11.12.23 Review

Relocation innovation: The transfer of independent journalism beyond Russia’s borders is unprecedented, but the immediate prospects and opportunities for influencing Russian media in exile are not yet clear

Over the past two years, Russian independent media outlets have relocated beyond Russia and created an infrastructure of unprecedented scale and diversity, according to a report by JX Fund based on a survey of 93 Russian media projects. In terms of their online audience, some Russian independent media outlets are even surpassing the world's leading media outlets. The most debated issue is the maximum size of their audience, including that in Russia; the authors of the report estimate this to be between 6.7 and 9.6 million unique users, of which 5.4 to 7.8 million are located in Russia, but stipulate that these estimates are highly conditional. The managers of relocated Russian media outlets estimate their audience to be significantly larger, as are estimates of their influence which is amplified by social networks and uncensored media. At the same time, relocation has significantly increased the costs of Russian independent journalism, while its commercialisation is extremely difficult due to administrative restrictions and harassment in Russia as well as international sanctions. Currently, 79% of all funding for the independent Russian media sphere comes from grants, the total amount of which is likely to decrease in the near future. At the same time, a disproportionate number of the staff of Russian relocated media outlets consists of editorial staff, lacking individuals in managerial and marketing positions. In any case, the relocation of the Russian independent media environment beyond the country's borders appears to be an unprecedented and innovative event in the history of world journalism, the future political consequences of which are not yet clear.

The European JX Fund, which assists exiled journalists around the world, has published a report on the results of a comprehensive study of 93 independent Russian media outlets. The report summarises information on their topics, audience dynamics, funding and staff based on both public data and reports provided to the Fund by industry participants. This sample represents 77% of approximately 120 known independent Russian media outlets, according to the fund's experts, and includes both large, full-fledged media companies with over 50 employees and micro-media with fewer than 10 people.

The report notes that during the two years of the war, Russian media outlets have established an infrastructure of unprecedented scale and diversity. At the same time, 33 out of 93 media projects were created after the start of the war, with one in five outlets being a regional media outlet. Relocated publications from Moscow and St. Petersburg together make up just under half of the total sample. The media outlets surveyed cover a spectrum of topics ranging from news, politics and human rights to business, lifestyle, the environment, minority rights, culture and history. Their editorial offices are spread across 24 countries (including four which have remained in Russia).In 2023, the majority of editorial offices are based in Germany (31) and Georgia (30), while in 2022, Georgia and Latvia were among the leaders. In total, these 93 media outlets employ up to 1800 staff, at least 1500 of whom are permanent employees.

It should be noted that relocation on such a large scale has become possible because the work of independent journalists in Russia on a corporate basis has been extremely difficult since the early 2010s. Over the past decade, independent journalism has largely shifted to the Internet and actively developed in online formats, forming an audience for a new type of media environment. Some publications had opened their offices abroad even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. All this created conditions for the rapid and effective relocation of Russian media after the beginning of the war.

To assess the audience of Russian media projects in exile, the JX Fund has used information from reports provided to them, including Google analytics data, as well as data on the number of views and subscribers on different platforms. The fund's experts adjusted this information to eliminate double counting of unique users who view the same media using different devices or subscribe to the same media on different platforms.

According to the Fund's estimates, the information from the media surveyed reaches between 6.7 and 9.6 million unique users, of which 5.4 to 7.8 million are located in Russia. Thus, they cover 6-9% of the adult population of the Russian Federation. Cumulatively, the sites of the media studied are visited more than 39 million times per month, despite the fact that most are blocked in Russia. In total, their videos on YouTube gather 165 million views per month. Notably, over the last six months, regional media saw the fastest growth: from May to October 2023, their audience increased by 29%, while all others grew by only 6%. This trend indicates a demand for local independent news within Russia.

However, the authors of the report stipulate that due to many factors related to limited information and distortions caused, for example, by the widespread use of VPN services, any estimates of the Russian media market and Russian audience are speculative and require great caution when interpreting (the participants in the process themselves estimate the potential audience of independent Russian media to be approximately 20 million people). These estimates also fail to take into account various forms of secondary content consumption, when agendas and information trends formed by leading independent media projects are broadcast without reference to sources or determine the discussion agendas and topics of Russian media operating within censorship constraints.

In any case, the audience of independent Russian media is comparable to the online audiences of major global media outlets. For example, Meduza's Instagram, which has almost a million followers, is comparable in size to the Instagram pages of The Times and one of the largest German publications, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. At the same time, the YouTube accounts of Meduza, TV channel Dozhd and The Insider surpass both these publications and the YouTube channels of the Financial Times, The Economist and The difference is even more pronounced in the investigative journalism niche. The Insider, Project and Important Stories are many times ahead of investigative teams such as Bellingcat, OCCRP and Reveal in terms of both Instagram followers and YouTube views. Only the German outlet Correctiv surpasses them in terms of the number of followers on Instagram, but lags significantly behind in terms of YouTube views. This data, however, primarily reflects the specifics of consuming independent information content in an autocratic environment: the absence of print subscriptions and TV and radio broadcasting channels leads to audience concentration in online formats.

Meanwhile, the financial costs of Russian independent media, according to the report's authors, has increased from €257m in 2021, to €423m in 2022 and stood at €655m in 2023. This growth occurred largely as a result of the cost of staff relocation and the emergence of a significant number of new media outlets. At the same time, 79% of the total funding for Russian independent media comes from grants. This is not surprising as they have very limited opportunities to monetise their access to the Russian audience. This situation creates major risks for the independent Russian media sphere — the impressive success of relocated journalism may prove to be short-lived. It is highly likely that grant funding will begin to decline in the coming years due to the changing priorities of the funding organisations. This trajectory has been observed with grant programs in conflict zones in the past.

Moreover, the authors of the report are particularly concerned by the fact that 80-90% of the staff at these publications are content creators — journalists and editors. This is an unusually high proportion compared to standard media outlets. At the same time, there is a severe shortage of staff responsible for marketing and fundraising, and expenditures for commercial development are clearly insufficient. The latter, however, is also linked to the priorities of grant funding, which tends to be cautious about costs related to administrative infrastructure and content promotion.

Given that grants are likely to be reduced over time, Russian independent media will have to restructure their expenses, either by investing more in commercial development or by ceasing to exist. According to the report's authors, 11% of the revenue for Russian independent media comes from their readers (subscriptions, donations, and other monetisation methods), and this, the experts believe, looks promising. Given that 800,000-900,000 people have left Russia during the war, Russian media have a large potential base of support that they could rely on to ensure their financial sustainability. It should be noted, however, that the Russian diaspora as a whole exceeds these figures tenfold, and increasing its involvement in support for independent Russian media is another resource to strengthen their financial sustainability.

The extensive relocation of Russian independent journalism since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is an unprecedented and innovative phenomenon, the long-term consequences of which are not yet fully understood. It reflects the contradictions of the Russian political landscape — the existence of an advanced and developed civic-motivated environment amid the increasing repression of an autocracy.