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Russians, Rejoice! The Long-Awaited ‘Meduza’ News Portal Has Arrived!

Mosaic floor in a tepidarium of the Roman era. Museum of Sousse, Tunisia. Photo by Ad Meskens, CC 3.0.

Mosaic floor in a tepidarium of the Roman era. Museum of Sousse, Tunisia. Photo by Ad Meskens, CC 3.0.

A cross between news aggregation and independent reporting, Meduza is the coolest thing to hit online Russian journalism in recent memory. Part of what makes this website so interesting is that it isn’t even based in Russia: Meduza’s headquarters is in Riga, Latvia, where 18-odd Lenta.ru expats are now settling, after uprooting themselves from their cosmopolitan lives in Moscow. The project is the brainchild of Galina Timchenko, Lenta.ru’s former chief editor, who lost her job earlier this year, after running one too many stories describing the Ukrainian nationalist perspective on events in Kyiv.

Because of Meduza’s hybrid design (it aggregates! it originates!), the website’s methodology has been a cause for curiosity. Last week, Meduza’s co-founder, Ivan Kolapkov, talked to RuNet Echo about how Meduza produces content.

«Медуза» будет агрегировать новости и лучшие тексты на русском языке из самых разных источников — от государственных информагентств и газет до сайтов некоммерческих организаций и блогов (мы будем производить и свой собственный контент). Понятно, что прямой агрегации твитов быть не может — их сложнее всего проверять, они не обладают достаточной полнотой, но не мониторить их нельзя. А вот посты из фейсбука и «Вконтакте» нам, конечно, очень интересны — сами по себе. В некоторых ситуациях это уже готовый продукт.

Статус источника для «Медузы» совершенно неважен. Важны качество и достоверность. В этом, собственно, идея — искать и находить в русском интернете must reads: новости и тексты, без которых нельзя понять, что происходит сегодня в стране и мире.

Meduza is going to aggregate news and the best texts in Russian from all kinds of different sources—from state news agencies and newspapers to the websites of non-profits and blogs. (And we’ll be producing our own content.) Naturally, the direct aggregation of tweets isn’t possible; they are the most difficult to verify and they don’t have enough meat by themselves, though we’ll have to monitor them, too, of course. And we’re inherently interested in posts on Facebook and Vkontakte. In some cases, these posts will be ready for direct republication.

The content’s source is absolutely irrelevant to Meduza. All that’s important is quality and accuracy. As such, the idea is to seek out and find “must reads” on the Russian Internet: news and texts, without which it would be impossible to understand what’s happening today in Russia and in the world.

Ivan Kolpakov, Facebook.

Identifying “must reads” is more art than science, separating Meduza from existing RuNet projects like MediaMetrics.ru and the tweet aggregation service at TJournal.ru, which use automated algorithms to curate the “most discussed and shared” stories and tweets on the Russian Internet. Kolapkov says Meduza’s methodology is to supply readers with an “information living wage” (a phrase he worries isn’t as pretty in English as in Russian).

Это правда должны быть лучшие тексты — эксклюзивы, расследования, аналитика и репортажи, связанные с текущей повесткой; тексты-события, сами формирующие повестку; выдающаяся публицистика. Посмотрели «Медузу» — и знаете, о чем все говорят, и ничего не пропустили.

This is limited to the very best texts: the exclusives, investigations, analysis, and reports tied to the day’s news; the text-events that shape the news itself; and any outstanding journalism. Have a look at Meduza and you’ll know what everybody is talking about, without missing a thing.

It’s been up and running for less than a day, but Meduza already has a small cult following. The project and many of its staff have been extremely active on social media, particularly Instagram, where they post photographs of their headquarters in Riga, populated by a corps of intrepid, young journalists. Earlier this month, Sultan Suleimanov, one of the website’s seven content editors, published a photo-report about Meduza’s new digs, where everyone works on recently unboxed Mac computers and shiny glass walls separate the offices.

“We’re trying to build a ‘little Moscow’ here,” Kolapkov told us. So far, it seems to be working. “The staff is fine with the move to Riga,” he says. “If it had been necessary to move to, let’s say, Uzbekistan, I don’t think this would have been an insurmountable problem, either.”

It has to travel more than 500 miles to Latvia, but Meduza’s naysayers in Moscow have already started slinging mud. Earlier this month, the regime-friendly news site Ridus.ru ran a story attacking the project, suggesting that it is Nazi-sympathizing and funded by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkosvky (who was an early investor, but later dropped out, Meduza says). The Ridus article even recycles a joke by pro-Kremlin blogger Konstantin Rykov, mocking the name “Meduza,” which means both “Medusa” and “jellyfish” and is apparently Russian slang for a woman’s private parts, according to some people on the Internet.

Kolapkov says his team is ready for this kind of harassment, which he describes as just the drizzle before the “shitstorm.” With secret funding and offices outside Russia, Meduza has a third weapon against the kind of repression that destroyed Lenta.ru’s independence: it is tailored for mobile apps on iOS and Android.

Over the past two years, the Kremlin has developed increasingly sophisticated means of blacklisting websites deemed extremist or otherwise illegal. So far, the list of banned news sites remains short, but Meduza, if it becomes a big success or lands a particularly Earth-shattering scoop, could find itself in the authorities’ crosshairs.

Meduza.io, now up and running.

Meduza.io, now up and running.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security services expert, told RuNet Echo that he’s unfamiliar with technical options for banning mobile apps in Russia. “The problem could be solved only by ‘administrative means,’” he says, “that is, direct pressure on companies like Apple.”

But the Kremlin doesn’t have to get Silicon Valley in a headlock, Soldatov adds. Meduza is still vulnerable to deep packet inspection (DPI) censorship, which can affect mobile apps without requiring action against the administrators of the App stores at Apple or Google. Intercepting data this way, however, requires expensive equipment that many Russian ISPs can’t currently afford. Even if the Russian government decides to force Internet providers to invest in DPI capabilities, there are special tools, like Psiphon, “developed specifically for the countries with repressive regimes to make mobile apps, like BBC and Radio Free Europe, available,” Soldatov explains.

Russian censors’ efforts to control access to Meduza will likely rise with the public’s interest in the project. For now, at least, the website is sitting pretty, well designed for readers, insulated from common forms of censorship, and poised to make waves.

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