Citizen journalism in Russia

Text: Sofia Krapotkina

LiveJournal appears in Russia

In October 2006, Brad Fitzpatrick a 26-year-old Ameri- can programmer came to Russia for the first time. News about this trip appeared in Russian-language media even before Fitzpatrick’s plane landed in Sher- emetyevo: “LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick arrives in Moscow”, “The founder of LiveJournal really flew to Mos- cow”, “Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of the LiveJournal blog- ging service.com, did arrived in Moscow”. Over the next couple of days, Fitzpatrick took part in the “official pres- entation ceremony to the Russian public,” and he became the main guest of the party named in his honor — “Brad Fitzparty” and gave dozens of interviews to reporters from the federal media. In one of them, he admitted that he was impressed by such attention:

“In America, nobody interviews me, nobody knows me. For me, it is a huge surprise that in Russia they perceive me this way, host me like a star. But I am grateful to the Rus- sian community for their dedication to the project.”

The Fitzpatrick project, LiveJournal (or LJ for short), was created by him to communicate with friends, and it turned out to be an important phenomenon in the history of Runet. It became the first major platform that united Russian-language blogs. In 2006, 700,000 Russian users had blogs, read by 11.6 million visitors monthly. Most of them were personal diaries — everyday, creative or professional. However, popular bloggers — with more than a thousand subscribers — used LiveJournal as a platform for citizen journalism: they wrote on political topics, reported on protest rallies, and talked about social issues. The poli- tician Alexey Navalny and his corruption investigations began to gain their popularity on LiveJournal. Ilya Var- lamov an entrepreneur, co-founder of the Urban Projects Foundation, and publisher of the author’s media “Var- lamov.ru” first became known as the author of LiveJournal blog “zyalt”. It was here where he published photo reports from protest actions in Moscow — the March of Dissent, Days of Anger and rallies of the Strategy 31 movement.

Fitzpatrick himself believed that this was due to the fact that “in Russia there are problems with freedom of speech,” and “LJ is primarily a resource free of censorship.”

Citizen journalism and government: carrots

Freedom from censorship, independence from editor opinions and the position of publishers, made it possi- ble to put the interests of readers at the forefront — and the popularity of citizen journalism and blogs continued to grow. In 2009, even the president Dmitry Medvedev started a LJ blog. The major media then took a closer look at blogs and blog-generated traffic.

In 2010, the country’s largest news agency — the state RIA Novosti — launched a project called “You are a reporter” to work in the field of citizen journalism. The project was aimed at “creating a network of stringers throughout Russia and the near abroad to quickly receive a variety of multimedia content” and to “create a new, extensive, loyal user audience.” Within its framework, virtual plan- ning meetings were conducted, and the agency even gave the reliable authors a kind of a journalistic ID — a project participant card. During the four years of work, the project attracted more than 3,400 authors, and it was closed in 2014 after the reorganization of the agency.
In 2011, two more publicly funded projects focused on the development of citizen journalism were launched: Reedus and PublicPost.

Reedus was promoted by the blogger Ilya Varlamov, and it positioned itself as an agency of citizen journalism. Part of the content, according to the creators, was to be pro- duced by professional journalists, and some by the users themselves. “Our goal is to attract people to create news, to shorten the way from author to reader as much as pos- sible. No blog host will offer the novice reporter immedi- ate access to thousands of people. We have this possibil- ity directly in the structure of the site,” he wrote. At the end of 2011, when thousands of protest rallies were held in Moscow, “Reedus” gained more than a million unique visitors per day, publishing material from public events. After initial success, there was a scandal: in May 2012, it became known that the media belonged to the state- owned company KAMAZ. “When a year ago I was offered to create media with state funding, I did not find anything wrong,” Varlamov explained in his blog in May. However, a few weeks later he decided to leave the media organi- zation. Over the next few years, Reedus’s editorial policy changed. Lenta.ru published anonymous comments from people who were introduced by former employees of the media that the editorial office was asked to “post news about Nashi” [members of the Nashi pro-Kremlin move- ment] and “create a negative background around some oppositionists among their loyal readership”, and their blogger staff was also partly filled with journalists. In November 2018, according to Liveinternet.ru statistics, the site was visited more than 4.5 million times.

The second media organization, which planned to “find the right balance between professional and citizen journalism” (as editor-in-chief Nargiz Asadova wrote in her column) with the help of state financing, was short-lived.

In November 2011, with the support of Sberbank, the site PublicPost was launched. In an interview with Lenta.ru Asadova said that “one of the main tasks of PublicPost is to become a full-fledged discussion platform”: “The web- site is structured in such a way that the material of blog- gers and material of professional journalists occupy an equal space. That is, blogs are not just hidden somewhere, as on most informational sites, but occupy the same exact position as journalistic material. So, we emphasize that for us the messages of our bloggers are no less valuable.” At the beginning, Alexander Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Investigation Committee and Anatoly Chubais, the Chairman of the Board of Rosnano, created blogs there. However, the site was closed on July 1, 2013, and on July 4 its archive was completely deleted. According to the edi- tor, Natalya Konradova, this was due to the fact that “some asshole wrote a post with a headline containing the words “Putin” and “asshole”, and then “the printout appeared on Putin’s table”.

There were also private initiatives for the development of citizen journalism in Russia. In 2010, two media outfits were launched: the online journal “7×7. Horizontal Russia” and blog aggregator Besttoday.ru. Both are currently still working.

The online journal “7×7. Horizontal Russia” is the only media organization in this list that is not based in Mos- cow and does not operate in large cities. It was created in the capital of the Komi Republic by several entrepre- neurs. For the first year the online journal focused on local media, which was jointly created by journalists and blog- gers. From the very beginning, “7×7” abandoned the tradi- tional agenda of Russian provincial media — the criminal chronicles and accident reports — instead they focused on covering social and political processes, and the work of human rights activists and charitable organizations. A year later, in 2011, they opened an editorial office in Rya- zan, and then in several cities around central Russia, in the Volga region, and in the North-West. In 2018, an online journal reached a figure of over one million unique visi- tors per month for the first time. Articles from 7×7 are now quoted by major federal and international media organiza- tions such as the BBC. More than half of the traffic that comes to the site is through articles written by citizen journalists. For example: Ivan Ivanov, an ecologist from the Republic of Komi, publishes materials on the fight against oil spills; Vasily Lebedev, a public activist from the Republic of Mari El, talks about the changes he seeks in his native village Vodozerye; and Voronezh activist Tatyana Frolova writes about regional protest actions.

Besttoday.ru is a blog aggregator where editors curate the most interesting posts on social and political topics. It was launched by Marina Litvinovich, a political analyst. The site has become one of the alternative platforms to Yandex.Blogs, the service provided by the large Russian IT company Yandex, where blog ratings were automatically created, according to parameters set by the company. In April 2014, the company closed the service due to the adoption of the “Law on bloggers”. At this point, Bestto- day.ru, according to Liveinternet.ru statistics, had more than eighty thousand unique visitors per month. Now this figure is lower — in October 2018, the site had twenty-eight thousand unique visitors.

Citizen journalism and government: sticks

The 2014 “Law on bloggers” was part of a state policy to put tighter regulations on the blogosphere and citizen journal- ism. Authors of sites and blogs with an audience of more than 3 thousand users per day were required to register with Roskomnadzor and accepted some restrictions, for example, the right to anonymity: now it was necessary to give your real name. In fact, citizen journalists were put on equal footing with ordinary media — and the decision was unsuccessful. In the first year of the law only 640 authors were registered, and the law was abolished three years later. “It is impossible to deny the importance of informa- tion distributed on social networks and other means of sharing user content, but since the creation of the regis- ter of bloggers, the technology has changed dramatically and keeping a list of authors with a certain number of sub- scribers or visitors at public expense seems unjustified,” were the words of Leonid Levin, the head of the State Duma committee on information policy (“Vedomosti”).

Another argument in favor of repealing the law was the potential of pursuing authors deemed ‘inconvenient’ with the help of other tools, primarily the “extremist” Article, number 282 of the Criminal Code. Dozens of bloggers and social network users were convicted — from Savva Ter- entyev, a musician from Syktyvkar in 2007, to Ekaterina Vologzheninova, a single mother from Ekaterinburg in 2016. The Criminal cases were initiated against bloggers on the grounds that they wrote articles about insulting religious believers’ feelings, slander, publicly insulting authorities and soforth.

The attitude of professional editors toward citizen journal- ists has also changed. In the early 2010s, many perceived blogs as a simple and cost effective way to generate traffic. In 2018, it became obvious that this is no longer the case. The risks to the media working with user content is enormous — from Roskomnadzor’s warnings to thousands and thousands of fines (7×7 received a fine of 840 thou- sand rubles for blogger material).

What’s next

However, state pressure did not lead to the disappearance of citizen journalism in Russia. With the development of technology, new media has appeared, that is mainly built around working with citizen journalists and is associated with platforms – rather than individual sites. This is now not only happening at the federal level, for example, the Mash news channel on Telegram (450 thousand subscrib- ers) publishes user-generated content, including content from all regions. In 2018, the Belgorod No. 1 channel was launched (6,000 subscribers in seven months of work) — a channel where users not only create content but they help finance it as well. Its author, Vladimir Kornev, even refuses to call himself a professional journalist (“I am not a journal- ist de jure and de facto,” he explained) and defines himself as a media worker. In Yakutia, the WhatsApp messaging platform has become a popular tool for citizen journalism.
Today, both popular federal shows like VDud and regional ones appear on YouTube: Tambov Vlog in Tambov, vlog of Konstantin Ishutov in Cheboksary, Vladimir Panfilov’s channel in Orel — and hundreds of others.

Finally, in some regions the social network platforms of Facebook and VKontakte remain the main discussion plat- form. This is partly due to the fact that traditional media is forced to close the commenting function on their sites partly due to legislative regulation, and partly because is more convenient from a technical point of view. At the same time, author’s pages are more popular on Face- book, and communities are more popular on VKontakte. For example, the Saransk community “Wall of Shame” is a place where each subscriber post their own news there, and it has more than 60 thousand subscribers.

Traces of Togetherness

Der Artikel ist im Rahmen des Projekts “Spuren des Miteinanders” entstanden.

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