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Russia's New Media: Too Clique to Fail?

On February 8, 2013, the “socio-political” online publication OpenSpace.ru surprised its users with a succinct banner: “Dear readers, as they say.” For some of these readers it was the first, and only, news that the openly anti-Kremlin website was shutting down. Some were struck by the suddenness of the move and lack of explanation, suspecting foul play. Others were rightly confused — after all, didn't OpenSpace already shut down once? Whatever the initial reaction, the event precipitated some soul-searching on the part of Russian online media.

OpenSpace banner that appeared to announce they were closing. So far the website itself is still operational, just not updated. Screenshot. February 24, 2013.

OpenSpace banner that appeared to announce the publication was closing. So far the website itself is still operational, just not updated. Screenshot. February 24, 2013.

After all, OpenSpace isn't unique — it's one of several projects that blur the line between blogging and traditional journalism on RuNet. Colta.ru, Slon.ru, Snob.ru, PublicPost.ru, OpenSpace.ru… Having sprung up over the last few years, these websites with eerily similar names also share a hip (if not to say hipster) sensibility of content and design, as well as protest-minded editorial direction. Despite attempts at differentiation (Snob, for example, positions itself as an international collaboration of Russian-speaking professionals), it's difficult to tell them apart. The ideological similarities are further exacerbated by the incestuousness of Moscow's Fourth Estate — for instance, Colta.ru is run by the former editorial team of the first iteration of OpenSpace.ru.

All this has led RuNet guru Anton Nosik to jokingly comment on the closure:

[...] из интервью теперь уже бывшего главреда Максима Ковальского ресурсу Colta.Ru стало известно, что ориентиром для покойного издания служил Slon.Ru. Это признание утешает, поскольку сам Slon.Ru жив и здоров, на радость своим поклонникам.

[...] from the interview of the (now former) editor-in-chief Maksim Kovalsky [formerly of Kommerstant-Vlast] to Colta.Ru we find out that the deceased publication aspired to be like Slon.Ru. This admission is comforting, since Slon.Ru itself is alive and well, to the delight of its fans.

Blogger and journalist Maksim Kononenko remarked [ru] in a similar vein:

никто уже не ориентируется во всех этих слонах, опенспейсах, кольтах и прочем. везде один и тот же унылый контент. везде один и тот же кашин. везде посещаемость меньше штата.

no one can make heads or tails of all these elephants ["slon" in Russian], openspaces, colts, etc. everywhere the same sad content. everywhere the same old kashin. everywhere there are fewer unique visitors than there are staff.

Kononenko was referring to popular opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, formerly of Kommersant, who in fact does publish on Slon, Snob, Colta, and, until recently, OpenSpace. Kashin had apparently left OpenSpace shortly prior to its closing, writing [ru] ”I got the f*ck out of there just in time” on his Facebook. Later that day he spoke disparagingly about the various theories for the closure springing up online:

Вот сейчас, в эту минуту – в чатах, смсках, открытых тредах, где-то еще, – рождается консенсусная версия того, как на самом деле. Утром она сформируется окончательно. Решит молва, что политика, будет политика. Решит, что самодурство, будет самодурство. Ждем, волнуемся.

Right now, this very minute – in chats, SMSes, open threads, elsewhere – a consensus is being born about what actually happened. In the morning it will reach its final form. If the gossips decide it's politics, it will be politics. If they decide it's stubborn stupidity, it'll be stubborn stupidity. We're waiting, all aflutter.

Contrary to Kashin's prediction a consensus was never fully formed. Although the official line is that OpenSpace was closed at the behest of its investor, Vadim Belyaev, because it lacked financial viability, some think that the real reason was politics. OpenSpace former editor-in-chief Maksim Kovalsky, said so [ru] in an interview to Bolshoi Gorod:

Неважно, как мне это было сформулировано, но я делаю некоторые выводы. Я склонен считать, что за этим Кремль угадывается.

It doesn't matter how it was formulated to me — I am making certain conclusions. I tend to think that the Kremlin is visible behind all of this.

Katya Gerasicheva, Kovalsky's colleague editor at OpenSpace entertainment-oriented sister project w-o-s.ru [ru] (still operational), agreed [ru] that the financial reasoning has a political subtext. Roman Fedoseev, a former w-o-s.ru editor, explained [ru] why the financial version holds no water — both websites recently landed a lucrative ad contract which will now need to be canceled. Also speaking to this is the fact that the decision was made in the span of a single day, with no request to increase profitability or reduce costs. Fedoseev bleakly concluded:

аргумент «мы маленькие, поэтому нас не трогаю» больше не работает.

the position “we are small, so they won't touch us” doesn't work anymore.

And yet, there is no getting away from the “strictly business” explanation. After all, as previously mentioned, OpenSpace closed once before, during the summer of 2012 — a year after it was purchased by investor Vadim Belyaev, a deal that seemed to have saved the website from financial troubles. This previous version of OpenSpace was much less political in nature and was presumably shut down for financial reasons. It reopened a month later with a revamped website and a new team at the helm. Neither lasted as long as the old.

Perhaps now Belyaev has simply ran out of patience with what seems to have been a troublesome purchase from the start. Of course, there is a simpler, yet more piquant theory: rumor has it [ru] that he is married to w-o-s.ru editor, Gerasicheva, and, as they are currently getting a divorce, has decided to divest himself of their joint ventures.

There could be additional reasons. Slon.ru editor Andrei Goryanov, for example, thinks [ru] that while an interesting experiment, OpenSpace was simply not a very good website. Former NASHI press-secretary Kristina Potupchik, on the other hand thinks [ru] that the editorial team just wasn't productive enough:

6-7 материалов в день, каждый с посещаемостью в районе 2-3 тысяч просмотров – не та структура, которую должны обслуживать два десятка сотрудников в штате [...]

6-7 articles per day, each with 2-3 thousand viewers isn't the type of structure that should be supported by twenty staff-members [...]

Culture blogger Corpuscula chalks this up [ru] to a general malaise of new media on the RuNet. According to her, even though there are several completely empty content niches, such large groups are simply too inefficient to take advantage of them. Rather than hiring enthusiasts, RuNet investors do the following:

соберите 20 человек, которые не будут ничего писать, платите им деньги за то, что они найдут людей, которые будут переписывать за небольшие деньги то, что энтузиасты и графоманы у себя написали бесплатно, профит!

get together 20 people who won't write anything, pay them money to find people, who, for small amounts of money, will rewrite what enthusiasts have already written for free, profit!

According to Pavel Pryanikov [ru] at the standalone ttolk.ru [ru], this was the story of Colta. When Belyaev fired the old editorial team of OpenSpace, he gave them enough funds to run their own website for three months — thus, Colta was born. The money did not last long, even with an additional crowd-funding donation push, and the website had to briefly close. The reason was the size of the editorial team (11 contributing editors along with other staff), combined with with the low productivity of 17 articles per week, 6 of them written by the editorial team, the rest by outside authors. Pryanikov claims that such bloated online publications are only possible through subsidies:

Государство и олигархат на волне полуполитических [...] требований «креативного класса» спешно создаёт фиктивные рабочие места для них.

On a wave of semi-political demands of the “creative class” the state and the oligarchy are hastily creating fictitious jobs for them.

Colta reopened, presumably having found a sponsor. Projects like it and OpenSpace keep getting funded. And so, no one will be particularly surprised if half a year down the road Kovalsky and team end up editing some other website, an abstract Snap or CivicScope. Oleg Kashin or Dmitry Bykov will be happy to write an opening column, and so the cycle will continue.

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