The concept of having an English edition is far from foreign to independent Russian media.
One of the pioneers in this field was the Latvia-based news website Meduza, which started creating English content only months after its launch in 2014. Nowadays, Meduza in English, as the edition is called, runs two original newsletters and a podcast, apart from translations of stories originally written by Meduza’s reporters in Russian.
“At the beginning, it was about establishing Meduza as a brand internationally,” says the English edition’s managing editor Kevin Rothrock, who started to cooperate with Meduza eight years ago, first on a part-time basis. “From the start, Meduza wanted to go big and so it needed to have as big of a presence as it could.”
More recently, however, the English edition also became part of Meduza’s fundraising strategy. The news website stopped collecting donations in Russia due to the financial sanctions, but also the potential unsustainability of the model as Meduza could be designated an “undesirable organisation” in Russia any minute, Rothrock notes.
For financially supporting an “undesirable organisation”, Russians can face up to five years in prison. Besides, banks in Russia are obliged to freeze all of the organisation’s accounts.
“Even if we can’t collect as many individual donations outside of Russia, in Europe and the US generally people will donate more money,” he adds. “We can make up for what we’ve lost in Russia by convincing a smaller number of foreigners that what we’re doing is worthwhile.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a foresight of Meduza’s managers when it comes to English content, he notes. “Everybody has some English content now because you have to prove your worth to the international audience to get donations to survive.”
Indeed, several media outlets, such as Novaya Gazeta.Europe (the sister publication of the Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov’s investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta) and human rights news website Mediazona, have decided to launch English editions after they got blocked by the Russian authorities for reporting about the war, involving translators and members of the editorial team into the project.
Those who already used to post some English content, like the investigative outlet The Insider, started to invest more resources into the project to turn it into an alternative revenue stream.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is today the main focus of these outlets’ English editions. They, however, shed light on different aspects of the war, which tend to be aligned with the brand of their Russian edition.
The Insider’s team, which gained prominence with its investigations into the crash of the MH17 aeroplane over Ukraine in 2014, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the Skripals, translates the media’s investigations, most Putin-related stories, as well as opinion pieces by military analysts, politicians and economists.
”We started translating these texts when we realised how much the audience’s demand for investigations, news and analytics about Russia had grown shortly before the outbreak of the war and especially now,” says Sofya Adamova, who is in charge of The Insider’s English edition. “Many in the US and especially in Europe want to learn what Putin and the Putin’s ‘elite’ thinks, what is happening in the army and [with] weapons, whether the economy will survive, and how mobilisation will change the course of the war.”
Novaya Gazeta.Europe’s development director Mikhail Komin says there’s an increased interest in the website’s English-language news feed, while Mediazona opts for human stories.
“We believe it is always easier to convey motivations, experiences and decisions on a personal level, so we often translate stories that tell a personal story,” says a member of Mediazona’s editorial team who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “This is an opportunity to give readers from many countries the opportunity to get a closer look at what motivates Russians, what internal processes are taking place in the country outside of the foreign policy bravado.”
“Sometimes such stories ‘kick in’, sometimes not, but the main thing is to give information in a form in which a person outside a Russian context can take it in and [decide] who behaves correctly and who does not,” our interlocutor from Mediazona adds.
Attracting a new audience and making it financially support a project means adapting to its needs and interests. Novaya Gazeta.Europe, for instance, aims to gain popularity among an English-speaking audience through a newsletter – a weekly roundup of Russia-related news and cooperation with other English-language media outlets in the EU and the US. The Insider plans a crowdfunding campaign to publish a book in English based on the investigative outlet’s already published works. Meduza in English is considering launching video content.
One thing is unavoidable, however: all of the above media outlets’ primary audience are Russians, the people living in and impacted by Russian realities, and these publishers have correspondents whose specialty is exactly that. Their English content gets read by a certain niche – foreigners who already have an interest in Russia and the region due to shared culture and history or work purposes, a fact reflected in the readership figures, which fall way behind those from their Russian editions. This is a prospect very clear to Meduza in English as well, despite its substantial growth since the start of the war: the prior staff of two more than tripled.
“It is built in our project that we will not have the same broad appeal as the Russian side, that’s just what it is,” says Rothrock. “Most of our work is still devoted to taking content from the Russian side and rebranding it into English for an international audience. That will always be the core mission of our project. Meduza is a Russian news outlet.”
Veronica Snoj is an Argentinian-Slovenian journalist with a longstanding interest in Russian affairs.