Sad numbers: what is wrong with Russian non-profit media?

I am spending this academic year at Stanford trying to answer the question “How might we secure financial sustainability of independent investigative media in Russia?” This post is the first in a series “Creating a new media prototype”

“I believe our financial situation is pretty stable for the next few years”, said Jeff Larson, a ProPublica investigative reporter, who just received The Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

We sat in Stanford’s Bookstore Cafe, and Jeff listed the funds that finance his newsroom. ProPublica started with a donation of $10 million a year by Herbert and Marion Sandler, and now has more than 160 financial contributors (entities and individuals), according to its 2016 annual report . It is a vivid example of a rising new model of non-profit media, first described by Julia Cage in her book, “Saving the Media.”

“Grant funding is reducing right now. We are planning to implement crowd-funding to stay afloat,” argues, virtually, with Larson Sergey Smirnov, editor-in-chief for the Russian media startup Mediazona. This non–profit media outlet, established with foreign funds and money from members of the famous punk group Pussy Riot, is probably the most significant media startup in Russia for years. Mediazona is perhaps the only media outlet to systematically cover public justice issues in Russia. But now grant funding for Mediazona is shrinking for many reasons, Smirnov says, sadly.

As a JSK Journalism Fellow, I have spent hours interviewing editors and founders of Russian media startups. They all agree that for Russian independent media who want to engage in investigative journalism or socially important topics, it is increasingly difficult to obtain funding from national and foreign donors.

And Vladimir Putin is not the main reason (more on this in future posts).

These two strikingly different perspectives — from ProPublica and Mediazona — represent the greatest puzzle I’ve encountered in my initial work on my project at Stanford. Why is the world’s non-profit media landscape booming, while Russia’s is declining?

Visual data is the best way to comprehend the situation at a glance. This ingenious map provided by Media Impact Funders, is a hundred times more demonstrative than any scientific research.

It is ridiculous to compare Russia with European countries and the United States in terms of total value of grants for media projects. Just imagine the difference between $7.9 billion spent on media in the U.S. (2009-today) and $16 million in Russia for the same period: this is a catastrophic gap for our country, which has almost half the population of the United States. African nations like Nigeria or Kenya significantly surpass Russia on this indicator. Even China, whose authoritarian regime is considered to be stronger than Russia’s, exceeds our country in the number of donors and recipients of donor support. What is $16 million? It is less than ProPublica’s annual income in contributions and grants for 2015. And it is almost 20 times less than the publicly announced current annual budget of the Russian state run RT channel.

The trends are also diametrically opposed. The Institute for Nonprofit News, the only organization in the U.S. specifically focused on building the emerging nonprofit news sector, estimates there are about 250 nonprofit news organizations operating now in the United States (not including public media outlets like public radio and public television). According to INN director Sue Cross, the numbers have been growing by about 30–40 new entities per year. INN’s membership totals provide a good approximation of growth in the sector. INN was founded in 2009 by 27 organizations, which represented pretty much the entirety of independent nonprofit news organizations in the US at the time. Growth in membership and the sector have been steady, reaching 105 newsrooms in 2014, and 145 by the fall of 2017.

And what about Russia? We Russian journalists can name no more than five startups launched in the last 3–5 years that received non-profit funding. None of these is in a “pretty stable financial situation,” and none of them relies solely on a non-profit model.

I can remember only two names of Russian donors, who publicly finance national NGOs, including media: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a political exile living in Europe, and Dmitry Zimin, the first Russian cell-company founder. No one beyond them.

This is especially sad, because in today’s Russia, the importance of investigative journalism and the need for accountability of authorities, is much higher than in the developed western democracies…

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