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The nahnews and pohnews empire What the RBC report says about the group of online publications linked to the ‘troll factory’

The building on Savushkin Street in St. Petersburg, which, according to the New York Times, is the home of the “troll factory”. Now, the building houses several of the publications within the “media factory”.
The building on Savushkin Street in St. Petersburg, which, according to the New York Times, is the home of the “troll factory”. Now, the building houses several of the publications within the “media factory”.
Photo: Dmitriy Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The April issue of RBK magazine contained an investigation led by Andrei Zakharov and Polina Rusyayeva about a “media factory” – a group of related online publications with an aggregate audience of more than 35 million users per month (more than Komsomolskaya Pravda or RIA Novosti). The holding, which is not united as a legal entity, is connected with the “troll factory” responsible for writing pro-government comments on blogs and on media websites. Possible links have also been identified with businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Meduza offers the RBK story in a nutshell.

An ownerless holding

The “media group” referred to in the material is not a single legal entity. The organization’s management, however, describes itself as a “holding” and the media organizations within it share accounting and technical support teams, said the RBK report, citing sources. Formally, the different publications share also share a founder, general managers and Google service set identifiers. The main publication in the holding is the Federal News Agency (FAN). It has an audience of 11 million users per month. FAN journalists specialize in covering events in Syria. RBK’s sources say that the publication’s success can be attributed to its connections with Dmitry “Wagner” Utkin’s private military company.

In addition to the FAN, the “media factory” also includes the websites: Narodny novosti, Ekonomika segodnya, Inforeaktor, Politexpert, Politkhaos, amongst others. Nine of them are registered as mass media entities by Russian telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor. Some, namely Novostnoe agenstvo Kharkova (translation: News Agency of Kharkov; website: nahnews.org) or KyivSMI are mainly cover Ukraine-related news.

Connections with the “troll factory”

The FAN office was previously located in St. Petersburg at 55 Savushkin Street. The same location was also the site of the so-called “troll factory” – an agency responsible for promulgating comments expressing support of the Russian government across the Internet – reported The New York Times in June 2015. Currently, FAN has an office in the Ilich business center, which happens to be the site of the editorial offices of three more holding’s websites. Three other offices are currently housed in the building on Savushkin street.

Alexey Nikiforov, the former head of construction company Spetsstroyproekt, manages the group of publications housed in Ilich. He told RBK that he found his new job on Russian employment website HeadHunter, because he “wanted something new”. The publications at the Savushkin site are managed by Oleg Vasilyev, who is believed to be associated with the “troll factory”. However, most executive decisions for the publications are made by thirty-year-old Internet entrepreneur Mikhail Burchik, said RBK’s sources. Burchik was mentioned as the “executive director” of one of the legal entities in “troll factory” in correspondence published by hackers from Shaltai Boltai. In an interview with RBK, Burchik insisted that he was but a consultant for the holding’s publications.

Sources within the holding revealed that the good wages are high by St. Petersburg’s standards. “Content managers” engaged in rewriting news items earn around 45,000 rubles (approximately $787) per month; chief editors (there are five of them in the FAN) earn around 60,000 rubles (approximately $1,050) per month. In some cases, editors are also formal owners of the publications. For example, Anna Botneva, the former editor-in-chief of Narodniye Novosti, is the owner of FAN. FAN’s editor-in-chief Tatyana Stepanova, in turn, owns Narodniye Novosti, whose current editor-in-chief is her own husband.

Traffic and economics

The total number of unique users viewing the websites monthly collectively amounted to 33 to more than 36 million by the middle of February, various sources claim. The traffic to these websites, therefore, exceeds those of Komsomolskaya Pravda and RBK. By contrast, in December 2015, the publications’ aggregate monthly audience, according to Alexa Rank, did not exceed 6 million users.

The publications’ webpages display little online advertising and only two of the websites list contact details for publicity teams (and, when called, both lines are picked up by the same person).

According to RBK, it is possible that the publications are subsidized by the companies of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur catering to state structures and owner of the Concord group. The media has found links between Prigozhin and the “troll factory” and Wagner’s private military company. FAN head Yevgeny Zubarev said that he could not comment on this information and Alexey Nikiforov said that he works in a company that “maintains itself thanks to advertising.”