Last week, Twitter’s founder and ex-CEO Jack Dorsey unburdened himself to his followers, essentially saying he misses the early days of the internet (IRC, open web, e-mails…) and admitted that centralization damaged the internet.

As Engadget pointed out, Dorsey’s tweet is a remarkable admission by a tech executive who made billions creating a platform that centralized the way we consume news.

Among tech-savvy people, the question of the open internet never truly went away. I still see some of them reminiscing over the “old days” when most of the internet was made of blogs which readers consumed via RSS and links in the blog linking to other blogs meant the discovery of new sites.

The internet we know today is a more centralized version of that, with a few gatekeepers standing at the front that have built massive platforms where discovery (algorithms) and building an audience is easier.

For the past few days, I kept thinking about Russian free press and about the election results in Hungary. Since Russia invaded Ukraine and the Kremlin managed to suspend the last bastions of free press in the country, many Russian journalists had to flee.

The next step for many was to rethink the way they make and most of all distribute their journalism, as many of the gatekeepers of the modern internet used to spread news have been blocked in Russia.

More from The Fix: Are independent Russian media gone for good?

Russian journalists turn to Substack, Telegram and YouTube

In a recent report, Meduza, the Russian- and English-language independent news website based in Latvia, documented how journalists from the Russian television station Dozhd and radio station Ekho Moskvy, which were shut down, had reinvented themselves.

Many have started or restarted their YouTube channels, as the video platform remains among a handful of unblocked services. Bloomberg pointed out that YouTube is a popular spot for everyday Russians, as well as Putin cheerleaders and critics, to watch and post videos online. 

Meanwhile, YouTube has been removing propaganda and misinformation spreading channels. The company said on March 11 that it has removed more than 1,000 channels related to the invasion that violate its content policies.

Unfortunately, there is no way to independently verify and most of all analyze whether this amount is a lot or just a drop in the ocean.

Other journalists from Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy have been using Telegram channels to communicate with their audiences. Telegram is another social platform not yet blocked in the country.

And some have set up Substack blogs to write and send newsletters to their audiences, like Masha Borzunova (Dozhd) or Farida Rustamova (ex-Dozhd), who also translates her blogs into English.

Even though I believe newsletters and podcasts are one of the best reactions to the media bans in Russia (will get to that later), Substack is particularly not great in terms of reaching non-English audiences.

The platform is only in English. If you are trying to get someone to subscribe you either need to use extra captions to explain what “Subscribe” will do and even then the confirmation e-mail is in English.

More from The Fix: Another reason why all of your newsroom’s podcasts should be on YouTube

Fighting centralization with newsletters and podcasts

I have recently asked Substack when are they planning to roll out different language versions, and the feature doesn’t seem to be in the timeline to be launched any time soon.

Sure, Substack is another way of centralization of some sorts you could say, and the domain could be blocked just as it happened for other platforms in Russia. Yes, but the beauty of newsletters is you can switch to other platforms and deliver e-mails to your subscribers.

As my colleague from The Fix reported recently, Meduza and other outlets are seeing an increased number of signups for their newsletters.

It’s almost the same mechanism for podcasts. If a platform is banned, you can easily move your podcast to a different one and keep distributing.

At the same time, there are different podcatchers you can use to subscribe and listen to podcasts.

Centralization is also a reason why podcast industry veterans are looking with caution at Spotify when it wants to become the podcast listening leader (in some aspects, the streamer already achieved this title).

One all-encompassing platform is easier to ban than thousands of smaller services.

Podcasts are not banned in Russia yet, but at the same time, there is very little data to understand the Russian podcast landscape.

More from The Fix: Another reason why all of your newsroom’s podcasts should be on YouTube

Centralization against free press

Ahead of the Hungarian general elections at the beginning of April, the International Press Institute (IPI) published a report looking at media freedom in the country. The situation is not great.

Viktor Orbán and his party achieved an unprecedented level of political control over the country’s media ecosystem. Unlike what’s happening in Russia, a free press is not banned in Hungary, but if things will escalate it’s the next step.

The IPI report explained Orbán’s media capture pretty well: state-dependent businesses and oligarchs close to the prime minister have acquired many of the major television, radio, and print media, in many cases from foreign owners and multinationals who exited the country. 

Later, these oligarchs handed over or donated their holdings to a pro-government media conglomerate, The Central European Press and Media Foundation “Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány” (KESMA). 

In her recent column, Beata Balogova, editor-in-chief of Dennik SME in Slovakia who has covered the evolution of the Hungarian press for years, wrote: Orbán’s regime does not imprison and kill journalists, but by distorting the market, centralizing the production of reports, often fake ones, with hate campaigns against independent and critical journalists, it has a similar effect to communist propaganda and censorship.

Centralization and gatekeepers might seem like a good choice if you live in a democracy, they make it easier to build an audience and distribute your content. 

But once a country’s democratic safeguards start to crumble, a more decentralized way of distribution charts is the way forward for a free press. I don’t wish anyone the fate of free media in Russia or Hungary, though it might a good idea to grow these channels of distribution for any journalist or outlet.

More from The Fix: Weekly Digest: Last Independent Newspaper in Russia Suspends Publication, Financial Times’ New Product

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash