Hunting for Change in Baltic Journalism

by Aija Krutaine (Baltic Media Health Check 2017–2018 study)

When I was searching for media outlets with a strong footprint in Lithuania’s digital realm, the name of Nanook, a multimedia journalism startup that focuses on documentary projects about social issues, came up so often that I became curious. Established for the passion of multimedia storytelling, Nanook is on a mission to bring change with the help of stories.

Daniil Konstantinov, political refugee from Russia. From a documentary project While the Red Is On. Photo ©Artūras Morozovas

Nanook brings its readers a rich experience − its storytelling is augmented by photos, videos and audio in a visually appealing way. Besides multimedia journalism, they also do podcasts. Lithuanian photojournalists Berta Tilmantaitė and Artūras Morozovas founded Nanook in 2014 as they were both eager to tell stories using multimedia, but the demand for it in Lithuanian newsrooms was constrained by the costs and production time.

Nanook’s mission is not just to tell a good story, but also to show a different perspective on well-ingrained social narratives. Their first project, Monotone Days, which looked into the lives of female convicts, is a prime example of that. “Very often, stories about convicted people in Lithuanian media are not very ethical and convicts are shamed and blamed. So we decided to look for another narrative to see if it could work,” says Berta.

And it did.

The Money

“We are like an octopus with many tentacles trying to grab bits and pieces from different places and then create the content that we really want to create,” says Berta, when I ask her how Nanook funds itself.

When Berta and Artūras first started Nanook, they would use the money they earned as freelancers to make Nanook multimedia stories, which they would then try to sell to other media. These days, one source of finance comes from applying for funding from scholarships, grants and various funds.

Another source is the various NGOs and other organisations who hire Nanook to create content for them. “These are smaller projects, but they help us to generate additional income that we can later invest into our plans and projects,” says Berta, adding that Nanook maintains control of what content they produce and how.

Nanook co-founder Berta Tilmantaitė. Photo ©Lucas Cwierz

A third source of income is voluntary payments from people who enjoy Nanook’s podcasts and want to support them. Nanook uses the Patreon platform where so far 265* patrons have chosen to support the startup. It gives them an income of USD 1400–1500 every month.

“It’s been a few years since we published our first project in 2015, so it’s getting easier to attract funding because more people know about us and more organisations find us and want to partner with us,” says Berta.

The Reach

When Nanook started, Berta thought that they would be able to sell their multimedia stories to local media, but it didn’t work out. “Our projects are big and they’re expensive − a lot of people work on them for a long time − so it’s not easy to make the money back if you don’t have anything [agreed with partners on funding] beforehand,” says Berta.

The length of their projects varies. It took nine months to produce Monotone Days; a year for Traces; while Will to Win, a project about Paralympic sportsmen, involved very intense 24/7 work for two months.

Paralympian Edgaras Matakas. From a multimedia project Will to Win. Photo ©Berta Tilmantaitė

Nowadays, Nanook tries to sell its stories to foreign media, while in Lithuania, they look for local partners before they actually start a new project. Monotone Days was published on Al Jazeera, but their latest project, Traces (about deportations by the Soviet Union and the expedition of four Lithuanian men to Siberia to reach the birthplace of one of their fathers) was published by Radio Free Europe.

Nanook also gives lectures and runs workshops for different organisations who invite them to talk about media literacy, multimedia journalism or documentary making. It is an important source of income, and besides telling stories about social issues, Nanook’s second priority is to educate on and improve media literacy, Berta explains.

The Community

When it comes to social media, Nanook’s philosophy is “less is more”. Nanook is on Facebook and Instagram and uses these platforms to show readers teasers or inform them when they’ve finished some new work, but they don’t see the point in posting just for the sake of it. The same philosophy applies when Berta talks about technology. Nanook’s team keeps an eye on what’s happening in the field of immersive journalism, such as virtual reality or 360° videos, but for them, new technology is only important if it can add to the story and the user experience. “We see that a lot of organisations start using technology just for the sake of it, without really thinking what the best way to use it is,” says Berta.

The core of Nanook: Artūras Morozovas, Berta Tilmantaitė, Mindaugas Drigotas, Karolis Vyšniauskas and Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius during the Baltic Media Accelerator training session. Photo ©Artūras Morozovas

For her and her team, what’s more important is engaging with the audience in real life. Therefore, Nanook wants to record more Nyla podcasts live with an actual audience. “We really feel the need to meet the audience, talk with them, hear how they live and understand what they need and want from the media,” says Berta.

From our conversation, it is clear that Berta is passionate about a conscious and open-minded audience whose members would be open to change their minds if the story persuaded them to. So, it is more a community that the team is trying to create than just a series of stories or podcasts.

“Media organisations have a responsibility not only to do business and make money, but to shape the knowledge and consciousness of society. It’s important not just to count views and clicks, but to see what changes the stories can bring in people’s minds and even society itself − for example, by getting discriminatory laws changed. Sometimes it’s really frustrating to see that bad content gets traffic and high quality, ethical content doesn’t. Sometimes you want to give up, but then you just have to keep in mind what is really important,” concludes Berta.

*Updated, 11 Dec 2018

Nanook was a main character in the docudrama “Nanook of the North”, created by Robert J. Flaherty in 1922. Nanook or Nanuk means ‘the polar bear’ − the master of the bears in the Inuit religion, who decided whether or not hunters deserved success in hunting.

This story was originally published in Baltic Media Health Check 2017–2018, a journalistic study that analyses trends, finances and issues of importance in the Baltic media markets. This publication has been created by the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica in collaboration with Anne-Marie and Gustaf Ander Centre for Media Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.

NARA is a space for responsible journalism founded in Vilnius, Lithuania