wonder what you think: Is the digital sphere a safer place to practice independent journalism these days in Russia?
OSETINSKAYA: Well, it used to be. So let me start a little bit from my departure from RBC.
So there was a story that we investigated also Russian president family and business matters, and Panama Papers that we released being not a part of investigative group but just being a very huge digital portal. That was the last drop in this can full of water, and that’s why we left. And later—I mean, when I saw “we,” my team and I. We left, editorial team, and the shareholder had to sell the company to more pro-government owner. That means that digital—this company is purely a digital leader. This is the largest digital news organization. That tells me that it’s not a very safe place to be, digital. But it depends on the scale.
But then, after this departure, I went to Stanford. I won prestigious Stanford fellowship. And while being there, I started to work out the idea of digital organizations that could be safer, maybe having headquarter outside of Russia in the same way as Meduza did, and having a team in Russia, and maybe having some sort of partnership with Western digital organization. Because after what happened with us at RBC, one of my—one of the key questions for me was how to guarantee freedom of speech and editorial independence of the project, and in the same time to make it financially sustainable, and at least break even on the first stage, and then how to make money out of that.
And this is the sphere and environment in which we are living now. The only question is that Russian government is coming with new legislation that may be—may limit these opportunities too, but we’ll see.
COOPER: So where is your staff? You are here for now.
OSETINSKAYA: My staff is in—95 percent of the staff work in Moscow, because—so the idea of our organization is—like, the mission of this media is to connect Russia with the world and connect world with Russia through information, through independent news reporting, because we feel that Russian people lack of inspiration and connection with the West, while Russia is also a hot issue outside of Russia but very few people have expertise. But to have this expertise, we must keep people in Russia, and follow trends and news and so on. So that means there is no other way besides that.
COOPER: So, Kirill, you studied journalism in St. Petersburg, and then you went on and got a Master’s degree in technological entrepreneurship. I teach at Columbia Journalism School, and I’m thinking a lot of our students should probably go on and get a Master’s degree in technological entrepreneurship, but they don’t. You did work for a while—you freelanced, worked for some established media. What, then, led you into the digital sphere?
ARTEMENKO: So the main point why my (fortune ?) in journalism is that I always wanted to stay in St. Petersburg. In Russia, we have a very Moscow-centric system of media, so usually people who want to make a career in media go to Moscow from regions and develop themselves as professionals there. And I always wanted to stay in my city because I’m really deeply in love with my city. I love to live here—there, and I wanted to establish the company that can help me to live this way.
And in Russia, we usually start to work as a journalist very early, much earlier than in the U.S. So, for example, I started my work as a journalist when I was 17, and I wasn’t an exception. So lots of my colleagues started to work as journalists when they were very young. And, of course, after the graduation from journalism school, you want to learn something new. So it was the reason why I went to technological entrepreneurship program in the IT university in St. Petersburg. And it was quite efficient as well because they gave us the free office. It was (co-working ?) space. And it was the year when the atmosphere for technological startups in Russia was quite comfortable because our ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, was in love with idea of making startups all over Russia, and all the universities started to develop the environment for the startups. And so we got a very important asset, so the office, for free, and so it was one of the major reasons for me to go into this program. (Laughter.)
And, of course, I started—(inaudible)—that would help me to monetize media, because I started to look at media not like a journalist who just makes stories, but I started to look at it like a business because the business must be sustainable, that must transfer money from different departments. For example, we do different activities for our survival.
COOPER: So are there—you’re working—your focus is all St. Petersburg. Are there some red lines? Are there some areas that are sensitive? I remember a couple of years ago when Dozhd TV ran its public survey asking people whether Leningrad should have actually been evacuated during World War II to save lives, and suddenly they were taken off of all cable channels, lots of retaliation, lots of pressure. And you write about—your site writes about history in Leningrad a lot. Are there sensitive areas there?
ARTEMENKO: You know, the story of Dozhd, this Dozhd case, this TV Rain case, was—I don’t think it was a red line. I think it was a reason just to make pressure on them, just like a formal reason.
To speak about our work, you know, of course, when we write about some especially local sensitive topics, it’s more or less scary to me, but I never show it to my team as a publisher, because I think if I stop to show that, like, I’m not scared, but I am worried about this topic, it means that my people will be worried as well. And that’s not the good way for journalists to do their work. So we just do what we can do, and just see what we see, what happens next.
So—because I don’t think—I think it’s not extremely risky because, from my perspective, I do think that in Russia right now we have a big problem with the real influence of the journalism on the real life. So we do investigations, but nothing happens then. We do stories that can be—can unveil some problems in regions or in all of the Russia, but no one cares. So it’s just the problem of the local and global media landscape in Russia, I think.
COOPER: So, Egor, you’ve had some great jobs at well-established media outlets in Russia. Why take the risky move of doing a startup, a digital startup?
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: That’s a good question. I started working as a journalist when I was 15 years old. This is really common in Russia. This is perfectly fine. I worked in—I think those were the best media Russia has: the Novaya Gazeta, The New Times magazine, Russki (Reportyor ?), Esquire magazine. I used to work as the editor in chief of Snob Media. I’m not sure it’s well-known in the United States, but it’s reasonably well-known in Russia. I worked as the editor in chief for one year, and last summer I moved to doing my own company.
The answer is pretty—is pretty easily, actually. Ten years ago, while doing my daily job as a reporter covering politics, street activities, going to Egypt, covering the Arab Spring, and et cetera, I started a small media called Batinkoff (ph). It was a volunteer, community-driven media dedicated to finding and telling true stories about Russia and about the world. The main thing was that this media was built without any investors, without any money. We just were doing it sort of as a hobby. And we managed to—we launched it in 2014. We managed to—we managed to publish something like 500 Russian-language writers all over the globe. Most of them didn’t have any experience in doing media, in doing journalistic stuff. Those are people from different backgrounds—scientists, photographers, managers, whatever, teachers. And they just have a strong feeling and patience to tell stories. And Batinkoff (ph) was dedicated to teach them and give them the possibility to publish those stories. But this media was built without any money, so it wasn’t earning any money. It was not a business. It just was a nice thing we were doing, and we were dreaming somehow to transform it and to make our own thing, our daily job.
So, when I left work at Snob last summer, we came up with a model. We built a content studio that makes and produces media for established commercial brands. And this is actually the—this is the main income for my company. So all the profit we do building commercial media for commercial brands, we put it as investment in developing our own—our own media. So now we’re doing—we’re doing Batinka (ph), which is a digital website with life events. We are starting printing books. This year we are going to launch an online radio station, this spring. We have another digital news site. And a couple months ago we had a small Russian literature—magazine called Nosrog (ph). It’s sort of something as a preview magazine, I would say. They are now included in our media company. So all the money we make from building commercial media we put into those media, in investing and developing them.
So the thing is that we all—I myself always wanted to do something my own, something that I will be responsible for building, something that no one would be able to take away from me. Well, that’s the main reason.
COOPER: But what are you accomplishing or what are you giving an audience that they’re not getting from Novaya Gazeta, from Snob, from some of the other places you’ve worked?
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: I guess many things. One of the things that we—the thing I am proud of is that half of the team that works in my company right now—and we have a company with 54 people working—most of them used to be just regular readers of our media. So they were big fans of media. They wanted somehow to participate and take part in doing the media. They wrote one article, two, three, and then they became part of our team, and then they became the staff writers.
We have—my favorite story is about Alexey Peneyechenka (ph). He’s just a—(inaudible)—man living in Novosibirsk. He used to serve in army. He has a linguistic education, but never work as linguist. He was working as a car fixer. But he always had a great passion for writing articles and text and stories about how he was serving in army, how he was working a serviceman, et cetera. But he didn’t have places to publish those stories. He didn’t have a possibility to tell those stories to people. He didn’t have a professional editor. He was just writing those things in his notebook. Then he found out our media. He sent us a couple of his articles. We did some rounds of editing those texts. We painted some really good pictures for his articles. Now he’s one of our most well-known authors. Like, he has a huge fanbase in his hometown of Novosibirsk. He’s a real rock star, and he’s just—he still continues fixing cars because he likes it—(laughter)—because he likes it and he thinks that he doesn’t want to turn writing into his daily job. That’s sort of a really nice hobby for him.
So those stories—and it’s just one example. We had like 500 of those. So I think that’s what—the main thing that our media—community-driven media are giving to our audience.
COOPER: So let’s talk a little bit about financing. You both have mentioned some of the things that you’re doing. This is an issue for media all over the world, and I know that you’re both pursuing, you know, some commercial efforts, native advertising, that sort of thing. I didn’t see a wine club created yet. That’s something that newspapers here have done. The New York Times has these expensive international tours that you can take with experts. Think about it. (Laughter.)
What’s it like for—you know, to monetize Russian media today? Is it any worse? Is it kind of that you face the same issues that we all face here?
OSETINSKAYA: Oh, I can start?
OSETINSKAYA: Thank you for this question. This is extremely to the point. (Laughs.)
So this question first appeared for me when I started thinking and doing some fundraising. I was starting about a little bit later than Axios. Axios was able to raise like about maybe $10 million initially. And why I mentioned Axios? Because we basically copied their model with a newsletter. So we launched a newsletter, and then we built website on the newsletter basis. And then we are now following them. But it was much harder for us to fundraise—(laughs)—so we used just friends’ and family funds.
In terms of how to convert it into business, it’s an extremely important and good question. So we use three ways.
First, we just use advertisement in various forms, including what is now very popular is native ad and also sponsorship—in terms of not sponsorship coming from readers, but sponsorship that comes from certain companies. So we have various packages.
Also, we use events. We launched—very soon after we started newsletter, we launched a Bell Club. That is a serial of events where we meet our selective audience with someone top from Russian business and we have very open conversation. It’s all off the record. It’s moderated by me or by my colleague, editor in chief, and it’s very open. And this is the value of this event. It’s not just a formal conversation, (an economic conference ?).
And the third thing is we have—we started—I just recently launched a video project as a part of The Bell. This is a video project on YouTube where I am an anchor and I am doing interviews with entrepreneurs of Russian origin—Russian or Soviet origin who achieved success on global arena, like Pavel Durov, Jan Koum, or—well, I hope to get Sergey Brin at some point and other people, so if you can recommend me someone else. (Laughter.) You’ll be very—so I want to interview also not only businesspeople, but, for example, a famous mathematician, Edward Frenkel, is on my list, who published a book called Love and Math, a very outstanding book. And so on. So we are selling rights for these video(s) to TV channels, to cable TV channels, and also we sell sponsorship on—for a digital part of it. And that’s how we plan to finance the rest of our activity.
COOPER: So all three of you actually are doing some native advertising.
ARTEMENKO: Oh, it’s an important part for our business because we stopped using banners a few years ago because it was too little money for us, and we started to do these sponsorship stories. So the best story for us is when we can do any journalism story, any content that we would do if we had no money, but when we have money of a sponsor to implement their brand inside the story. And it’s very transparent, so we always tell our audience that this story is sponsored, this story is commercial.
COOPER: How? How do you—where is the label?
ARTEMENKO: So we have, like, a system of signs. So, like, color, special phrases that expresses the meaning that it’s a commercial story, so it’s sponsored by brand, or it’s made with the help of the brand. And we always tell our audience that it is commercial story.
But anyways, this content is done by our team. So it’s not the editorial stuff, but the native advertising team that works partly with the editorial on editorial topics, because we need to have the same standards of journalism to do both editorial content and native content.
And it’s a big struggle for us because in Russia we have a big problem—especially in regions where we work, we have a big problem with hidden ads. So when—so it’s under the law, but lots of media do the hidden ads when they publish some content that show as an editorial, but it is paid by sponsors. So it’s like a total lie to readers. And we try to argue with this position because we think that it’s not very good for business in a (liberal ?) perspective because people stop trust you.
And it’s like around 40 percent of our annual income, so we get from the sponsorship on native ads. Just an example, no one knows that in St. Petersburg is the north—a big city in the north of Russia, the biggest city maybe in the world in such a northern place. We have an opportunity to surf. So we have the Gulf of Finland, and sometimes when it’s a windy day we can go surfing. (Laughter.) So it’s like plus-10 degrees, and we go surfing. (Laughter.) But sometimes there are nice waves. And we have a strong community of surfers in St. Petersburg. Usually these people go to Bali or to Portugal to surf, but like five or 10 times in summer, when the weather is awful, when the weather is disgusting, they go to Gulf of Finland to surf. And it’s my hobby, so I am among them.
And we once did the story for one of the telecom operators, this Tele2 operator, about the surfing, the story of surfing in St. Petersburg, with nice photos, with nice storytelling. But they were interested in these topics because they at the same time sponsored the surf festival near the Gulf of Finland, and their values of the brand were quite similar to this story. And so they didn’t influence the story. They didn’t ask anything to write about them. They just wanted to put their logo and to promote them as the sponsor of this story. And it collected quite a lot of audience, so a lot of pageviews, a lot of, like, engagement, and they were delighted with the effects. So it’s an example of the, like, good native advertising, as we see it.
COOPER: So foreign funding for media has become an issue, both here and in Russia. Our Department of Justice has made RT, Russia Today, register as a foreign agent, and apparently they are now making the same demand of Sputnik. There’s been some—there’s been a response in Russia. Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are now—have been told to register as foreign agents.
I’m wondering about foreign funding. At the end of the Soviet Union, there was kind of a rush of, you know, George Soros, the EU, USAID going in to try to help build independent media in Russia. But has foreign funding become toxic if you’re a media company operating in Russia?
ARTEMENKO: Well, speaking of us, we never took the foreign money, except commercial contracts, just because we had no chance. (Laughter.)
COOPER: OK. But would—I mean, would it cause you problems if you did?
ARTEMENKO: So, if to speak seriously, of course, it can be quite risky right now if to take, because you can be named as a foreign agent as the media, and (do you ?) to no practice in this law implementation. So we don’t know what does it mean right now for media because this law was just set up. But we have a process with the NGO organizations, and these NGOs have lots of problems with the foreign agent status. It’s just—you know, it’s just operational problems. So they can’t, for example, transfer money quickly. They can’t do lots of things without, like, bureaucratic stuff they have to do if they are foreign agents.
And I guess for media, that must be very weak. They must be very flexible. It can be catastrophic. So I don’t know. I think right now it’s so—as I told you, I have no experience in this field. But I guess the colleagues that used to do it, they have a big challenge to hide it, because it’s—it can ruin their business.
COOPER: OK. So I want to invite members to come into the conversation with their questions. And before we start on that, just some reminders. We are on the record. There are microphones. And you should wait for a microphone. Please stand and give us your name and affiliation, and ask just one question concisely please.
Q: Is it on?
Q: Hello. My name is Nina Bouis. I’m with the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.
And my question is, could you give us an age demographic of your readership? I’d be very interested in learning where young people get their news and whom they trust. I’ll bet it’s not television. Thank you.
OSETINSKAYA: I can start.
Q: (Off mic.)
OSETINSKAYA: We just recently conducted the research about that. We just asked our audience about who are the readers of our newsletter. And there was—because we designed—just coming one step back, how we designed our newsletter, we talked to people basically and we asked what kind of information do you like. And we mostly talked to business people or people working for international companies in Russia or people who were involved in kind of international activity, because we wanted to focus on what we call global-minded, westernized Russians who definitely have hunger for independent information.
What we discovered afterwards, that we—that about 50 percent of our audience is younger than 35, and they are involved in certain business. They mostly work for private companies. But they’re, of course, not the owners of those companies. They’re managers. And they’re working for themselves and entertain themselves, so they’re kind of (Yankee ?), Russian type of (Yankee ?). (Laughter.) And after this research, we started calling ourselves a newsletter for hipsters about (economy ?). (Laughter.)
Well, that’s kind of inspiring to me, because I also started my career when I was 18, but now I’m 40. So it’s—I think it’s very cool to make newsletter for hipsters when you are 40. (Laughs.) And another half is—like, about 30 percent are older people who are managers and run the companies. And about 10 percent are the owners of the business.
Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: I guess the main audience in our media projects are 18 years and /35. We do have some younger audience, like 14, 15, et cetera, but that’s not the—that’s not the main audience.
You asked where the young people are taking their information, where they find it. I guess the—most of them find the information they’re searching for in social media, in the Russian network of VKontakte, and using the Telegram messenger app. That’s the main—that’s the main resource of information. Sometimes we see that some of the topics we cover, young people find interest in reading those. But the 80/—18/35 years are the main audience for that.
ARTEMENKO: The majority of our audience is between 20 and 35, more like between 25 and 35. But I think it’s up to 70 or 80 percent from 20 to 35. And these people are—so they’re not just like young professionals. There are also scientists, young scientists, because we cover science as well, so it’s one of—popular science, of course.
These people are (blending ?) their families, so it’s—you know, they are—to be honest, they are quite similar to the editorial team. (Laughter.) So we—because we have been growing up with our audience. So we started when we were, like, around 21 to 23, and now we’re from 27 to 30. And they are, more or less, like us. But, of course, there are lots of people who are, like, older or a little bit younger, because we have more than, like, friends and families reading us, because we have, like, 600,000 readers in a month, so they are—(inaudible)—the number of people who live in St. Petersburg—(inaudible)—like that.
Q: Hi. Bob Hormats, Kissinger Associates.
Since the title of this is Digital Discord, I’d like to ask a question that embodies what is clearly a discordant note, at a minimum, between the United States and Russia, and that is, cyberattacks or cyber interference or cyber meddling, whatever words one wants to use.
I’d be very interested in your thoughts, because you know this area very well, on what the Russian government’s objectives are and the level—the skill sets that they’re utilizing, that they’re employing, to interference in politics using digital techniques of various sorts, not just in the American elections, but Estonia, various other parts of Europe.
It seems to me that in this audience, while we’re interested in knowing what’s going on internally in Russia, I think there’s also a considerable appetite for knowing what the Russian government is doing externally, because it’s something relatively new for Americans. Americans are trying to figure out, as are Europeans, how to deal with it. But I’d like to get your insights on what the Russian government is doing, what the objectives are, and what you think a reasonable response ought to be from the West.
OSETINSKAYA: All people on the panel turn to me. (Laughter.)
So, yeah, I wanted to make a joke about the recent Atlantic—the Atlantic cover page. What is on the—what is actually on students’ minds? I don’t know. (Laughs.)
So, well, the Bell recently, in December, published the story about Russian involvement in U.S. elections. That was widely quoted in American media, including MSNBC anchor show with Rachel Maddow. And you can find this story. This is an investigative story that we produced together with UC-Berkeley investigative reporting program, where I’m a fellow.
It’s very deep and well-done research, produced by Svetlana Reiter, who is very experienced and well-known and awarded Russian journalist. So it’s very trustworthy story, in my view.
The impact and meaning of the story is that we tried to show what happened from Russian side of this story that is uncovered and, in my view, is underreported. It’s still not enough content on this matter.
So I would stay within the frame of this article that was basically saying that there were some people that were—some group of efforts by officers that was supposedly detained and accused in treason because they leaked to U.S. side about this hacking activity. So—and it’s translated into English. And it was cited everywhere.
So it’s hard to comment about what Russian government is really needed in this sphere, because three of us are maybe the farest—(laughs)—the farest agents—farest individuals from the Russian government. So we try to stay as far as possible from being involved in politics.
As a person, I think that basically the major goal for Vladimir Vladimirovich is to get West to respect Russia and respect country and respect him as a world-class global leader. You can think whatever you want about that, but I think is a primary goal of Putin. That’s maybe. And all other activities and side activities, either troll factories or propaganda or meddling from hacker site, is—are tools that were, you know, applied with this great goal behind it. This is my personal thoughts about that.
COOPER: Would either of you care to speculate about Kremlin objectives? (Laughter.) OK, we can move on.
Yeah, in the back there.
Q: Lester Wigler, Morgan Stanley.
While it wasn’t precisely journalism, years ago, during the time of the Soviet Union, there was a movement called the samizdat movement. I was wondering if you three consider yourselves sort of progenitors or descendants of this type of movement, and if you could comment on that.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: OK, I suppose that’s my question.
The thing is that media—but I think I was talking about this, called—(inaudible). So I’m going to—(inaudible)—you. When we came up with the name, with the word “samizdat,” of course, we knew the whole tradition. We, myself and my friends and my colleagues, do have some collection of those—of those samizdat. But we weren’t actually thinking about ourselves as a—you know, like, trying to step in their steps.
The thing is that word “samizdat” in Russian means that it’s something you published yourself. So the main reason was that this is media that is literally published by our own selves. So I know at some point maybe you could say that it’s a straight heritage from the—from Soviet samizdat, but I’m actually not thinking about that a lot.
Q: Thank you very much for a fascinating presentation. My name is Lee Cullum. I’m a journalist from Dallas.
I wonder if each of you could tell us the most important story you think you’ve run in the past six months.
ARTEMENKO: OK, it’s not like six months, but like a little bit more, like seven months—(laughter)—or eight months. I don’t remember. It was May, probably.
So our reporter—so in Russia, we have, like, several patriotic movements, so that you use, like, symbols of Second World II and that are quite aggressive in their rhetorics. And one of these—one of these movements, the so-called national defenders movement, something like that, and they—and so we sent our reporter to spend one month as the participant of this movement. And we understood, as a result, that (the day ?) was not so black as it is painted. So it was like very marginal and very old people who were inside this movement. And in St. Petersburg—it’s very important that it was in St. Petersburg. So in Moscow, it’s a little bit different.
And it was funny that just after our publication, so the publication attracted quite a big amount of readers. So around, like, more than 100,000 readers. And they are—they—(inaudible). They are, like, small organizations in St. Petersburg was stopped by the (head ?) organization. And we were a little bit sad because it was a kind of hobby for old people, for the pension years that participated in this movement, because they just wanted to express that they are in love with Putin; they’re in love with politics; they’re in love with, like, Russian government. But it was important to show the audience that it’s not like something that is really scaring or dangerous for people—ordinary people. It’s just like—just an image, nothing more. And this was a nice investigation, I guess.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: We are just finishing to publish a series of 50 articles dedicated to studying the problem of modern slavery. According to—(inaudible)—research, there’s, like, 46 million of people right now living in slavery all across the globe. So we did a series of articles with our correspondents in U.S., in Mexico, in Argentina, in Israel, in Russia. And we collected tons of data and tons of reports about different types of modern slavery.
So that’s—I guess that’s the most important thing we’ve done. We’re finishing it. And next month we’re starting a big six-month study about the jail system all across the globe that’s going to be even more important than the slavery issue.
COOPER: Can I ask Egor, so who are your correspondents in Mexico and the other countries—
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: Those are the ex-readers that are—that were indicated by us and eager to publish and to write stories for us. Some of them do have journalistic background. Some of them don’t. So those are the people who we educated and gave them the tools and understanding the way the journalism article is built, et cetera.
COOPER: So when you decide to do a series like that, you’re reaching out to all of them?
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: So we do have a network of people. That’s one of the issues that I want to fix this year is we want to build a technological platform for ourselves to work with our community, because we have tons of writers but we always forgot about some of them. We need to have some centralized technological system to communicate with them.
But actually it’s done pretty easily. When we come up with some topic, we think that we need to have reports from countries where we have people. And we just write them and say, hey, we’re going to cover slavery. Maybe you—do you know something? Sometimes we send some links to—for different national media saying that this is a story we’re interested in; let’s see what we can do, where you can work, what you can find, and that’s it. And then the typical editorial process begins. Like, writer find something. He communicates with editor. They write—constantly write an article—(inaudible)—each other. And then the article finally appears, and voila.
OSETINSKAYA: I already mentioned one important story. So coming back again, when we talk to our potential audience and our current audience, we realize people need two type of content from us. They want us to make investigative stories and inspiring stories. And I told a little bit about an investigative story that is kind of really impactful and important. But I also want to highlight this Russian—(inaudible). We call it Russian—(inaudible). In Russian, it’s—(inaudible).
This story has strong impact, inspiring impact. And we told this story not of very, you know, well-known entrepreneur, but told the story of the guy who came from Midvietkova (ph) neighborhood in Moscow, who wasn’t just a programmer; who worked as programmer, then tried to build some business in Russia and was very successful. He went to sauna with important people with golden chains and so on.
But at some point he went to media conference, to London, and he realized he wants to build something really significant as iTunes. He listened to people from Napster. And he just moved—he sold everything he had in Russia and he moved—for some reason, he moved to Prague. And then he didn’t know any word from Silicon Valley or something like that. He moved to Prague. He was about—he lost everything. He was about to starve with his wife and young kid.
But at some point he wanted to—then he realized that there is Google. And he applied to Google. And he was waiting for couple of months and with no response and no hope. And his wife supported him. It was, like, so touchy-feely, personal story. And finally, he was the man who created application, YouTube mobile, that everyone on this planet uses. This guy created this. Now he’s in charge of Google VR, the most advanced branch of future development. So he’s bright character and young guy, and was very inspiring story and very important for us.
COOPER: Yes, right here.
Q: Hello. My name is Gail Buyske. I chair the National Advisory Council of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
And my question is whether—what your experience has been, either now or potentially in the future, with censorship.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: OK, I can begin.
Two months ago, Batinka (ph) received a letter from Roskomnadzor. That’s the special censorship agency. The desk—you know, we do have this agency. And they said that we’re going to have our website blocked if we don’t delete article about the man who is selling drugs. We did an interview with a person who told us the way modern technology, Instagram channels, torrent, et cetera, are used to sell drugs.
It was—well, there was nothing that scary in the article, but we do have some laws against articles with—about drugs, et cetera. So the—it was pretty easy. Otherwise, we delete the article or we get our website blocked. So we decided to—we decided to, first of all, tell our audience what is going on. Second, we did put the article away from the website. And we decided to go to court to fight the—to fight the thing. So I don’t know how it will turn out. It’s our second clash already. But so far, so good.
COOPER: How did the first one turn out?
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: First one was little bit—it was—it was a little bit different. We didn’t receive any letters. We just—we just got blocked for some reason. I made a little investigation trying to understand what happened. It turned out it was certainly a mistake, because we were using the same—the same—the main server with someone who was really blocked. And so we just were—it was circumstance for us. But we managed to get out of the situation.
ARTEMENKO: On our level, we face two types of pressure. So the first type is something like we (were discuss ?) with these calls from Roskomnadzor, or like letters with Roskomnadzor, because in Russia we have lots of new limitations about the things you can openly write about. For example, there are lots of stories that you should cover very accurately because of the law about the extremism. So if you cover anything about the Nazis, anything about the people who uses any hate speech, it can be described as the extremism. And so it is very—it is very problematic to cover such kind of stories.
Or, for example, when we did the story about the people who have bad diseases, like cancer or something like that, who want to commit euthanasia, we have lots of conversation with the lawyers, because in Russia you can’t write about people committing suicide openly, because it can be—it can be described by authorities as the instructions for committing suicide. So it’s, again, a kind of censorship.
And we also had quite a funny story. And the second type of the pressure is when someone calls you. But usually it works the same, like in all the world, so if you make this public, it usually stops; so if it’s the initiative from the bottom of—you know, from the officials.
We have one of—very funny story in 2014, when it was the hot part of the Ukrainian conflict, and it was the war, so the active part of the war. We wrote the report about the people who came from the region to St. Petersburg, to the suburb of St. Petersburg, and these people settled in the monastery. And, like, after three weeks after the publication, I received a call, and it was a guy from the local police. And he told me that he got an order from his boss to call me and to speak about this article.
I asked him, so what’s the problem? He told me I don’t know what’s the problem, but my boss asked—(laughter)—my boss asked me to call you and to tell you that you weren’t very intelligent with the church people. I asked him why. He told me, I don’t know; my boss asked me to—(laughter)—to call you.
And so—and this was like an (absurd ?) discussion that lasted for several days before I told him, you know, man, I just write about it. So we can meet you. And I bring my Dictaphone, so I will record our conversation. I just write the funny story about our meeting. And he just told me, got it—(inaudible). (Laughter.) So it’s something that happens from time to time, and it’s not—I don’t think it’s censorship.
OSETINSKAYA: Well, I don’t have particular examples that happen—that would happen with Bell, because of various reasons. First, it’s not registered in Russia formally. This is mainly a newsletter. It’s very hard to censor a newsletter. It’s also website, but it’s also—we didn’t have—we didn’t have this precedent yet.
But broadly speaking, I want to say the Russian government has all tools and techniques to block any website, any program, any reporting in Russia. The thing is that for some reasons they don’t want to. I would highlight another example, example of Navalny. If Navalny show exists and then—(inaudible)—Navalny show exists, we are all in good shape, because he produces much more sensitive stuff compared to what we are all doing. And I, in this way, admire what he’s doing about corruption, anticorruption campaign, and so on.
Q: Hi. Jove Oliver, Oliver Global.
Do you find that most of your readers come from the big cities—from St. Petersburg, from Moscow? Do you find that you—from the regions you get people sort of reading? And, if not, do you feel like there’s a sort of—in the U.S. we talk a lot about the sort of rural-urban divide. Do you find something very similar where it’s sort of almost two bases of facts that are different in the two different places? Thank you.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: I can say that only half of traffic, we got it from Moscow. The other half is Russia and the—and some big cities across the globe. But I wouldn’t say we experience this problem. We regularly do have some expeditions, as Ann said, to deep Russia. We do meet our readers in different and small towns. We do know these people. We speak with them. We do engage with them. So, no, I wouldn’t say that we do have this problem.
OSETINSKAYA: Well, at least some part of our readers—it’s interesting. We have interesting portrait of our readers, because some of our readers live outside Russia. And that was a goal, basically. So we have readers in the United States, in Germany, in Israel, in England.
But also we have readers in—cities that we call millioners, like Yekaterinburg, like Samara, and others. I don’t see much difference. I think global-minded and well-educated and making-money people live all across the country, but mainly in major cities. If you go to rural part of Russia, it’s completely different country. I made it by my own. I mean, just for learning about my country more when I was a reporter, and also then on my own I was just driving my car to Russian north or Russian south. It was exciting. But it’s different country, I would say.
COOPER: Yes, in the back.
Q: Ron Shelp. I’m an author and producer.
I’m intrigued at how young you and all the other journalists are and seem to get started. Why is that? Can you tell me? That’s my question.
MOSTOVSHCHIKOV: The answer is nasty. Average life of a man in Russia is, like—(laughter)—63 years. (Laughs.) So there’s not many time left, actually. (Laughter.)
If—speaking seriously, I guess the main thing is the educational system, because we finish school at 15, 16 years, and then we go to university. And we finish university something at around 21 years. And after that we go working. So people in Russia do start working really early. That’s OK.
ARTEMENKO: And something that I started to understand just when I started to hire people is that—so the—the Russian media landscape is very—so we have big lack of money, and so people can’t earn a lot with this profession. So when you have family, it’s quite problematic to find the good journalism job that can feed you and your family. And so it is the reason why lots of publishers—so it’s OK for lots of publishers to work with people like 17 or 18 years old to learn them with journalism and then—of course, and to pay them less than they paid people who are 30 or 35, something like that. So it’s a market situation.
OSETINSKAYA: I think there is something more fundamental behind that besides life expectancy. But the good news is that’s longer for women—(laughter)—10 years longer. (Laughter.)
I think, like, digital journalism changed the social profile of the journalist. It’s extremely hard for older people. I feel it even myself that it’s extremely hard to adopt all techniques and new trends, follow new trends, and be flexible and agile enough to follow trends in media industry. That’s why younger people feel their audience much better and they’re more successful than people who’s in my age or older.
COOPER: OK, we are out of time, sadly. But thank you all very, very much for coming. (Applause.)