Former journalists from Vedomosti, until recently Russia’s leading financial newspaper, are facing a sadly familiar fate in the world of CEE media.
Back in March, 2020, new (Kremlin-friendly) owners bought the outlet and appointed Andrey Shmarov as acting chief editor. Shortly after that editorial freedoms began to be curtailed.
According to The Bell, Shmarov banned the publication of polls and mentions of the independent think tank Levada Center, claiming it was upon the presidential administration’s request and deleted an already published article about state oil and gas giant Rosneft.
This led to the resignation of the deputy chief editors on June 15 (ten journalists and editors have left the publication overall).
Former chief editor Dmitry Simakov described it as a “catastrophe,” telling independent publication Meduza in an interview that “it was immediately clear that the situation was bad, that it would be difficult, even impossible, to work with such a management team”.
Eager to keep working, however, the ex-Vedomosti team launched a project last week called VTimes. While the first batch of articles have been shared on the site’s Facebook page and Telegram, the project will only fully kick off in autumn once all the bureaucratic and operational issues have been resolved.
The new organization’s mission is clearly outlined in a manifesto/ series of principles outlined on its website, which revolve around supporting independent journalism in Russia, and providing balanced coverage for readers.
“Russia needs independent sources of information and trusted platforms for a free exchange of views and professional expertise more than ever,” the founders argue.
They are not looking for investors as of yet or considering a paywall. Instead, they plan to publish all materials on their website and raise funds through donations and advertising. Their site is already gathering emails of potential readers and supporters – setting up the future membership model.
The situation is reminiscent of the story of SME, one of Slovakia’s biggest media players, which in 2014 was acquired by investment group Penta. After that, the editor-in-chief and about 40 reporters resigned in protest and founded the newspaper Dennik N.
Since then, Dennik N has attracted tens of thousands of paying subscribers and has become somewhat of a poster-child for such a move (and a successful example of an independent publication that earns its living).
But this success was a long time in the making. It took the publication three years to break-even. While an impressive result, that requires a runaway most media teams simply don’t have. Moreover, much of the start-up capital came from a uniquely successful crowdfunding campaign that raised 300,000 euros.
Losing a platform also carries other challenges – notably in redirecting audiences that have grown used to a specific web address or are subscribed to a given Facebook page.
When Ukraine’s most popular weekly magazine Korrespondent was taken over in 2013 by 28-year-old mystery billionaire Serhiy Kurchenko (an obvious front), it took years for former journalists to build up competitor Novoe Vremya – to this day Korrespondent gets about 30 million monthly views, three-quarters of which are direct traffic, while its new incarnation is below the 20 million mark (both figures according to SimilarWeb, which has its limitations).
The VTimes team is likely to face similar challenges. The new publication’s close to 7K Facebook followers are dwarfed by Vedomosti’s 785K (the newer Telegram has less of an imbalance, with 9K to 33K in favour of the incumbent).
While VTimes is likely to grow faster, the disparities show just how steep the price can be when moving from one platform to the next.
Hungarian publication Index.hu is going through a similar process since the firing of the chief editor and mass resignations in recent weeks. Importantly, the former Index journalists tried to limit the damage
Also, it seems like the Hungarian publisher Index will go the same way. Concerns about Index independence began a few months ago when pro-Orban businessman Miklos Vasyl seized a 50% stake in the company that controls Index cash flow. He was seen as a key figure in turning the Hungarian website into a pro-government resource.
Therefore former Index journalists have now formed a Facebook group to try to continue their work and keep people updated as they plan their next move. It included links to press-kits in multiple languages, informing colleagues of the situation.
With an impressive 270K followers gathered in barely more than a week, one can hope they have found a solution that will help other media suffering from pressure.