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Home grown: learning lessons from the magazine that’s thinking global and acting hyperlocal

Home grown: learning lessons from the magazine that's thinking global and acting hyperlocal
An open-plan layout helps editors throw ideas around

Can an online magazine take on the world without leaving their neighbourhood?

19 January 2013
Text Andrei Morozov Andrei Morozov
Image Mark Boyarsky/Grinberg Agency

Which do you have on your bookshelf: Paolo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or JD Salinger? Do you travel by car, skateboard or bicycle? What style of shoes do you wear? When the founders of online magazine Downtown created the Hipster Test in 2011, they had no idea that it would go viral: close to 200,000 people took the test in just two days. But it wasn’t until socialite-turned-political provocateur Ksenia Sobchak tweeted her results that things really took off. Within a week, half a million internet users – roughly the same number as Sobchak’s Twitter followers – flocked to the site to calculate their hipster quotient.

The playful test was a PR exercise to plug Downtown, a website covering art and culture in Voronezh, a city of roughly one million inhabitants, 300 miles south of Moscow. The website, a cross between Time Out and Dazed and Confused magazines, publishes articles about the best places to eat and the lifestyles of the local beau monde as well as meatier think-pieces. What sets Downtown apart is its arguably loftier goal: to stem the migration of the city’s creatives by inspiring them to stay local. “Unfortunately there’s this trend in creative circles in Voronezh: a person grows up, hits a certain ceiling and then goes off to Moscow,” says Dmitry Provotorov, 27, the website’s chief architect. “Some people are successful, others aren’t, but they still leave.”

Downtown was borne out of a collaboration between Provotorov, a website designer by training, and Denis Pavlov, 39, a former client. After hiring Provotorov in 2008, Pavlov was quick to propose a joint project. “My investment, your ideas,” Provotorov recalls. The pair set to work and founded Manufaktura, a multimedia agency that in addition to internet-based projects creates apps (the company’s Sizer app, which allows you to store and convert a loved one’s measurements should you wish to spontaneously buy them a gift, was nominated for a Webby Award in 2012). Two years later, Downtown was launched.

“We’re trying to promote a positive image of Voronezh. We’re not creating a guidebook but present stories that are positive and motivating”

“We’re trying to promote a positive image of Voronezh,” says Provotorov who along with the rest of the team makes no attempt at objectivity when writing about the city. One of their upcoming projects, an interactive map that uses geolocation to provide information about places of interest, is a case in point. “Our filters will be totally personal,” says Pavlov. “We decide what places and events to recommend. We’re not trying to create a guidebook but present stories that are positive and motivating.”

The Downtown team’s blatant partiality stands in contrast to their counterparts: writers for Moscow’s The Village have no qualms about lambasting local cafes or nightclubs. The team’s allegiance is not surprising given the popular Russian perception of Voronezh as a provincial border town, a reputation that comes in part from its position as the capital of the Black Earth region, the country’s agricultural heartland. Writing back in 1991, the Financial Times said of Voronezh: “There is nowhere to socialise in the evenings except a couple of dingy ice cream parlours which close at 9.30pm.” Today the city’s streets are lined with McDonald’s outlets and western franchises such as Mango and Diesel but Voronezh still has a way to go before it is seen as as hip as a Moscow or a St Petersburg.

“The magazine has won financial backing from several private investors and is rapidly building up its portfolio of national and regional advertisers”

Downtown is not the first online magazine to cover Voronezh’s local scene but its ethos is markedly different to its predecessors. “Previous websites wrote about some old granny who made something,” says Pavlov. “It followed the format of local newspaper journalism in the early Noughties.” In addition to providing information about the city, the emphasis at Downtown is on creating and curating a local community. Commissioning Editor Alexei Bolokh, 25, carefully selects and publishes articles written by readers. “I choose pieces which are often just as good as our own journalism,” he says.

Published readers can create Facebook-style profiles on the website that display their articles, the pieces they have read and a list of their friends. Soon they will be able to customise the colour scheme and filter their news preferences by topic. All this is part of Provotorov’s vision to capitalise on Downtown’s potential as a blogging platform. “There are lots of people writing interesting blogs, which unfortunately, don’t have that many readers,” he says. “Moving these blogs to Downtown will hopefully breathe new life into them by increasing their readership.”

As well as providing an online portal to inspire the denizens of Voronezh to love their hometown, the Downtown team is shaping their offline environment by fostering a greater sense of community through events such as garage sales. In the future they hope to install branded bike racks and takeaway coffee cups – a basic convenience that doesn’t yet exist in the city. Despite their fondness for folksy garage sale-type gatherings, Downtown is far from an amateur site. In addition to Manufaktura’s patronage, the magazine has won financial backing from several private investors and is rapidly building up its portfolio of national and regional advertisers.

Provotorov’s ambitions go even further. Once the team succeeds in fully commercialising the website (and boosting traffic from 2,500 unique visitors a day to 10,000), he will export the Downtown format to other Russian cities. “We’re going to tell people how the editorial team works and run training sessions,” says Provotorov, who is currently in contact with editorial hopefuls from around ten cities.

For Provotorov, Downtown’s success is part of the global trend for “hyperlocal” news that developed alongside the explosion of citizen journalists and bloggers in recent years. But failure to secure much-vaunted advertising revenues has resulted in some hyperlocal news ventures such as AOL’s Patch reporting heavy losses and others such as the Guardian Media Group’s Local project being jettisoned.

For now, Provotorov is betting that the proliferation of internet users in Russia, especially in the regions, will mean more eyeballs and thus higher revenues. Statistics from the World Bank attest to this meteoric growth. In 2011, 49.3% of Russia’s population used the internet compared to just 4.1% in 2002. What differentiates Downtown from other hyperlocal news projects such as Patch is that, despite its commercial agenda, the team are driven not by profit but by a passion for their hometown. A passion that is encapsulated in their tag line: “Love Voronezh, Moscow can wait.”

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