Citizen journalism in Russia

Text Sofia Krapotkina

  1. LiveJournal appears in Russia

In October 2006, 26-year-old American programmer Brad Fitzpatrick came to Russia for the first time. News about this trip appeared in Russian-language media even before the plane with Fitzpatrick landed in Sheremetyevo: “LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick arrives in Moscow”, “The founder of LiveJournal really flew to Moscow”, “Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of the LiveJournal blogging service.com, did arrived in Moscow”. Over the next couple of days, Fitzpatrick took part in the “official presentation ceremony to the Russian public,” became the main guest of the party named in his honor — “Brad Fitzparty” and gave dozens of interviews to reporters from 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 Russian community for the dedication to the project. ”

The Fitzpatrick project, LiveJournal (or LJ for short), created by him to communicate with friends, turned out to be an important phenomenon in the history of Runet. It became the first major platform that united Russianlanguageblogs. In 2006, 700 thousand 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, talked about public issues. Politician Alexey Navalny and his corruption investigations began to gain popularity precisely in LiveJournal. Entrepreneur, cofounder of the Urban Projects Foundation and publisher of the author’s media Varlamov.ru Ilya Varlamov was first known as the author of LiveJournal blog zyalt, 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.”

 

  1. Citizen journalism and government: carrots

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

In 2010, the country’s largest news agency — the state RIA Novosti — launched a project “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 “create a new, extensive, loyal user audience. ”Within its framework, virtual planning meetings were conducted, and the agency even gave the reliable authors kind of a journalistic ID — a project participant card. During the four years of work, the project attracted more than 3,400 authors, and in 2014 was closed after 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 blogger Ilya Varlamov, it positioned itself as an agency of citizen journalism. Part of the content, according to the creators, was to be produced 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 possible. No blog host will offer the novice reporter immediate access to thousands of people. We have this possibility 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 materials from public events. After a great 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. Over the next 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 movement] and “create a negative background around some oppositionists among their loyal people”, and the blogger part 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, which planned to “find the right balance between professional and citizen journalism” (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 Public Post is to become a full-fledged discussion platform”: “The website is structured in such a way that the materials of bloggers and materials of professional journalists occupy an equal space. That is, blogs are not just hidden somewhere, as on most informational sites, but take exactly the same position as journalistic materials. So we emphasize that for us the messages of our bloggers are no less valuable. ”At the beginning, the Chairman of the Investigation Committee Alexander Bastrykin and the Chairman of the Board of Rosnano, Anatoly Chubais, created blogs there. However, on July 1, 2013, the site was announced closed, and on July 4 its archive was completely deleted. According to the editor, 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 were launched: the online journal “7×7. Horizontal Russia” and blog aggregator Besttoday.ru. Both are currently working.

Online journal “7×7. Horizontal Russia” is the only media in this list that is not based in Moscow and does not work in large cities. It was created in the capital of the KomiRepublic by several entrepreneurs. For the first year the online journal was a local media, which was jointly made by journalists and bloggers. From the very beginning,“7×7” abandoned the traditional agenda of the Russian provincial media — the criminal chronicles and reports of accidents — and focused on covering social and political processes, the work of human rights activists and charitable organizations. A year later, in 2011, the editorial office opened in Ryazan, and then in several cities of Central Russia, in the Volga region and in the North-West. In 2018, an online journal for the first time stepped over a figure of one million unique visitors per month. The 7×7 materials are quoted by major federal and international media such as the BBC. More than half of the traffic that comes to the site is collected 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 which editors manually selected the most interesting posts on the social and political topic. It was launched by political analyst MarinaLitvinovich. The site has become one of the alternative platforms to Yandex.Blogs, a service of a large RussianIT company Yandex, which blog ratings were automatically created, according to the company. In April 2014, the company closed the service due to the adoption of the “law on bloggers”. At this point, Besttoday.ru, according to Liveinternet.ru statistics, had more than 80 thousand unique visitors per month. Now this figure is lower — inOctober 2018, the site had 28 thousand unique visitors.

 

  1. Citizen journalism and government: sticks

The “Law on bloggers”, adopted in 2014, was part of the state policy of tight regulation of the blogosphere and citizen journalism. Authors of sites and blogs with an audience of more than 3 thousand users per day were required to register by Roskomnadz or and accepted some restrictions, for example, the rights to anonymity: now it was necessary to indicate their real name. In fact, citizen journalists were equalized with ordinary media — and the decision was unsuccessful. In the first year of the law, only 640 authors were registered, and three years later, in 2017, the law was abolished. “It is impossible to deny the importance of information distributed in social networks and other means of sharing user content, but since the creation of the register of bloggers, the technology has changed dramatically and keeping a list of authors with a certain number of subscribers or visitors at public expense seems unjustified,” the words of the head of the relevant committee of the State Duma on information policy Leonid Levin (“Vedomosti”).

Probably, another argument in favor of repealing the law was the possibility of pursuing inconvenient authors with the help of other tools, primarily the “extremist” article282 of the Criminal Code. Dozens of bloggers and users of social networks were convicted — from a musician from Syktyvkar Savva Terentyev in 2007 to a single mother from Ekaterinburg Ekaterina Vologzheninova in 2016. Criminal cases were initiated against bloggers under articles about insulting believers’ feelings, slander, public insult of the authorities and etc.

The attitude of professional editors to citizen journalism has also changed. In the early 2010s, many perceived blogs as a simple and almost free way to make traffic. In 2018, it became obvious that this no longer works. The risks to the media working with user content are enormous— from the warnings of Roskomnadzor to thousands of thousands of fines (7×7 received a fine of 840 thousand rubles for the blogger’s material).

 

  1. What’s next

However, state pressure did not lead to the disappearance of citizen journalism in Russia. With the development of technology, media have appeared, whose work is mainly built around working with citizen journalists and is associated with platforms, rather than individual sites. And not only at the federal level, such as, for example, the Mashnews Telegram channel (450 thousand subscribers) publishing user-generated content, but also in the regions. In 2018, the Belgorod No. 1 channel was launched (6,000 subscribers in seven months of work) — it not only uses the content of its readers, but is also funded with their help. Its author, Vladimir Kornev, even refuses to call himself a professional journalist (“I am not a journalist de jure and de facto,” he explained) and defines himself as a media worker. In Yakutia, WhatsApp messenger has become a popular tool for citizen journalism.

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, social networks Facebook and VKontakte remain the main discussion platform. This is partly due to the fact that traditional media are forced to close comments on their sites due to legislative regulation, partly because this site is more convenient from a technical point of view. At the same time, author’s pages are more popular on Facebook, and communities are more popular on VKontakte. For example, the Saransk community “Wall of Shame”, each subscriber can offer the news there, has more than 60 thousand subscribers.

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