oDR: Opinion

So long, Vedomosti! What happened to Russia’s leading financial media

It’s been 20 years since the Kremlin openly started the war against the Russian press. Throughout all these years, this financial daily managed to survive - until recently.

Ilya Yablokov
19 June 2020, 12.01am
Public domain

These days, my Facebook feed is full of posts by people commiserating the demise of Vedomosti, Russia’s leading financial daily.

Some journalists post photos of life in the newsroom, others blame former owners for selling the outlet to the Kremlin, and then a third group share posts announcing that highly qualified journalists and editors are looking for new jobs. This collective mourning follows the news this week that five deputy editors left Vedomosti in protest at the appointment of a new editor-in-chief, Andrey Shmarov, who they say ‘has repeatedly broken the newspaper’s editorial standards and rules’.

Several years ago, I started writing a book about Russia’s media managers together with my colleague Elisabeth Schimpfossl. This distinct group of senior editors and media founders in post-Soviet Russia acts as an important hub between politics, business and society. Whether loyal to the regime or not, they all know how to navigate the murky waters of Kremlin politics. They know how to engage in the power game with the Kremlin and the owners of their media, without necessarily sacrificing their conscience in the process. At the same time, they also know how to preserve their audiences’ loyalty too, keeping readers entertained and engaged - and thus the money coming in.

Among the cases I have been working on, Vedomosti is by all means the most curious - in terms of its history, founders, principles of work and ability to resist the political regime. Working at Vedomosti meant playing in the top league and a place among Russia’s media elite, but with the change of ownership, Russia’s media market has clearly lost another place where a journalist can pursue high quality journalism.

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Transparency and sincerity

The history of Vedomosti starts in 1999 and bears the mark of the time when it was launched and its founder. Dutch journalist Derk Sauer, a Maoist in his younger years and driven by the belief that the world is an unjust place, had covered numerous conflicts around the globe prior to his arrival in the Soviet Union. In an interview with me, Sauer described the country where he arrived in 1989 as “bleak” and “dark”, and so to add more colour to early post-Soviet life, he started producing glossy magazines and later the first English-language Russian newspaper, The Moscow Times.

Gradually, Sauer’s company Independent Media grew into a major media conglomerate. However, his encounter with Russian capitalism also changed him: eventually he left behind his ultra-socialist credentials. Still, the operating principles of media Sauer helped put in place (e.g. how information should be reported, how work should be organised within a newsroom), and especially international connections, made him a very different type of media owner compared to his Russian colleagues.

Indeed, during the 1996 presidential elections, Russian media were hit badly by a wave of pro-Yeltsin propaganda. Many respected journalists openly engaged in promoting unverified information about Boris Yeltsin’s opponent, Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Some engaged enthusiastically in that campaign, while others were ordered to do so by media owners.

Boris Yeltsin | CC-A 4.0 Presidential Press Service / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved

When Yeltsin won and certain oligarchs received former Soviet industrial assets as loyalty bonuses, a few were left empty-handed. The latter launched yet another media campaign against their business competitors and the Russian government. For two years, the country drowned in a series of “media wars” which left a huge mark on journalists working at the time: media owners, no matter how big nor small, shamelessly weaponised their assets to attack commercial and political opponents. No professional principles were left at journalists’ possession.

It was in this environment that Derk Sauer launched Vedomosti, a financial newspaper owned in equal shares by him, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times – the two global leaders in financial journalism. These big brands not only provided access to their stories, which were translated into Russian. They essentially made Vedomosti a “western” newspaper on Russian soil. These backers also shielded Vedomosti from accusations that it could be a tool in someone else’s hands – be it a politician or an oligarch. To tease their competitors, Sauer and Leonid Bershidsky, the newspaper’s first editor-in-chief, placed commercial posters around Moscow: “Every oligarch can buy our newspaper. In a kiosk.”

Principles that save

In the newsroom, Sauer followed the practices of American and British journalism. Vedomosti journalists were not informed when the commercial office signed new contracts with advertisers, and Sauer, the owner, did not know about the investigations his journalists were carrying out (which, in his words, did cost him some personal relationships with neighbours in the elite Moscow neighbourhood of Zhukovka). Speaking in 2012, Leonid Bershidskiy, the newspaper’s first editor-in-chief, recalled that he only once had to break his principles and prevent the publication of an investigation that would damage Sauer’s business. And it seems he still regrets that fact today.

For the first time in post-Soviet journalism, a newspaper’s opinion page was completely separated from the news pages in Vedomosti. News editors had no idea about the topic of tomorrow’s op-ed section. Most importantly, the first generation of senior editors put together a set of guidelines (the so-called “Dogma”) that every Vedomosti journalist has followed. Among Russian media outlets, these kind of guidelines were rare. No trips paid by advertisers or newsmakers; staff should remain silent about ongoing investigations; journalists should be clear about their sources of information and support their statements with facts.

Vedomosti's principles, the "Dogma".

Being honest with readers and transparent with sources of information was the only way of winning a reputation and respect among audiences. The “Dogma” became a foundation stone of Russian journalism, and one which two generations of journalists used to master their skills. Its importance also in the fact that Dogma’s principles are universal, easily applied to any media across the country and that it grew out of efforts of rank-and-file journalists to develop “rules of the game” amidst the chaos of Russia’s media wars.

These principles, set by Sauer’s team in the early 2000s, helped Vedomosti to operate for 20 years without major disasters. The newspaper became a crucial source of information for everyone engaged in Russian business, industry and financial services - the newspaper occupied this niche and never engaged wholeheartedly in politics. This doesn’t mean, though, that Vedomosti avoided reporting on political matters. The basic principle that guided the editorial team was the “money factor”: i.e. how a particular news piece can be reported from the angle of finance? How a certain news piece can affect potential readers and businessmen who make costly decisions? This helped the team avoid some toxic stories related to Putin’s politics and protect the newspaper. In the meantime, the Kremlin punished media which were critical of its policies or forced advertisers to leave the media.

Essentially, Sauer and the team created a reliable conveyor of news that delivered trustworthy content on a daily basis. And it would have worked even further - until the state intervened.

The Kremlin strikes back

In 2013, Derk Sauer stepped down as chairman of Vedomosti’s board. Although Sauer did not expect that the situation would deteriorate after his departure, the clouds over Vedomosti grew heavier. After the annexation of Crimea, the Russian state initiated a new counterattack on the press. In 2014, the Russian parliament passed a law that mandated Russian news media to reduce foreign ownership to a maximum of 20%, forcing international owners to sell their stakes to Kremlin-friendly businessmen. In the case of Vedomosti, the Finnish Sanoma media group, the British FT and the American Dow Jones Company had to lose almost half their shares. Gradually, they all sold their assets to Demyan Kudryavtsev, a poet, former chairman of Kommersant publishing house and former adviser to fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Kudryavtsev’s company did not make any staff changes in Vedomosti, nor did it intervene in the newsmaking process - as far as observers can guess. However, as a recent investigation showed, Kudryavtsev’s purchase of Vedomosti in 2015 was supported by a loan from the state-owned Gazprombank. Moreover, as the investigation claimed, Rosneft, Russia’s biggest state-owned oil corporation, has owned Vedomosti since 2015 through a chain of companies. According to this investigation, Mikhail Leontyev, Rosneft VP for communications and a controversial TV presenter, personally searched for candidates to head the newspaper. (When asked to comment at the time, Leontyev denied this claim.)

The sale of Vedomosti to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin and departure of senior staff means that Russia’s 1990s – the time of experiments – are finally over. But hopefully not for too long

In March 2020, it was announced that Vedomosti had been sold to new owners, who immediately appointed a new editor-in-chief, Andrey Shmarov. In the coming months, Shmarov’s editorial decisions would provoke headlines as scandalous as Vedomosti’s previous investigations. First, two Vedomosti employees, speaking to Forbes, claimed that Shmarov had amended the headline of an article about Rosneft, giving it a meaning opposite to the article’s content - without the consent of the author or senior editors. Second, Shmarov removed an op-ed critical of Rosneft and its head, Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest friends.

The Vedomosti editorial team tried to protest and even asked the new owners to consider an alternative candidate chosen from the newspaper’s senior management, but without luck. On 29 May, the deal to sell Vedomosti was closed; Shmarov was not replaced, while most of the senior staff of the newspaper resigned. It is clear that the Vedomosti in its classic form we used to know will cease to exist and could well be closed in the next couple of years.

What lessons can be learnt from the trials of Vedomosti? Even though the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal have left the newspaper, their legacy and work ethics have been retained by the senior staff, some of whom have been working at Vedomosti since its foundation. It’s probable that a part of the newspaper’s team will find investments to launch a media that would cover financial news. It’s also probable that the Vedomosti brand can be maintained by the current owners for the time being, but the content of its news will be drastically changed.

It’s illustrative that the relationship between Vedomosti staff and Shmarov fell apart when the latter said that he has never read the “Dogma” – a document that could be described as a successful experiment in following professional ethics amidst the chaos of Russian politics. The case of Vedomosti demonstrates that in an authoritarian regime, where informality and personal connections mean more than anything else, transparent ethical principles can be a powerful source of reputation and influence. There are plenty of professional investigative journalists in Russia, but almost none of them developed and followed a public code of ethics which would be protected from political and personal biases or clickbait.

The sale of Vedomosti to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin and departure of senior staff means that Russia’s 1990s – the time of experiments – are finally over. But hopefully not for too long.

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