Anastasia Sechina's team is a collaboration of journalists not tied to specific media. And they also have a project "Gribnitsa"
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The Fourth Sector is a unique journalistic association. A group of authors gathered around a Perm journalist Anastasia Sechina. They make a media project, disperse, and then get back together - like the Rolling Stones on the Black Pearl. Members of the "Sector" make collective decisions, choosing topics, distributing roles in their "gang" and editing each other's texts.
In August 2021, the "Fourth Sector" was liquidated by the organizers themselves, and later (after death) was recognized as a "foreign agent".
Anastasia, tell me what is the correct name for the "Fourth Sector"? Is it a creative association? The team of authors? Media resource?
- A creative association, an initiative group, a production center - we are called differently. I call us "freelance team" and sometimes, depending on the circumstances, "freelance gang". These are four people who constantly work together. Together we discuss the topics we are working on. As a rule, one person writes the text, but another can collect material for it. Then we all read, comment, discuss, edit, come up with headlines. At the same time, we also have a registered mass media outlet.
Has the Fourth Sector been operating in this format for a long time?
- Almost three years. When we started, we understood that we would not immediately pull our media. We had our own idea of how it should look like, how often it should be updated, how we should keep in touch with the audience - and we understood that this is a completely different story, a completely different economy from which we once left.
Actually, what united us at the start of this union? We were all very stressed by the standards of issuance existing in the media, when you do not have the opportunity to dive into the topic as deeply as you want. You need to make the text and issue it as quickly as possible. Even in the Zvezda online magazine, where I was the coordinator at that time, and we all worked, we only managed to reduce the standard for journalists to two texts a week: one serious, one light. But it's still the same race. Then we decided that we would work on large texts and attach them somewhere - and so we lived for two years.
But last fall I went to Eastern Europe specifically to get acquainted with the experience of small media projects from Bulgaria and Romania. They employ three to six people, they can release two publications a month and collect donations for their lives, and it became clear that it is not at all necessary to publish 20 news a day in order to form a loyal audience around them. Therefore, we are now thinking whether we will remain in the format of a freelance gang, or we will transform into something.
Tell us, after all, about the economics of the project? How much does the existence of the "Fourth Sector" cost each month?
- None. None of the four of us get paid in Sector Four. This is a creative association on a voluntary basis. We do not rent an office, we pay for the Internet and telephone from our own money, we pay for Tilda when the opportunity arises, we renew the technical park - also from our own earnings: we managed to earn so much money - we will buy an editing computer with this money. Each of us, one way or another, has some other source of income. And it turns out that our journalism is a non-commercial activity, because you can probably get normal fees for journalistic materials only in foreign media, but we do not work with them. And in Russian - both local and federal - small fees for freelancers, it is impossible to live on them. Advertising is not our story at all. You can apply for grants, but with this, too, everything has become difficult - hello to the law on foreign agents. Crowdfunding remains - but so far this is a very spontaneous story for us, and I don't understand how to approach it.
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I call us "freelance team" and sometimes, depending on the circumstances, "freelance gang"
How do the topics you work on come about? Are they born within the team or come from somewhere outside?
- As in any edition - topics appear from anywhere. From your own head, or someone said something interesting, or just decided to look into some topic. We agreed that I was a "first sight editor". First I read the texts of one of the authors, then another journalist from the team: Mikhail Danilovich or Vladimir Sokolov. I rarely write myself, if I write, they both read me. And we also have a photographer-layout-SMM engineer Yaroslav Chernov, who also reads the materials before publication with a fresh look - as a person who is not so immersed in the agenda.
At what stage does a publishing platform appear here? How important is it to understand where the material will be published at the very beginning of the work?
- We have situations when we make a text and have no idea where it will end up. We make the text - and then we can offer it to some edition. It happens that someone asks us for something specific. For example, there was an article for Meduza about an Udmurt scientist, but it was a personal story of Misha Danilovich. It could be like this: back in the beginning of autumn, I was going to deal with the topic of transgender children - I asked Meduza if they were interested in this. Our primary interest is in the topic, not in the publication.
Have there been situations when the material is ready, but there is no place to publish it?
- Not. There were situations when you write material and think: the devil knows, is this interesting to the feds? You throw it to the feds - they answer: "No, not our story." Then you just find another partner.
How many materials can be in production at the same time? Or one material at a time?
- In fact, it would be nice if at a time - one material. But it doesn't work.
Do you have any problems communicating with sources? They don't ask you: "Show me your website, but show your press ID?"
- Ultimately, that's why we decided to keep the registered media. There are examples when journalists leave on old connections, but we decided to take a different path - because they really ask: "Who are you? Show me your ID?" And formal requests must include output data. And in general, in some situations it is easier to act when the official structure of the media is behind you. It is clear that, for example, you can ask colleagues to send this request for you, or act on behalf of another media outlet - but this is all somehow not according to Feng Shui. You don't want to wear the badge of the media you are not an employee of - for us this is a fundamental point.
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You don't want to wear the badge of a media outlet you are not an employee of - this is a fundamental point for us
And how much do other media meet the desire to preserve the brand of the "Fourth Sector"? To officially indicate that the text was prepared by the Fourth Sector, and not by Anastasia Sechina, Mikhail Danilovich or Vladimir Sokolov?
- From the moment we began to ask about it - there were no problems with anyone. Everyone always refers. Even when Danilovich wrote texts for Meduza that the team had nothing to do with as a whole, they still signed it: "Mikhail Danilovich, journalist for the Fourth Sector.
Look, geographically your entire team was based until recently in Perm – and most of the texts were also devoted to Perm. Did you write something not about Perm?
- We had materials based on Perm stories and with Perm experts, but in general about the whole country - about difficult teenagers. There were not only Perm stories and experts, I contacted them via Skype. Misha Danilovich made a story about how the state saves money on payments to the families of dead servicemen - he analyzed judicial statistics, and there was also a Perm story, but in general, all the material was all-Russian. Then he had material about the murders of gays without recognizing the motive of homophobia - it is also based on Russian material. There was a story about LGBT refugees from different parts of the country, including the Caucasus. Vova Sokolov wrote material on the harassment of teachers - this material could equally be based on Perm examples, and on Petrozavodsk.
And if journalists from another region and other media who have not collaborated with you before understand that thematically, ideologically, stylistically they fit the "Fourth Sector", how can they join your team?
- We published material created in collaboration with three other publications - about how the funeral business works in Perm. We did another project in collaboration with 7x7 journalists - about the accusatory bias of our courts. And we involved, among other things, journalists from other publications - to collect expert interviews, to collect already published stories from their regions, in particular, Timofey Butenko from Versiya-Saratov and Masha Koltsova, she worked at MBKh-Media. This is such a quite successful experience of interregional collaboration.
And what about cooperation with individual journalists from other regions - on an ongoing basis?
- If a person appears who wants to enter the "Fourth Sector" and work with us constantly on a remote basis, I do not know what I will answer him, because now we are not specifically looking for anyone. Because this will mean that you are ready to take responsibility for this person, pay him a salary, ensure his livelihoods, and so far I cannot take on such responsibility. So far, it so happens that we have four people who are ready for the level of chaos and volatility that we have. Does anyone else want to exist? There are few violent ones.
We have two directions. In addition to journalism, we are creating a "helping platform" "Mushroom". Initially, it was conceived as a platform for regional investigators, but as a result, we decided to expand it to regional journalists who are engaged in deep journalism. Investigations, studies, special projects. One of the goals of the project is the development of interregional collaboration.
Do you now feel that you no longer need other platforms for publishing materials? That you are ready to create some kind of your own media - like the same "Cold", which nothing prevents from releasing large texts once a week?
- After I arrived from Europe in October, the guys and I agreed that as soon as we close all the gestalts, we will sit down in mid-December and talk about how we will live on. And the topic of this conversation is just - isn't it time for us to go on a fully autonomous voyage. We are afraid, because we will be left without the resources that partner media now have, including promotion and their audience. Will we be able to build an audience for our materials from scratch? But we have a desire to autonomy.
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I want something of my own where no one but me sets the rules?
Where did this desire come from? Do you have relationship problems with your colleagues?
- No, they are great guys. But they have their own limitations and frameworks that you must enter. For example, technical: you have to typeset your materials on their engine and nothing else. For example, temporary, when you pass the text to the editor, and the editor is so sewn up in his routine on the main resource that your text will be looked at in a week. There are moments after which you think: "I want something of my own, where no one but me sets the rules?" It's still scary, but we will think in this direction.
I don't know any analogues of the "Fourth Sector" in Russia, but is there something similar in Europe?
- To work together as a freelance team and at the same time publish their materials in other media - no, I don't know of such examples. But there are small teams with only 3-6 journalists. But everyone has their own, autonomous resource. Unless the Romanian "House of Journalists" from time to time collaborates with other media, but it does not live only on this, it also has its own platform. When we were talking to the guys from another Romanian video investigative team called "Recorder", I was asked:
"You probably get a lot of money from cooperation with other media?"
"Why are you working with them then?" It is clear that we are working with the media not for the sake of money, but in order to gain access to the audience of these media. But such a format makes it impossible to form a loyal community around the "Fourth Sector" itself. The reader has read the text, he associates it with the media in which this text was published, and is unlikely to pay attention to the fact that somewhere else there is the signature "Fourth Sector". This is problem. This is also why we think about moving independently, as a separate project, and not just as a team.
In your opinion, how realistic is it in Russia today to create an online publication that will earn only by subscription?
— Speaking from a distance: how ready is a person today to buy content? More and more ready. How ready is a person to donate money to good media? More and more ready. How much will a person be willing to pay for content that is covered by the paywall? It will probably be ready too. A model is spreading when people start doing something, they are doing great, and they say: "Support us if you want us to continue doing such things."
We have to ask ourselves: OK, we will collect a "bubble" of subscribers around us - and what, work for the sake of this "bubble"? We do not want this at all, we want as many people as possible to read our texts. If you produce specific content for a narrow group of people, you can close your content for a subscription. But if you produce good consumer content, it's a sin to shut it down on the paywall.
In Russia, there is an example of media that closes texts of general interest under paywall - Republic. If they come to you now from "Republic" and say: "Fourth sector", but make us a project "under lock and key", here's 300 thousand ... Or 500 thousand. "Would you refuse?
- I'm thinking: if we do a project for "Republic" for some large amount of money, then with this amount we can do a lot of everything useful and good for "non-paywall" distribution. Maybe, for these reasons, I would agree.
What are the projects of the "Fourth Sector" can you read?