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‘Russia is trending in America, but expertise is in short supply’ Journalist Elizaveta Osetinskaya on her new project ‘The Bell,’ her U.S. experience, and the state of the media

Meduza
11:23, 4 october 2017

Elizaveta Osetinskaya's personal archive

In May 2016, Elizaveta Osetinskaya left the RBC holding company, where she served as the chief editor of RBC’s editorial office, after heading the news organizations Vedomosti and Forbes Russia. Leaving RBC with Osetinskaya were another two top managers: Roman Badanin and Maxim Solyus. Shortly afterward, Osetinskaya moved to Palo Alto, where she began a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University — a one-year internship for media professionals. In the spring of 2017, Osetinskaya unveiled her latest project: a daily newsletter called “The Bell,” which covers events in Russia and around the world. The publication’s editorial staff now includes Irina Malkova, the former chief editor of Republic, and Svetlana Reiter, a former Reuters correspondent. The whole team is made up of seven people, including Osetinskaya. In mid-September 2017, Meduza senior editor Alexander Gorbachev spoke to Osetinskaya about the need for current-events newsletters, and found out what the Russian media looks like from California.

When you left for the United States, you were already an accomplished professional with many years experience in the Russian news media. What new could they teach you over there?

It’s because of my experience that I understand this much: I know that I don’t really know anything. In fact, the more I talk to people in the business world, the more clearly I see how far from reality journalists often present how everything works. In this sense, a university as renown as Stanford was something unreal for me, and I had high romantic expectations. Those expectations were justified, it turns out, but not at all like I thought they’d be.

The main thing here is that Stanford is very much focused on forming people as entrepreneurs. Students are drilled to take risks, not to be afraid, and so on. In addition, you interact with some very impressive people here. All my past achievements helped me at least a little bit with overcoming my own complexes when meeting these people. They understand things very quickly, work very hard, and are extremely focused on results. And everyone has very diverse experiences. As a rule, they speak more than two languages, have lived in more than one country, and have experience working in multiple countries. It’s more like a sabbatical combined with a startup accelerator than an internship. Very reliable, tenacious, and resolute people are surrendering themselves to what can be total madness at times. Only the crazies make it out alive.

And how did you set your own goals there? What were you looking for?

I was looking for a design idea, which is precisely what Stanford is known for. I remember how everyone was talking about it — even [Sberbank CEO Herman] Gref said something about it at a briefing. I just didn’t understand what any of it was.

And what is it exactly?

It’s a certain way of inventing products. It’s when you show empathy to a potential user and start looking for their real needs — with the help of special techniques that oddly enough are quite familiar to journalists. More than anything, it’s about really in-depth interviews, where you talk to a person, understand what they’re missing, and create a product around that. And it’s about creating it quickly — putting together a prototype from whatever crap you can and starting to test it. And this is exactly what we did at The Bell: I conducted a series of interviews, and so did my friends.

So The Bell emerged directly from your studies?

Yes, absolutely. How did it happen? I was talking with all kinds of people. Back in my first semester, one of my internship colleagues said to me: listen, you should create a newsletter. At the time, I was pretty dismissive about the idea. “What kind of newsletter?” I said. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Write once a week from Stanford. Why not?” We also befriended this student in the business school, and he told me about the newsletter “Finimize,” which he said he reads every day. Then Maxim Kashulinsky [the publisher of Republic] came to California, and told me about how he loves “The Skimm.” Later, we heard presentations from people at “Axios,” a successful startup founded by people from Politico, who raised $10 million in funding. They launched a newsletter, quickly built an audience, and then turned the newsletter into a landing page [an ordinary website]. They did everything really cleanly, without almost any extra bells and whistles, except what would complement the narrative. They had very easy-to-read bullets, and it was all short and hyperlinked. That’s when I realized that this is exactly what is needed.

Why?

The idea in a sense actually contradicts the idea of media in general. All media are constantly flooding people with colossal amounts of information. But in life, to make various rational, meaningful decisions directly or indirectly related to money (I’m talking about money simply because economics and business will always be my area of expertise), people can’t be overloaded with information. We flood them with info just because that’s been our business model: the media fights for people’s attention, converting it into revenue. As a result, you’re often left with nothing but noise. And most importantly, it’s all for nothing, insofar as no media outlet can compete with Facebook or Google. Nobody can challenge their domination. They’re gobbling up all the growth in advertising revenue, and the most anyone else can hope for is just stability. The same goes for the subscription model: it also offers more and more content for your money.

So what’s our idea? People need a selection of the news that’s most important and useful. And they need it to be selected by human editors. I’ve yet to see an algorithm that can do this well. The value is in the imposition of limitations.

The people you interviewed in your research said they wanted limitations?

Many of them, yes. We tried to identify their sensitivities and understand what it is they’re seeking. It turned out that they’re looking for news, investigative reports, and inspiration. In other words, they want something new, something that will reinforce their convictions and expose social injustices, and something that will inspire them. And this is in fact what we started doing in the newsletter. In the beginning, we just planned to test our selection and create a prototype from whatever crap we had. And then we’d think about our next step.

And then I woke up one day and it turned out that the Telegram channel Zhurnalistika had written about us, and then [the Russian entertainment and lifestyle website] Afisha covered us, too. It turned out that our startup had legs. We’d only just piloted it, and now we had not two hundred but a thousand subscribers, and the next phase of the project was already underway.

But there are a million newsletters these days, from The New York Times to Vox. Meduza has one, too. Content curated by editors is also a competitive market. What’s unique about The Bell?

First, with rare exceptions in Russia, nobody is able to look at general news through a prism of pragmatism and money. A newspaper like Vedomosti has its own agenda. What I’m talking about is taking the general news agenda and turning it around somehow. For example, compare your newsletter and ours: they offer completely different takes. You’re entertaining the public, writing haikus and doing a kind of infotainment, and it’s being read. Whereas we’re trying to tell people what they need from the news from the point of view of practice and their wallets.

Second, our content is exclusive. Right now we’re a small team and we can only produce it in limited quantities, but in the month and a half that we’ve been working, I think there are certain signs already. I see them. And we’ll move further in this direction, doing our own stories featuring news built on the principle of “follow the money.” That’s what we’re all about. This and not anything else is our area of expertise.

And third, roughly speaking this is useful for business — a certain kind of inspiration for people who want to get off the couch and get things done. It’s about inspiration and knowledge: knowledge about what world trends exist, and examples that might inspire. We choose the stories from the whole international news agenda that a person in Russia should know.

You’re confident that a ”follow-the-money” principle applies to any news story? For instance, your newsletter covered the rap battle between Oxxymiron and Slava KPSS, unpacking it from the point of view of how much money it earned. But the story wasn’t really about that, was it? People weren’t interested in the battle because somebody made money on it, it seems to me.

Well you can’t sell inspiration, but you can sell a manuscript. Do you see? Alexander Sergeyevich [Pushkin] was a wise man, and the best works of mass culture are often commercially successful. Of course when a talented person puts out something good, he doesn’t go around saying he did it for the money. And when someone does a good job with something and makes a lot of money on it, that’s the highest measure of success. I don’t mean to lash out here, but I don’t distinguish between journalism and SPARK journalism.

A friend once told me: listen, I’ve spent more time on my business than my kids. I raised it, and I spent time and money on it. And he didn’t say this because he’s a cynical person, but because people manage their businesses like that, and that’s how they think of them.

As for the rap battle, that’s something you’ll write about, and people on Facebook will write about. Critics will shake off the dust that’s settled on them and compose whole legends about it. Everyone will write that we don’t understand Russia’s youth, and say that we’re dealing with a whole new phenomenon. But I don’t understand any of this. I watched it, and it was new for me, but who am I to judge what it was about? I’ve got zero expertise here, so why should my opinion be interesting? But my expertise does allow me to look at this from the perspective of money. And if you want to know about the rap battle’s deeper meaning, you can ask [Novaya Gazeta columnist and TV critic] Irina Petrovskaya.

How do you determine which news stories are relevant for your readers? You covered the rap battle, but didn’t write a word about the school shooting in Ivanteyevka. Why?

First, there’s nothing new we can say about that. There’s no way for me to surprise you here. You already know everything about this. Why should I send you a newsletter about it at 10 p.m.?

But I already know a lot about the bribery trial against [former Economic Development Minister Alexey] Ulyukayev, as well, and The Bell writes about that.

The trial against Ulyukayev is about the formation of Russia’s business climate, and it’s about even more than that. The Ivanteyevka shooting wasn’t a historic event. This sort of thing happens in Russia and it happens in America. There was Yevsyukov and something else, too. It’s a tragedy, but it’s life. The case against Ulyukayev, on the other hand, isn’t life; it’s part of the historical record. It’s like the Berezovsky v Abramovich trial — without it, there’s a lot about Russian business in the 1990s that we’d never have learned.

The Ulyukayev case has the same historical significance, giving us an idea of how relations function within the government, how the different branches and bureaucracy work, and so on. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of primer you need to read, if you want to do business in Russia.

Alexey Ulyukayev after one of his court hearings. September 1, 2017
Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Okay, Ulyukayev was a bad example. But you’re even reporting on hurricane Irma.

Have you been watching the dollar’s exchange rate? You see, risk is important in any business. Any business plan starts with a description of the environment in which the business will exist. [Our coverage of] hurricane Irma was about this. It damages the U.S. economy and leads to the strengthening of the ruble. Thanks to a hurricane, Russian citizens have become ever so slightly richer.

And I’ll tell you one more thing: we had an editorial debate concerning whether to write about Myanmar. But Myanmar also has practical significance. Myanmar has become a democracy, and it’s located close to China — it’s in its sphere of influence. A lot of interests converge there, and we have something to say in relation to Myanmar.

Sometimes business media in Russia face criticisms that they operate as a kind of window dressing. They say Russia doesn’t really have a free market or any entrepreneurial freedom, but it seems like it does, when you read Vedomosti or Forbes Russia, and the whole thing is supposedly an illusion that serves the government, which controls this market.

Hold on. First, there is entrepreneurship in Russia. It’s not ideal, but it exists. You go to restaurants and use ridesharing, right? And by the way I want to say that everything in Moscow actually looks great, at least when you visit rarely. Especially in the summer.

Furthermore, you can’t blame us for avoiding certain topics. We’re striving for balance. We’re certainly not going to conduct political or social inquiry investigations, simply because we can’t do everything, but we’ll always draw attention to these reports, when they’re fundamentally important for understanding the news environment. Alas, this kind of work is pretty rare, for obvious reasons, as hardly anyone is doing political investigative work anymore. There’s Meduza and Novaya Gazeta and really nobody else, because others can’t get away with it.

Meduza got into a dispute with your colleague Pasha Miledin over the whole SPARK journalism issue. At the time, he said something that really stuck with me. He said business is always the root cause of a conflict. Do you agree with that?

No I don’t agree, of course. This is certainly too narrow. There are business conflicts, yes, but there are also certainly conflicts about love. But I’m talking about segmentation. You can’t do everything. Meduza doesn’t do everything, and neither do we. We have our area of expertise, and this is it.

How do you imagine the reader who needs your expertise? Apparently this is somebody who knows, for example, about terms like “hedging” and “subordinated loans”?

We don’t use those terms.

I saw the word “hedging” just the other day in the newsletter.

Well there’s nothing scary about the word “hedging.”

It’s not scary, sure, but if the word were used on Meduza, I’d add a footnote to explain, because I’d assume that the reader might not understand.

You know, here’s what I’d like to say about language: there’s this powerful, near-criminal misconception, I think, that says economic journalism has to be complicated. The Bell isn’t going to be that way. It’s going to be simple, clear, and transparent. Roughly speaking, it’s going to be as succinct and accessible as possible. There’s this misconception that economic news has to be dense and uninteresting. Or maybe people don’t think that, but it comes out that way. One of our competitive advantages is explaining these things in a normal, human voice. There’s nothing complicated here. It’s not theoretical physics. Everything here was invented by people, and it can be conveyed coherently for anybody. That said, we’re probably not going to explain basic things like interest rates.

But who’s the audience who’s asking themselves “What do I get out of this?” when they open your newsletter?

It’s you.

I’m not so sure about that.

Do you want to know why the dollar is strengthening and how much it will grow?

I suppose.

And that’s what you’ll learn. The “you” here is somebody who cares about their money, has an income as a member of the middle class or higher, and takes an interest in more than what’s going on in their backyard. It’s people who want to see themselves in the global context. It’s not necessarily businesspeople, but people who are interested in making money and who want to achieve some kind of success or reach some kind of goal. Maybe they’re an employee, but they’ve got the desire to earn more, and that’s their driving force. They’re interested in money.

Speaking of earnings as a driving force, can you say how you plan on earning money with The Bell?

Right now we’re beginning to sell our first advertisements. We’re looking at exactly three options: advertisements, selling content (subscriptions, in essence), and some kind of mix. We’re going to try different approaches. There are people who say they’re prepared to pay for content, if we produce stories that are a bit deeper. For now, we’re selling advertising.

But there’s no advertising yet. How is the project being financed? Your editorial team may be small, but these people are still getting salaries. Where’s the money coming from? Is this venture capital, like so much out there in California?

You know, it was pretty funny: never before had I talked with a venture capitalist about money, and here I walked straight to a fund and brought it up. But nothing came of it because our business scale wasn’t enough. Venture capitalists look for a return of 5-10 times what they invest. Even in the West, media outlets that attract venture capital are rare exceptions, and it’s mostly investments by philanthropists. We simply collected a small sum of money from angel investors — friends and family. Literally I’m talking about my friends, some private individuals, and some of my own money. It’s very little of my money, but I’m not paid a salary. It’s an order of magnitude less than what Meduza started out with. It’s very little money.

You’re staying in America and working not only on The Bell, but also joining UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. Can you explain what this is?

At some point in January, when I still had no idea what I’d do next, I met two really cool journalists, John Temple and Lowell Bergman. They’ve both won Pulitzers and other awards, and they invited me to come work with them. Russia is trending big time in the U.S. right now, but expertise is in short supply. It’s just not something people can afford: it’s costs, and there are big problems with trusting foreign reporters.

I was very happy, because I’ll have the opportunity to explain that they’re often writing about crazy stuff that doesn’t actually exist in reality. Just today I read a conspiracy theory in a column somewhere all about Russian trolls on Facebook, and the hack of the Democratic Party, and Trump’s business interests, and how it’s all managed from a single center… I’ve got expertise in this area that I can use to counter this kind of thing. In the meantime, I’m doing research. And I’m very happy that I’ve got this work, because at Stanford I saw an enormous number of people who’ve lived in different countries and understand how to see things from the other side’s perspective. And I realized that living 40 years in one country and thinking you understand something about the world is ridiculous.

In addition to Osetinskaya, the 2017-18 fellowship recipients at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program include Brian Dawson (left) and Jeff Gerth (right).

Has your opinion of the American media changed, since everyone started writing these conspiratorial stories? When I came to America to study in the summer of 2014, I was absolutely thrilled with its journalism, reading every issue of The New Yorker and The Atlantic and so on. But now I see these pieces about Russia, and I think maybe those fascinating stories about Venezuela or Liberia are exactly the same. How do you feel about this?

I’ve experienced definite disappointment, yes. It’s a bit like it was for Russia in the 1990s. Of course, everything is done far more professionally, but nevertheless it’s two sides essentially slinging mud at each other without end. And with all the freedom of the press, they’re not having much success figuring out what really happened. That said, it seems to me that nobody can get the whole picture and understand how it all really happened. The whole issue of Russian intervention in the American election has reached a level in the American media that’s simply disproportionate to the effect of this intervention. The American political system is complex, but at the same time it’s balanced and open. There was a duel, and it led to a particular result. And I don’t believe that a campaign for $100,000 on Facebook could have had any deadly influence here.

And what do you think about Russia’s current media industry, especially as seen from America? There’s Vedomosti

Nothing scary is happening with Vedomosti, despite the fact that there was an exodus [of staff]. Another thing is that I practically never read them. There’s little there that’s practically useful to me, and the rest is just boring. But when there’s a big news event in line with their kind of reporting — something like the Central Bank rescuing Otkritie — then I run to read everything they’re doing. And when there’s some big general story happening, I’d rather go read Meduza. You guys might drop the ball sometimes, but you’re definitely not doing it maliciously.

What about RBC?

Well they’ve got news reports, but everyone’s news reports are more or less identical. If another “Panama Papers” is released, with some exceptions they’ll write about it at RBC, too. But they’re not doing their own investigative reports. RBC has interesting business content (usually from the magazine). And generally speaking, nobody’s let the overall quality of reporting slip. The issue at RBC is more that certain stories simply don’t appear.

What I want is to create a media outlet for myself — something that’s interesting to me, and clearly explains to me the most important things when it comes to the twists and turns of money. I’m not pretending to be [Russian business magnate, investor, and philanthropist] Mikhail Fridman. I have a great interest in money, but it’s still not all-consuming. At the same time, I understand certain things, like the connection between a hurricane and the dollar, and I want somebody to talk to me substantively about it. I want people to tell me the trends because I simply don’t have time to follow them. Like other people, I’m busy with work, family, and other things. I don’t have time to sit around all day on Facebook and read about baskets of sausages. How about this: just collect the news stories that matter to me, so I don’t miss anything super important. And that’s The Bell.

How do you see this developing in the future? What would you like from The Bell in five years?

I’ve already mentioned the highest measure of success: when you can do something well and earn a lot of money doing it. That would be the ideal model for me. That would be best.

Interview in Russian by Alexander Gorbachev, translation by Kevin Rothrock