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March 2, 2018, 9:02 a.m.
Reporting & Production

If your job requires you stay informed about Russia, Meduza wants to get you the right stories in English

The English edition of the three-year-old Russian news site now gets an average of 100,000 monthly unique visitors and can count among its readers everyone from European policymakers to members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Stories about Russia are totally hot right now. They’re also sometimes totally wrong or just misleading, especially if they’re overhyped, underhyped, or premised on a set of tidy assumptions when the real situation is far murkier.

Meduza’s hope is that its English-language edition will sort through the murk and bring context and just the right amount of hyped-ness to the English speaking audience. (What is the deal with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and the incident with an escort on his yacht? Who are those 13 Russians indicted for interfering in the U.S. election? Why is Hamilton 68 a flawed research tool for the many mainstream American news organizations that continue to cite it in stories about the influence of Russian bots?!)

The Riga-based news outlet — founded in 2014 by a group of Russian journalists pushed out from another popular Russian news site Lenta.ru and left largely alone by the Latvian government — has been translating some of its work into English since February 2015. Its main Russian site gets around 10 million monthly unique visitors — 55 percent of whom are under age 35 — and it estimates its five-month-old podcasting effort has accumulated 650,000 listens. The English-language site, which carefully curates and translates the reporting from the Russian side, gets an average of 100,000 monthly unique visitors, though big stories can sometimes bump a certain month to around half a million visitors, according to Meduza’s global outreach director Anna Veduta (up from a few thousand visitors in its early months).

Veduta, who is based in D.C., gave a talk about Meduza and the Russian media landscape in the lead up to the country’s own presidential election at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies earlier this week, where she shared some updates about Meduza. I also chatted with her the following day to learn more about her organization’s ambitions for its English-language site. (Veduta was formerly the spokesperson for Russian political activist Alexei Navalny, who at the end of last year was denied his presidential bid against Vladimir Putin.)

“If we say our goal is ‘we want our English-language readers to understand Russia,’ we have to treat it in all its complexity, and its chaotic, and even mad, way,” said Veduta, who edits, translates, reports for, and has a full plate of other public-facing work for Meduza as well, along with Meduza English editor Kevin Rothrock. The two of them spend more of their time picking out and translating investigations, features, analysis, and explainers than reacting to Russian breaking news — though they try to make sure that’s sufficiently represented too. (By the time the U.S. East Coast wakes up, it’s early evening in Russia.)

“Our goal is providing expertise on Russia to foreigners. It doesn’t make sense to be rivals on the market with these organizations — and we are only two people, for goodness’ sake,” she told me. “We have goals, long detailed features provided to us by — and I’m not afraid to sound a little less humble here — some of the best reporters in Russia. We understand things that take people who’ve been studying Russia years to understand. We talk to people who won’t talk to anyone else but us. Our main objective has to be to make these stories available for English-language readers.” Meduza has around 45 staffers and a large network of freelancers around Russia reporting stories.

Interest in Russian affairs, particularly in connection to the 2016 U.S. election and the various players with ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has only heightened. But Meduza has never intended to be popular with the general American readership, nor will it readjust its editorial strategy to become so, Veduta said. The English site, she emphasized, is read mostly by professionals whose work requires them to keep up to date on what’s happening in Russia, ranging from academics and students to thinktank staffers to lawmakers in the U.S. and across Europe. Around 60 percent of Meduza English’s readers come from the United States, with another 20 percent coming from Europe. Twitter is its biggest traffic referrer.

A succinct morning English email newsletter has attracted around 5,500 subscribers, and based on emails of subscribers, Veduta can tell the site has readers from the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, from various U.S. and European policy initiatives, from many mainstream news organizations.

“I never thought it would be popular for average Americans. Having spent four years in the U.S. — two studying at Columbia — it would be crazy for me to assume that the average American would wake up in the morning and suddenly wonder about what’s happening in Russia, especially in the detail that Meduza English provides,” she said. “I’m happy that when I come to universities or give talks, I hear from professors that they read it, that they recommend it to their students. I’m happy when I talk to people on the Hill here, and they tell me they find our coverage helpful. That’s what I had in mind when I came to start this.”

The Russian side is able to monetize through advertising; Meduza English isn’t there yet and brings in no revenue at the moment.

“When you talk about media, it’s pointless to neglect the idea of quantity and greater reach. But I also think about the quality of the product,” she said. “For me, these numbers are really good; I’m happy about that. We may not be growing exponentially, but we’re growing gradually.”

POSTED     March 2, 2018, 9:02 a.m.
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