“Russian Media Should Be Financed By People Who Care Deeply About Russia”
December 11, 2023
  • Yelizaveta Osetinskaya

    Founder of online newspaper The Bell
  • Xenia Loutchenko


Yelizaveta Osetinskaya speaks about her news outlets The Bell and This Is Osetinskaya (Eto Osetinskaya), the problems of Russian media in Russia and in exile, and about how Russian big business could save journalism — if it wanted.
The original text in Russian was published in Colta. A version of it with small cuts is republished here with their permission.
The City of London. Source: Wiki Commons
You left your position as Editor-in-Chief of RBC in 2016 after the scandal with the Panama Papers and the publication on Katerina Tikhonova, which then spawned the meme about the “double solid line”...But I assume there was a more general reason why you left?

Yes, yes. The “double solid line” was a brilliant bit of phrasing by Yelizaveta Golikova (Osetinskaya’s successor, co-head of the joint editorial office of RBC from 2016 to 2019 — Colta). At that time, the “double solid line” (alluding to a topic that must not be written about — RP) clearly ran through the president’s family.

But existing within such a large organization as RBC in 2016, in that climate, was already pushing the limit of what I was willing to compromise. The leader, the Editor-in-Chief is a political position, you must be able to hear complaints and explain your position in response. And you try to be flexible, but suddenly the hammer comes down — ”Not here!”

I can’t work like that. That was the moment my life in big, institutionalized media ended and I had to make my own path.

Is The Bell intended for the same audience as the audience of RBC and Vedomosti?

Not exactly. In its very early stages, in 2005–2006, the core of Vedomosti’s audience were people who invested in the Russian stock market. Vedomosti rose from this infrastructure, this generation.

The Bell tries to work for people who are involved in business and economics, but at the same time turn their attention not only inside, but also outside. In our first project presentation, we wrote: “Westernized global-minded Russians.” There were never very many of these people, 5 million max. These are people, for example, who traveled abroad many times a year and who led a corresponding lifestyle.

This has clearly changed. I have friends who used to travel a lot, but now they don’t travel at all, and I’m quite sad about it; I miss them. Evidently, what’s happening is working to unite the country — in any case, Western pressure is leading to the unification of the elites within Russia.
But there remain people who want globalization, they haven’t gone anywhere. They won’t get old and die out any time soon.
We will continue working for these people, we’ll help them — this is our main task. And I hope that maybe we’ll be able to recoup some of our losses.

How did you find the editorial concept for The Bell? And do you have any internal editorial rules, guidelines?

We started with newsletters, this is a good old form of addressing the audience, a big, ongoing Western trend.

We hit the main daily highlights — the news and analytical product.

We don’t set ourselves the task of monitoring routine business activities. For that, you need a whole other team, working on location, and nothing can replace that, which is why RBC exists.

But summaries are what we do well, and we’re professionals in this field. And we have our own tone of voice, which I like. We write without editorializing, “without bulging eyes,” as one source, who wishes to remain unnamed, said. This is our guiding light: writing without bulging eyes. I think our editors handle this style perfectly.

Is your audience still mostly Russian? Or is it unclear at this point?

The site was blocked in Russia, so our Russian audience has diminished significantly. On YouTube, about 55% of our viewers are from Russia and 45% are from elsewhere. I think the same ratio can be extrapolated to The Bell.
Mikhail Fridman, a Russian–Israeli tycoon and one of the co-founders of Alfa Group, found himself under heavy western sanctions. In October 2023 he said, “The fact that we invested money in England looks like a colossal mistake.” Source: Wiki Commons
Do you get the feeling that you now have two different audiences: domestic and global? And that they now have different interests?

No, I don’t. I think that our globally minded westernized Russians remain the same as they always were. We don’t take our lead from the idea that “it was a mistake to invest in the West,” as Mikhail Friedman put it.

We believe that the mistake was not investing in the West, but not supporting democratic processes within Russia, not supporting free media, not aiding in the development of institutions.

Secondly, yes, in light of the sanctions, there may be situation-specific and emotional shifts in regards to the West. For instance, someone today might say, “Yeah, they won’t give me a visa, the monsters, the bastards.” But I think that if this person has been oriented on global processes for quite some time, this will prevail over a specific grievance. If you have been conducting business with the West in mind for all your life and you understand the culture, then it is quite difficult to refocus attention on the East; one lifetime may not be enough.

The Russian media organizations where you worked, RBC and Vedomosti, continue to operate, hold events, publish ads, and the traffic continues to grow. Don’t you sometimes get the Kafkaesque feeling that in fact everything is fine, but for some reason you’re no longer a part of it? The feeling that life goes on, but somehow you’ve been cast out of it?

I certainly don’t feel as if I’ve been cast out of life, as I’m sitting here in the business center of Europe! I still am in communication with the part of the audience that The Bell represents.

Yes, life in Russia goes on, conferences go on, business communities go on. And, yes, we see a lot of people who continue to do business — “biznes ez iuzhual,” as they say.

And regarding the world of capital, there’s always someone who stands to benefit.

On the other hand, I don’t like to blame everyone indiscriminately: I’m not in their shoes, I don’t have thousands of people under my command, factories and stores that I can’t evacuate.
140 million people can’t just up and move somewhere overnight. But neither their lives, nor ours ended because we got up and left.
Russia is a large, serious country with a large economy, and business media performs an important function here. Someone has to describe the deals, the negotiations, the lobbying.

Incidentally, we see that many Western companies have not closed or sold their businesses in Russia. Not everyone left. And this is a difficult issue. Let's close all the banks, and the upper middle class, those same westernized global-minded Russians who are against the war, will suffer.

What business model do you have at The Bell and on your channel This Is Osetinskaya? Do you earn your own money?

We try to earn our own money wherever possible. Advertising and paid products cover a small, but not insignificant share, as well as donations and a non-commercial segment. Just recently, I promoted The Bell’s paid webinar for investors on my social networks. At This is Osetinskaya, we try not to publish issues without some sort of advertising. In Western media, investor money has played a big role. But Western media outlets have the prospect of growing in value, becoming profitable, and returning some money; our situation is worse. We need impact investors or donors.

And you find them, one way or another?

So far, yes. In 2021 we had a fully operational business model, it wasn’t easy, but it was enough to live on. Now, of course, everything is much worse. Then some advertisers left Russia, some advertisers left us, and we dropped some advertisers ourselves due to the sanctions. We lost some regular donors due to CloudPayment cutting off service: people signed up at first and then didn’t resubscribe. In general, money’s pretty tight right now.

You were also declared foreign agents...

As soon as you’re declared a foreign agent, boom — 50 percent of your advertisers leave, then your site is blocked and another 50 percent of the remaining 50 percent leave. And you move on. You must have a very consistent and wealthy audience in order to survive this kind of situation.

I heard you say at one conference that it’s time for everyone to admit that the media have now become non-profit organizations (NPOs). Vasily Gatov came to the same conclusion during our conversation. What exactly did you mean?

I simply do not believe that in a situation like this, any socio-political media outlet can say: we are commercially successful, we exist to make money, and we will bring profit to our founders.

Now we must admit that if you write on socio-political topics, you are doing social work for the sake of public interest. But then this is an NPO — a non-profit organization, and not a business model. NPOs must also have sustainable sources of funding and a business model, but should not be considered some kind of self-sustaining commercial enterprise.

If you add up the budgets of all Russian independent media sources, it wouldn’t amount to much. I think around 20-30 million dollars or euros annually. That is, five percent per annum of 400 million. If you created a fund with around 400 million dollars, you could keep the entire system running.

Alright, we don’t even have to go that big. Let’s say we create a fund of 200 million, 100 million at the least, and use these finances to support the most socially significant media outlets. TV Rain, for example, earns 50 percent of its income from advertising on YouTube. Fantastic! It’s a big outlet, it receives grant assistance.

And some important pieces, say, about protecting the environment around Lake Baikal, could be financed by targeted NGOs.

And then, let's be fair here:
Why should American or European taxpayers finance this? What's in it for them?
Oleg Itskhoki, a Russian-American economist, as of 2022 a professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Source: VK
In theory, this should be financed by people who care deeply about Russia.

What do you think are the overall prospects for media in exile? The biggest ones will remain, but as for the rest — how will it all turn out?

I’m not an oracle, I can’t predict what will happen, but I think it really will be much easier for the big guys because they have a larger audience. It’s easier for them to present it to donors and say: “This is Russia, these are the people living here, you need to talk to them. We know everything about them, we understand them. Help us, this is important for the world."

It’s more difficult to say, “I’m from a media source covering hedgehogs in central Russia.” It will be harder to find funding. In a normal landscape, demand creates supply. But when you’re in a foreign environment, it’s unclear why European taxpayers or funds should support this.

Aside from that, it’s harder for you to reach your audience when you’re abroad. You still need someone “on the ground,” so as to not lose touch or your lines of communication. And there are big risks associated with this: you need to transfer money somehow, you need infrastructure to pay for it all. In general, this is a difficult feat for small media sources to accomplish.

Although, of course, you can try to survive on your own. For example, monetize your audience of 20 thousand subscribers on Instagram. 20 thousand subscribers can allow a media outlet to survive. These are Republika’s official numbers.

One of the recurring themes of Colta's project “Journalism: Overhaul” is the decline of journalistic standards. Does this have anything to do with the business models being used?

Today, standards have dropped due to extreme polarization. The media cannot rise above the fray, it is simply emotionally impossible.

If, for instance, you’re a media executive in exile, it is very difficult for you to write super objectively about the Russian government. The more opaque government departments don’t comment on anything. Due to the fact that you are a “foreign agent” or have limited access, more than half of sources won’t talk to you, but how can you present a different point of view if they do not talk to you? Ideally, sources should always be named.

But how can you check sources under the conditions that the media face in exile? How do you hold a source liable when it’s an anonymous leak? Information has become very difficult to verify, and standards, of course, are dubious.

But it’s also connected to the business models. The laws of the internet prioritize traffic and speed. For example, in war it’s difficult to fact-check and news needs to be delivered immediately, otherwise you lose the competition. That’s why all these irresponsible pieces are being published, including internationally. Later amendments do nothing — everyone only remembers the first message, but no one remembers the corrections or even reads them. Or I periodically see articles in which the whole point is who said what. In the good old days, “who said what” was not news at all. So quality becomes a victim of speed.

But on the other hand, as I said, I don’t want to offend any group indiscriminately. There are many competent journalists. But the income of media companies also clearly means they’re not getting the cream of the crop. We’re used to paying people little money and receiving little money ourselves, and there is nothing good about that.

This means that we either earn money somewhere else, or value ourselves so little that we cannot go into other professions and earn more. Society places a colossal burden on journalists; journalism is a socially important industry, but it is poorly paid. And this is a tragedy.

This encourages the smartest and most talented to leave for other industries, sometimes from the very beginning, when choosing an education. This was clearly the case before as well. PR always paid better than journalism. But still, this was not as disproportionate with the tech sector, which accumulates most of the advertising revenue and the best talent.

Aside from The Bell, you have a YouTube project, which was originally called “Russians Are Okay!” When you closed it after February 24, you wrote: “The world that our project depicted <...> was simply wiped off the face of the Earth and will not return anytime soon, perhaps never.” But you still continued to make it, since March 2023 it has been published under the new title “This Is Osetinskaya”...How did this happen?

The old name, “Russians Are Okay!” is now associated with imperialism, and I do not want to participate in this discourse. The idea behind the project is different.

I don’t think that “Russians Are Okay” or “Russians Are Not Okay.” It was a blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder kind of name; I didn’t dig that deep. But bringing my achievements, my creativity, my business talents into the world under a brand associated with imperialism would simply kill everything.
“But there are a lot of really cool folks coming from the Russian-speaking space, and they haven’t gone anywhere. They exist and we need to talk about them, no matter what.”
Semyon Dukach was born in Moscow and moved to the U.S. at the age of 11. He is an entrepreneur, investor, and former professional blackjack player. Source: VK
For example, I live in Europe and now I have a lot of experience dealing with European banks. The banking system here is hostile to everything new, fast, digital, and innovative. It has been created over centuries. Can you imagine what obstacles need to be overcome for neobanks to operate here? The idea of creating Revolut in England (a global neobank made by immigrants from Russia and Ukraine - Ed.) is simply mind-boggling!

Or now there is discrimination based on passports. Everyone knows these risks — banks, loans, investors. It is now difficult to work with Russians. But business will find a way to get around all this.

In order to build something big and truly great, you need to overcome so much that this is just the beginning. By the way, Semyon Dukach, one of my heroes, told me well about this: “Oh my God, the visa issue is just one small triviality that an entrepreneur needs to solve. If he can’t even do that, he definitely won’t build a company.”

What kind of situation would we be in if it were not for politics? Where would the heroes of “Russians Are Okay!” be? They would be filling the entire Silicon Valley if not for 2014, and then 2022. How can you not write about this?

So the topic of promoting talented people from this area of the world is vital, both for people outside Russia and for people inside Russia.

Of course, we need to help inspire those within Russia, we need to tell them, “No, you still have to go, if you have talent, you can create something.” People need support, we need to create a community, to unite. Because these people did not start the war, and they are not to blame for it.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy