At a moment when the world’s attention has again turned towards Eastern Europe, a new media outlet is using a mixture of translation and aggregation to bring news from Russia to an English-speaking audience. The English-language edition of Latvia-based Meduza went live on Monday, describing itself as Russia’s free press in exile.
The Meduza story begins with a different popular Russian news site, Lenta.ru. (Some in the west may have heard of it when the Society of News Design named it the World’s Best Designed Website in 2013.) In March 2014, the site’s billionaire owner fired Galina Timchenko from her position as chief editor; Lenta.ru had published an article with a link to an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist that was deemed to be “extremist” content by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, and her replacement was the editor of a pro-Kremlin site. Dozens of Lenta.ru staffers resigned in protest of the move.
Timchenko and some of her former Lenta.ru colleagues set up shop in Riga — where they could remain independent — and launched the Russian-language news site Meduza in October 2014. Meduza publishes original stories and also aggregates news from around the Russian-language web, adding its own context and highlighting details that help readers gain a fuller picture of a story. By last month, the site had reached 2 million unique visitors a month.
A few months after Meduza’s launch, the team decided to begin producing English-language content on Russia and the region after noticing a demand for high quality news and translation. “We figured that we have the expertise and the training to really to get the right stories out there,” said English-side editor Konstantin Benyumov.
Meduza’s English site is targeting Russia watchers and non-Russian speakers who are interested in events in the region by providing what Benyumov describes as “unbiased and objective information.” Currently, the English-language side is about 15 to 20 percent of the work that Meduza does daily.
A few days after its English launch, Benyumov reported that Russian viewers were the number one visitors to the site, while viewers from the U.S. came in a close second, followed by viewers from Ukraine, the U.K., and Germany. With a cold launch and no promotional budget, the English side attracted 65,000 pageviews and 40,000 unique viewers in its first four days, with over 1,000 followers on both Facebook and Twitter.
Benyumov works closely with U.S.-based producer and main translator Kevin Rothrock. Rothrock holds a master’s degree in Soviet history and has been blogging about Russia and closely following its media space since 2010; he is project editor of Global Voices’ RuNet Echo, which is all about translating the Russian Internet. Rothrock now gets up at 4 a.m. his time to talk with the team in Riga and begin translating and “tailoring” news. He scans Meduza’s Russian site as well as newswires (including TASS and Interfax) and newspapers throughout the country and region, as well as documents from the Parliament and other bodies including the Russian Orthodox Church, while deciding which four to five shorter pieces to aggregate, translate, and tailor to an English-language audience.
“Over 90 percent of what’s on the site right now was translated by me,” Rothrock said. Meduza also uses freelance translators as needed.
The most Meduza reproduces from aggregated sources is a few sentences or a paragraph with a link back to the original Russian source, Rothrock said. Meduza has the ability to add information that journalists working in Russia may not include or deem too sensitive, and added background and context can make them more understandable to readers outside of Russia and the region.
“What’s the value added of translating the gist of something from a Kremlin news service?” Rothrock asked. “But then in the bullet points and in the way we pull the quotes in the featured block quotes, there the idea is to draw the readers’ attention to something you wouldn’t get in the newswire story.”
Sometimes that means adjusting language: In one recent piece, for example, Rothrock decided to refer to “internal passports” as “internal documents,” because “for most people reading the story in English, the concept of an internal passport doesn’t translate.”
Meduza’s long-form pieces, written by regular correspondents based in Russia, average around 4,000 words and take Rothrock several hours over the course of a week to fully translate. While Meduza covers serious political and economic news with headlines on the homepage — including its second most-read piece so far, “A city caught in a vice,” focusing on the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve — it’s also striving to highlight Russian culture and the lighter side of Russian media. Two of the most popular posts during its first week were the top-read quiz “Does Russia ban it or allow it?” and a post with wintry photos of the Russian town were the Oscar-nominated movie Leviathan was filmed.
Both Benyumov and Rothrock say they’re in the dark concerning Meduza’s financial standing because the site does not disclose its backers. Both say that the current political climate inside Russia could be part of this decision. But despite the current press atmosphere in Russia that gave birth to Meduza, Benyumov insists the site isn’t interested in taking a political stance.
“We are not [the] opposition,” Benyumov said. “Meduza was never meant to be opposed to anything. We are strictly pro-common sense. Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to maintain that in Russia anymore, and this is why we had to leave…We are not there to smear Putin or criticize the Kremlin unnecessarily. We just want to make sure that when there is an objective need for such criticism, we are able to provide it, because we feel that this is our job as journalists.”