The Kyiv Post was shut down by its owner, apparently following pressures from authorities. But its journalists do not seem to give up.
On 8 November 2021 the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s flagship English newspaper that was founded more than 25 years ago, unexpectedly folded. The last article on the newspaper’s website said that it ceased operations “for a short time.” Yet, nobody at the paper gave a specific reason for the shutdown.
At Loggerheads With the Publisher
Tensions at the Kyiv Post started to rise in mid-October 2021 when the paper’s staff found out from a Facebook post that Adnan Kivan, the Kyiv Post publisher, was planning to launch a Ukrainian version of the publication with Olena Rotari, a Post journalist, at its helm.
Mr. Kivan had continuously complained about pressure from the authorities triggered by the Kyiv Post’s coverage. Hence, some of its journalists believed that the Post’s planned clone would be used to publish stories that were to serve the owner’s interests. They started developing a strategy for the paper’s expansion that was aimed at both satisfying Mr. Kivan and securing the newsroom’s independence. However, before they could finish it, the entire staff of 50 was sacked by Mr. Kivan. Some of these journalists then created the Save the Kyiv Post webpage.
The editorial team had reportedly prior conversations with Mr. Kivan, asking him to sell the newspaper to a new owner or hand over the Kyiv Post’s trademark to the team. They said that they would only return to work at the Kyiv Post under a new owner who would guarantee editorial independence.
Mr. Kivan refused to put the paper up for sale, making a counteroffer to the journalists to return to work under a new management. His proposition was rejected.
In an attempt to save the values the newspaper stood for, the former Post’s journalists announced the launch of the Kyiv Independent, a new publication.
Galyna Petrenko, director at Detector Media, a Ukrainian media watchdog organization, said that the decision to shutter the Post clearly highlighted internal problems between the owner and the editorial team. When Ms. Petrenko and her colleagues heard about the initiative to launch the Ukrainian language version of the Kyiv Post, they called Brian Bonner, the Post’s former editor-in-chief. During the conversation, Mr. Bonner didn’t seem to have a clue about his publisher’s plans, Ms. Petrenko said.
The Kyiv Post was perceived as an independent media outlet by many in the industry. Their stories, including the Pandora Papers piece and an investigation into the privatization of the Bolshevik plant, to cite just a few examples, were proof of accurate and objective coverage. The paper even covered the pressures made on Mr. Kivan by the office of the Prosecutor General. “Maybe somehow he [Mr. Kivan] was forced to close the newsroom,” Ms. Petrenko said.
The Post had limited outreach, being read mostly by the expat community and people working in foreign embassies in Ukraine. Only a small number of locals read it simply because it was in a foreign language. Yet, the Post was a very important part of the Ukrainian media landscape, Ms. Petrenko said. Following its closure, no independent English-speaking media outlets are left in Ukraine.
“On the day the Kyiv Post shut down, Mr. Bonner refused to comment on anything,” Ms Petrenko said. “He just switched off his phone on that day.”
The Post has had a tumultuous history, part of it experienced by Mr. Bonner firsthand. In 2011, he was sacked by the paper’s former owner, Mohammad Zahoor, a Pakistani steel trader, to be swiftly reinstated after the paper’s staff went on strike.
Mr. Zahoor had purchased the newspaper in 2009 from its founder, Jed Sunden, an American journalist. Mr. Zahoor sold it to Mr. Kivan, an Odessa-based businessman of Syrian origin, in 2018, for at least US$ 3.5m, according to estimates from the paper itself.
Kyiv Post doesn’t release information about its revenues. Local experts believe that the newspaper was subsidized by Mr. Kivan. In the past five years or so, the Post’s newsroom operated with a meager budget of some US$ 30,000, according to estimates from the MediaPowerMonitor Research Database.
Ms. Petrenko said that although it was financed by Mr. Kivan, the Post was “still an independent and good quality media [outlet]. Maybe in reality there’s a conflict but during the three years since Kivan bought the newspaper, they were cooperating very productively,” Ms. Petrenko said.
Owning a media outlet in Ukraine is not easy, Mr. Bonner told Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in an interview last month. Most of the media outfits in the country are in the hands of a spate of mighty oligarchs who use their power “to reward friends, punish enemies, and wield influence,” he said, adding that, in his opinion, Mr. Kivan did not anticipate the blowback that owning an editorially independent newspaper in Ukraine can generate.
According to Mr. Bonner, there are almost no independent news media outlets in Ukraine that are both commercially and editorially successful. The Kyiv Post tried to achieve that but failed. The newspaper has not been profitable since 2009, half of its budget coming from commercial sources and the other half from the owner’s own pockets, according to Mr. Bonner.
A Hard To Fill Slot
With the Post’s collapse, a niche has emerged in the Ukrainian media market, already prompting some players to fill it. Novoye Vremya, along with Ukrainska Pravda, publications owned by Tomas Fiala, a Czech banker, stepped in, beginning to translate their content into English. They are now looking to hire English-speaking editors.
But the former Post team hopes the newly launched Kyiv Independent will fill the slot. The newsroom consists of nearly 30 journalists, photographers, podcast authors, and editors. Olga Rudenko, a former deputy editor at the Post, will assume the role of the new publication’s editor-in-chief, a decision endorsed by the entire team.
“We were so hardline about defending the editorial independence of the Kyiv Post,” said Illia Ponomarenko, a Kyiv Independent reporter who covers defense and security. “We were trained to be loyal to the core values of journalism. We are friends. We want to go on together and do the thing we love.”
The Independent’s team has a lot to figure out. A business model is in the making, financial opportunities must be assessed, every member’s involvement and ownership policies are being discussed. One thing seems to be going well for the new media outlet and that’s the tremendous support they receive from their readers and various businesses. For example, the team received a call from an IT company that offered to build their website pro bono to help the newsroom get things rolling.
“We want to diversify our financial sources,” Ms. Ponomarenko said. “We do not want to get back to being dependent on only one name. Every single donor, sponsor or partner is subject to background checks and diligence. We are not accepting money from just anyone.”
The Kyiv Independent’s editorial team believes independence means that journalists and editors decide what they write about and how they go about it. They don’t want to be accountable to publishers or serve anyone’s interests. Instead, they want to only serve their audience.
“When the Post was killed, we perceived this as an attempt to force the newspaper into obedience and force us to serve the publisher’s interests,” Ms. Ponomarenko said. “This is not how it’s going to work with this team.”
“I believe the Kyiv Independent will be successful,” Ms. Petrenko said, pointing out that, in such a project, retaining the editorial team is crucial. She said that in other cases, following conflicts between chief editors and media owners, when the owner kept the brand name and the editorial team launched another outlet under a different name, the newly built media project turned out to be successful.
But bankrolling such an outlet won’t be a cakewalk. “The only risk is the financing”, Ms. Petrenko agreed.
The team behind the new Kyiv Independent media brand has already surpassed their £10,000 crowdfunding goal on the GoFundMe campaign. The newspaper has more than 500 contributors on Patreon, a global crowdfunding platform. Over 300 of them subscribed on the very first day.
If the support continues at this pace, there is a chance that the newly created outlet will manage “to serve as the true, independent voice of Ukraine” even without the benevolence of a Maecenas.