oDR: Analysis

'We’ll start a fight and then figure it out': the life and death of a Russian new media

News website VTimes was forced to close down after Putin’s laws make life increasingly difficult for independent media. We spoke to them to find out why

Ilya Yablokov
21 июня 2021, 12.00
Alexander Gubsky, publisher of VTimes
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Image: Anna Artemyeva

For independent media operating in Russia, the risk of being declared a “foreign agent” is rapidly increasing. In the past month, three respected independent outlets have joined a list that now includes more than 20 publications, suggesting that the campaign against independent media in the country is gaining pace.

Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation works like a stranglehold that is slowly killing non state-controlled media outlets. Neither advertisers nor sources or authors want to be associated with a “foreign agent”, since they themselves may be recognised as such or accused of financing “anti-constitutional activities”. But while the authorities have largely targeted Russia’s big independent outlets and foreign-funded media with the “foreign agent” label, they have also taken aim at smaller newsrooms.

One of the latest targets is VTimes, a new media company that focuses on the Russian economy. It emerged in the spring of 2020 from the ashes of Vedomosti, one of Russia’s leading business publications, and quickly made a name for itself with professional, high-quality business coverage. VTimes drew on its professionalism, strong sources and ability to attract audiences to become a small but potent force in Russia’s business media scene. But in May it was declared a “foreign agent”. VTimes promptly decided to close over fears that its journalists, or owners, could wind up in jail.

I spoke to three editors and journalists from VTimes to find out what they achieved in just over a year, and what went wrong.

Vedomosti and its discontents

VTimes styled itself as an apolitical independent business newspaper, but it was born out of protest. The majority of its reporters and editors cut their teeth at Vedomosti, the Russian business newspaper famous for its ethical and professional standards in a journalistic environment plagued by sensationalism and corruption. But Vedomosti, as it turns out, was short-lived. In the spring of 2020, many in its newsroom were concerned by the appointment of a new editor-in-chief, Andrey Shmarov, who they believed was openly refusing to follow their editorial code.

It was reported that Shmarov changed the meaning of already-published articles, removing references to Russian state oil company Rosneft, controlled by a powerful Putin confidante, Igor Sechin. Together with his press secretary, the notorious Russian TV presenter Mikhail Leontyev, Sechin has tried various ways of preventing further investigations into Rosneft’s activities, including court cases.

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1999: Media manager Derk Sauer and Leonid Bershidsky, chief editor of Vedomosti | (c) SPUTNIK / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In the end, purchasing Vedomosti through a sophisticated scheme turned out to be more productive. An investigation later showed that Rosneft had, in fact, bought Vedomosti from its foreign owners (The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Sanoma) in 2015, thus making the newspaper directly dependent on the oil company. For a publication that has been writing accurately and with high quality on economics and politics for 20 years, Shmarov’s arrival was apocalyptic. Many of the team promptly – and publicly – resigned.

But Vedomosti’s editors and reporters soon found a new home. Deputy editors at the paper were already nurturing the idea of ​​a new financial media outlet that adhered to the principles of high-quality journalism – just like the “classic” Vedomosti, only this time with advertising and donations. In July 2020, four ex-Vedomosti deputy editors-in-chief – Alexander Gubsky, Boris Safronov, Philip Sterkin and Kirill Kharatyan – announced the creation of VTimes.

“The creation of VTimes was compensation for the blow that was the destruction of the Vedomosti team,” said Mikhail Overchenko, a foreign desk editor at Vedomosti who became international editor at VTimes.

“Everyone [at Vedomosti] had complete freedom to do whatever they wanted, but they understood that they were responsible for everyone, for the entire newspaper,” he recalled. “It was an important ethical principle not to embarrass the newspaper with your actions.”

Most of the VTimes editorial staff, which employed 25 people until May 2021, came from Vedomosti. But for those who did not go through Vedomosti’s professional schooling joining the team was not a problem so long as they shared its famous ‘Dogma’ principles (a set of rules for high-quality journalism, developed in 2000).

Katerina Grobman, who came to VTimes from the news agency Interfax, which is loyal to the Russian state, found life at VTimes very comfortable, saying they were “always very friendly and polite. You felt that you were not just writing [articles], but promoting the whole project,” she said.

"You conduct audience research. You look for an investor and a team for this business. But we followed the opposite path: we’ll start a fight and then figure it out"

To support employee motivation and confidence and turn the publication into a “cooperative” of quality journalism, VTimes’ editorial structure was more horizontal than the traditionally vertical media hierarchy, where editor-in-chief and publisher reign supreme. Heads of departments were responsible for their content, and the publisher Alexander Gubsky managed the organisational side of the business.

According to Gubsky, the publication had planned to apply for a state media licence in the fall of 2021 and then elect an editor-in-chief. Prior to that, VTimes had department heads, each of whom was responsible for a specific topic: opinion, economics, and politics. However, an ordinary employee could always contact the head of any department to discuss current publications, Grobman says.

When creating VTimes, Gubsky’s associates also took an unconventional path: “First, you write up your project, define the niche where there’s a lack of information,” he said. “Then you conduct audience research. You look for an investor and a team for this business. But we followed the opposite path: we’ll start a fight and then figure it out.” And so VTimes managed to launch in the autumn of 2020.

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VTimes | Source: VTimes

VTimes was supported by The Financial Times. FT articles were published in Russian on the VTimes website, boosting the credibility of the young publication. Derk Sauer, founder of Vedomosti and a patriarch of media management in post-Soviet Russia, also advised VTimes founders on how to attract investment and donations, and how to manage media in the digital age . Both Sauer himself and the VTimes staff emphasised his role as an adviser and nothing more. Which is understandable: in Russia in 2021, the very possibility of involving a foreign citizen in media management is now viewed as a threat to the Russian political regime.

Trend setters

After six months of active work, VTimes gained popularity among its target audiences, partly relying on the audience of Vedomosti, and partly forming a new one.

According to Gubsky, at the peak of its popularity in the spring of 2021, VTimes’ audience was an estimated 1.5 million views per month. At the same time, VTimes attracted completely different readers through social media, and its Telegram channel attracted 18,000 subscribers in less than six months. Positioning VTimes as a publication “for smart people who make decisions” paid off, it seems.

Despite the traumatic experience of Vedomosti and clear signs of authoritarianism and economic depression in the country, the founders of VTimes decided to take a positive outlook on writing about Russia.

“We announced that we were a global publication in Russian. We will talk about a positive agenda and points of growth for the Russian economy. This is a continent of growth, where huge investments will go, and where Russia has a huge advantage,” Gubsky recalled.

Indeed, VTimes’ founders are proud that they formed an agenda that not only government officials felt compelled to respond to, but also large corporations. For the first time in Russian media, VTimes talked about cross-border taxes on the sale of hydrocarbons, and about climate change and how it will affect the global and Russian economy.

“Our activities began to influence people – people on whom the Russian economy to an extent depends – and began to change their minds. [Russian steel companies] Severstal and NLMK wrote to us that they have sustainable development programmes, and they were ready to cooperate with us,” said Overchenko. In response to VTimes’ reporting, Russian government officials also felt the need to declare that Russia was ready for energy transition, and they provided VTimes with statements on these issues – a rarity in relations between independent media and the government.

“We sat down to look at the options, and every day there were new options. But in any case, each of them led to prison: either for the director or for a journalist”

Back in the spring, it seemed that VTimes’ model of work and its niche coverage would bear fruit. The founders hoped that in three years the publication would become profitable, especially since large Russian state companies were ready to sign cooperation contracts. But then everything changed on 14 May.

That day, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared VTimes’ Dutch site adminstrator a “foreign agent”. A few days previously, Meduza – a leading independent online newspaper with a much larger audience share – had also been made a “foreign agent”.

“After this, we were forced to place a banner saying ‘foreign agent’ on all of our articles under the VTimes brand,” Gubsky said. “The law isn’t just about creating, but promoting content. And after that, our brand became toxic.”

Ostracism

The VTimes positioned itself as a balanced publication, disinclined to campaign for or against the Russian authorities. Unlike many other media outlets VTimes did not receive a single complaint from Roskomnadzor, the state media watchdog, over its coverage of Russia’s protests earlier this year. For Gubsky, this lack of attention was a sign that VTimes was too small to provoke the ire of the Russian authorities.

He told openDemocracy he was taken aback by the speed of the reprisal: “We sat down to look at the options, and every day there were new options,” he said. “But in any case, each of them led to prison: either for the director or for a journalist.”

With the “foreign agent” decision, VTimes was instantly deprived of major contracts. VTB, the major Russian bank, immediately stopped sending them its analytical reports. For journalists who work closely with Russian government officials and large companies, access to sources was completely closed off. Ekaterina Grobman recalls that Russian MPs were the first to refuse to speak to VTimes, using its ‘foreign agent’ status as an excellent excuse to avoid uncomfortable questions. Some columnists refused to write for VTimes for fear of reprisals.

“Advertisers and partners didn’t understand how they could cooperate with a ‘foreign agent’ and what consequences it might hold, and so they stopped signing contracts,” Gubsky said. “There weren’t enough donations from readers to finance a quality media [outlet].”

Thus, in a matter of days, VTimes lost the ability to write about Russia’s economy, and the money to do it.

Financial independence

No one – not even the editorial board – knows who is behind VTimes’ labelling as a foreign agent. Given the long history of conflicts with Rosneft, one possible scenario is the involvement of Sechin or Leontyev. There are no clear answers, but the consequences are obvious: declaring an organisation a “foreign agent” is destructive not only for Russian media, but for society as a whole.

The financial consequences (fines and criminal liability) for financing or participating in the activities of a foreign media agent will heighten self-censorship and political passivity in Russia. For instance, social media posts are already generating hundreds of criminal cases every year.

Repression against Russian media began in 2020 when Putin was calling for constitutional amendments; the pro-state media wanted to downplay the threat of Covid-19, and pictures of pro-democracy protests in Minsk, Belarus were circulating in August 2020. Having ‘broken’ the constitution and the principles of legitimacy in 2020, the Russian authorities took aim at the remaining islands of free thought and intellectual opposition. Neutrality is perceived as opposition. Any high-quality media resource with a premium audience is perceived as a threat, rather than an asset worthy of hostile takeover (as was the case in the 2000s). As if to confirm this, on 15 June, the Russian parliament called on law enforcement to declare Mediazona, a leading outlet focusing on law and justice, a “foreign agent”.

Russia’s independent media still has a certain amount of solidarity, new technologies and experience of high-quality journalism to retain some journalists for the time being. But with the Russian government’s vast array of repressive tools, the main task is building a media business model that is financially independent and able to escape state influence. So far, this is the only way to gain media freedom in Russia.

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