Journalists work in the independent, Russia-focused, media start-up Meduza office in Riga, Latvia

Journalists work in the independent, Russia-focused, media start-up Meduza office in Riga, Latvia

On April 23, 2021, Meduza, a prominent independent Russian news site based in Latvia, was labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. The designation caused the site to lose most of its advertising revenue, forcing it to shift to a crowdfunding model supported by its readers in Russia and across the globe.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, however, Meduza found itself in an even more precarious situation. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office designated Meduza an “undesirable institution” and banned it from operating in Russian territory. The move led to Meduza losing the financial support of millions of readers in Russia.

In response, the United States-based publication Mother Jones urged its readership to show support for Meduza. In an article titled “Putin Tried to Shut Them Down. Let’s Keep These Brave Russian Journalists on the Beat,” Mother Jones’ CEO Monika Bauerlein called for joining an international solidarity campaign to help the exiled news publication.

In June, Mother Jones announced their fiscal sponsorship with Meduza which allowed U.S. residents to make tax-deductible contributions through Mother Jones, who will allocate the funds to Meduza. Bauerlein spoke with Nieman Reports about the details of this new partnership. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What drove Mother Jones to partner with Meduza and collect donations on behalf of the organization?

This is not the first time we’ve done this. It’s called a fiscal sponsorship, and an organization with an established nonprofit status can do that for an organization that hasn’t yet gotten its own nonprofit status. For example, organizations that we have incubated in this way include [Spanish-language podcast company] Radio Ambulante … and others. As one of the first journalism nonprofits outside of public media, [Mother Jones] just tried to put our expertise and hard-won knowledge to work for other worthy organizations. The way that the Meduza partnership in particular came together was a little bit of a story.

Not long after the [Russian] invasion — the current phase of the war in Ukraine — I got a WhatsApp message from my younger sister, who is the co-founder of a reader-supported news organization in Germany called Krautreporter. She basically said, “Hey, we are trying to help out these Russian journalists who just had all of their income basically cut off. Do you think that Americans would want to get involved?”

What followed was a two-week sprint of Zoom calls with journalists and newsroom leaders from Europe and the U.S. and other places to see if we could have a bit of a moment of global solidarity. And it felt particularly resonant for Mother Jones because this is a reader-supported, investigative newsroom. And even though … the situation in Russia could not be more different from what it is in the U.S., the sort of global solidarity of journalism against authoritarian threats, I think, feels a lot more resonant here than it might have 10 years ago. And so, it just seemed really fitting. A lot of other news organizations pitched in, I think both BuzzFeed and HuffPost, and nonprofits, like The 19th, CalMatters, and the Center for Public Integrity, all shared this appeal with their members. And Meduza was able to raise enough money with a lot of lifting on their own part to continue on from their base in exile.

We want to make sure that independent reporting for Russians continues to be available. And that’s something that’s kind of a global cause, if you will, and we knew that there were people in the U.S., including some donors to Mother Jones, who wanted to include this kind of work in their giving. So I was finally able to meet with some [Meduza staff members] in person when they visited the U.S. a few months ago and mentioned that this was something we could do to help.

Other than assisting with fundraising, does Mother Jones see any other roles within the partnership for themselves?

Meduza still does the fundraising; that’s important for them to do. They want to build their own relationships with their own community of support. But when people give tax-deductible donations, they can give those to Mother Jones, and Mother Jones can ensure that they’re being used for the purpose that the donor intended and in accordance with all the requirements around nonprofit giving.

We are also talking with [Meduza] journalistically because there are a lot of stories … in this country [the U.S.] that touch on expertise that Russian journalists can bring. That’s not as formal, but that’s definitely a benefit of the partnership.

The attacks on the press by authoritarians really are a global phenomenon. So I think there’s also learning that we all need to do [about] how journalists can operate in those conditions. Whether or not we ever find ourselves in that situation, I think it’s just something that needs to be on our radar as part of what the practice of journalism in this world looks like.

Are you seeing a lot of desire to donate from the Mother Jones audience?

The public push and appeal to help keep Meduza alive was more than a year ago. And so that was really sort of what told us … that supporting and facilitating this kind of work is in line with the values that our community has. [We] did see Mother Jones donors step up for Meduza.

As a fiscal sponsor, we’re not going to be too in the weeds of their fundraising; we need to do our own fundraising. But we know that the kinds of people who step up for fearless, independent reporting don’t do it just because they think it’s needed in America. I think they have a broader perspective for sure.

What lessons did you learn from last year’s solidarity campaign?

There were two. One was that journalistic solidarity itself is pretty amazing. A lot of organizations stepped up when there was nothing in it for them, there was nothing that they could monetize, it wasn’t going to help their own fundraising. But they did it because … this recognition that globally, journalists in many different ways all confront people who feel threatened by fearless independent reporting. That was really very present.

I think the other lesson was that this was also specifically true for Mother Jones supporters, whether they could step up financially or not, but they … saw this as being in solidarity with people in Russia who are opposed to this war and to these attacks on the press, but also people more broadly. And so, a kind of solidarity of engaged small-d democratic believers in democracy across boundaries was part of it.

Are you hopeful that Meduza can continue to produce quality reporting?

Yes. I think they’ve shown that they can, under these incredibly trying conditions. And not just Meduza — the Ukrainian press, other independent Russian newsrooms who are mostly operating from exile, but also have people inside the country who are doing incredibly brave things. In all of these places, let alone other places in the world, there’s this incredible resilience of journalists and people committed to the free press.

I think authoritarians think it’s going to be a lot easier to get rid of journalism than it actually is. And they almost never really succeed; they managed to kill people, and they put people in jail, but there’s always more journalism where that came from. And I think that’s incredibly inspiring.

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