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April 17, 2014, 11:43 a.m.
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The newsonomics of the Kyiv Post’s embattled work

Questions about “the business model” sound a little different in Ukraine these days. One English-language newspaper is trying to build a sustainable future in an uncertain land.

It was the night of January 22. Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller was out on the Maidan, Kiev’s main square and its center of protest. As he interviewed a bystander, a bullet ricocheted off a building and struck the man in the chin. The man was lucky and wasn’t seriously injured. Three protestors died in January, and by the time of the now-infamous sniper shootings on Feb. 20, 105 Ukrainians had died. By February 22, the government had fallen and President Viktor Yanukovych, charged with mass murder, fled to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The streets of Kiev were a risky place to be. But the Kyiv Post was there, as it had been for the preceding 18 years.

“On February 20, the sniper assassinations happened about breakfast time,” says Brian Bonner, the Post’s editor-in-chief. “We had several people on the streets soon after, but not at the moment of the shootings. We had numerous reporters counting bodies as hotels, post office, and the street became makeshift morgues. Our staff wore helmets, bulletproof vests, and gas masks, if they so chose. Many did not…Our journalists had to run from riot police when they were on the charge and avoid government-hired thugs (the titushki) who were roaming streets beating people up.” (The best of Kyiv Post Maidan video coverage is here).

“The combination of heavy staff presence and on-the-scene reporting are why we were hours ahead of the wires and everyone else that day. Then our website crashed and didn’t come up for more than 10 hours. A big disaster for Ukraine followed by little disaster for KP.”

That day, in a nutshell, describes the highs and lows of Kyiv Post.

Through its years, the Kyiv Post has operated on a shoestring and a half, and yet it makes a remarkable journalistic difference. It now survives on a monthly budget of no more than $60,000 a month, supporting an editorial staff of 16 and another 14 in all the other aspects of the business, a majority of whom are pictured here. (Bonner is sixth from left, in the back row.) The staff is mainly Ukrainian and includes four expats, all American, in editorial; CEO Jakub Parusinski is Polish.

Its story is inspirational, and a good gut check for Western journalists feeling sorry for their own travails.

As Pulitzer-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, who has visited Ukraine three times to work with the Post’s journalists in the last four years, puts it: “Most of this staff work one or two other jobs. They don’t have law, or tradition, or money on their side. They don’t even have language on their side. Most speak Ukrainian and Russian as their first language, and now they have to navigate the world of English. And [Bonner] has them going after the toughest stories about government and corruption.

“We have beers at night and they groan and complain, like journalists everywhere, but they showed up every day,” says Banaszynski, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of Missouri. “I wish I could migrate or beam that commitment back here, where we shrug and say ‘life is hard’ and we have so much going for us. Over there, I work with these people who have nothing but heart and talent.”

The heart and talent both show on the pages of the Post. “Kyiv Post Exclusives” show a spate of well-reported, well-written, connecting-the-dots pieces. The site includes a fair amount of video as well, now especially, documenting the current crisis. Peruse the weekly covers of the print paper to get a deeper sense of the coverage. Despite intensifying pressures to take sides as the protests grew, Bonner says the Post has resisted those, and had been able to maintain reporting contacts within the government that got overthrown.

Today, much of the journalism world in Ukraine is upheaval. Owned largely by half dozen or so oligarchs, much of the press self-censored, Bonner says. Now, as society has re-opened, the Ukrainian-language press itself is in reformation.

Throughout this crisis, and for all those preceding, the Kyiv Post has been at ground zero. In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since, there have been relatively few non-Ukrainian journalists who’ve spent much time in Kiev and beyond. The journalists came in 1991 — and then left. They came for the Orange Revolution in 2004 — and then left. They’ve come in and out for the six months of protest and revolt in the Maidan, the murder of protestors, the fleeing of President Yanukovich, and the Russian seizure of Crimea. Now they’re poised watching eastward, as Russia moves on both sides of its border with Ukraine.

The Kyiv Post’s profile has been growing dramatically. On the day of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, it saw 470,000 pageviews. Two weeks ago, on the day of the Crimean referendum, 232,000 unique visitors came to the site.

Anastasia Vlasova, staff photographer, and Oksana Grytsenko, staff writer in Kherson Oblast, the southern state now bordering Russian-occupied Crimea

Staff photographer Anastasia Vlasova in Kherson Oblast, the southern state now bordering Russian-occupied Crimea.

In digital audience overall, Bonner says, the Post is up to 17.4 million pageviews this year (through April 15). That compares to 9.5 million for all of 2013. Twitter followers now number 36,900.

The Post is English-only (after trying and closing Ukrainian-language products in 2010-11), both a weekly newspaper and a constantly updated website. That website has served as a great web and mobile check-in point throughout the crisis, its value augmented by the aggregation of Ukraine coverage that Bonner added in 2008.

“We want to create a one-stop shop for English-language news about Ukraine and give people links they want to go to,” says Bonner. “Yes, people can Google it themselves, but it will take them all day and night. We’re doing it, so they don’t have to.” Most aggregation is in the form of linking out; budget cutbacks forced cancellation of the Reuters and AP wires.

Both because of its original reporting and its aggregation, the site is well used by the steady stream of global journalist visitors trying to get quickly up to speed on who’s who and what’s what and has been well-cited in its coverage as well. (Multiple New York Times citations here.)

Banaszynski first met Brian Bonner in 1984 at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I served as managing editor from 1986-97. Bonner joined her enterprise team there eight years later. “He was a rough-and-gruff cops reporter,” she recalls. “He’d play poker with the cops on Friday night and hold them accountable on Saturday.”

She recalls a walking tour of Kiev. She’d ask about the opera house, always a fixture in that part of the world, and Bonner would say, “I’ve never been.” Then, he’d point up to “the 24th floor of a building and say, ‘There are guys up there who are funded by this group and in the pocket of these guys, and here are five ways they they are corrupt.’ It was a tour of business and government corruption.”

Those gumshoe talents and ability to navigate both non-American cultures and the digital world have put him in a unique position to influence the news culture of Ukraine.

But the Kyiv Post’s trials and tribulations parallel those of Ukraine itself. Bonner, now 54, first came to the Post in the summer of 1999, worked there briefly and then did NGO work before returning to the Pioneer Press 2002-07. In 2008, he returned to the Post as editor-in-chief.

He’s twice left the paper, once over the killing of a story (a decision quickly reversed when his staff supported him) and once laid off by budget constraint. In his tenure, ownership has passed from the founder to a new high-profile owner. Lucrative offers to buy it — and kill it — have been rebuffed. Once-growing ad revenues have been curtailed by Ukraine’s political and economic upheaval.

“It’s been nonstop,” he says. “Every day could be your last.”

In revenue performance, the Post has seen its ups and downs, but it hasn’t seen the ups for awhile. “The business model” has a whole other meaning when you’re trying to keep alive a scrappy independent news business amid revolt, corruption, and economic downturn. Yet Bonner is on the web, in his scarce free time, trying to figure out the best way forward.

Take digital subscriptions. The Kyiv Post digital access system went up a year ago. Bonner is experimenting with differing approaches to what’s free and what’s paid. As the Euromaidan movement begain last fall, the Post dropped its paywall entirely, as it has done intermittently when things have gone from simmering to hot. It’s a tough choice for a site that wants to maintain open information access and yet needs funds to survive. Clearly, the paywall has had a dampening effect on traffic at times. Much better would be finding an underwriter, either corporate or foundation, to keep the site widely accessible.

Currently, the Post counts more than 1,600 paying digital subscribers, at prices that have been raised to $50 a year or $20 a month. Eighty-five percent of the digital audience is abroad, a third coming from the U.S., with Canada, U.K, and Germany the next three top audiences.

Its weekly print press run is now set at 11,000, down from 25,000 in Ukraine’s best economic times. Subscribers pay the equivalent of about $60 a year. Sixty percent of the copies go to corporate subscribers; companies buy 20 to 100 copies that are delivered each Friday. Thirty percent are distributed, free, at restaurants, hotels, and key government centers. Ten percent move at kiosks, which sell the Post for one euro. Those print readers are Ukrainians, and print ads still account for 80 to 90 percent of revenue.

Advertising is down as Ukraine’s economy has fallen into a deep funk (see Marketplace report here), but conferences and special print supplements have helped offset some of that, bringing in 10 to 20 percent of revenue.

Bonner has had to cut staff and wire services to make ends meet. He’s also developing the sort of hybrid for-profit/nonprofit model we see examples of in the U.S. Working with several European investigative reporting funders, the Post took in nearly $40,000 in grants and gifts. That paid for two temporary investigative reporting positions, plus small amounts for servers, travel, and other IT needs. Says Bonner: “That money got spent quickly — we have a large list of needs.”

The Post has gone through four CEOs in the six years he has been editor-in-chief. At its high point, it was running on $80,000 a month, but the continued upheavals from 2009 on have eaten away at revenues. American Jed Sunden founded the Post in 1995 and built it into a large, diversified media company in the 2000s. He sold it off four years ago, as Ukraine’s economy crumbled.

Current owner Mohammad Zahoor bought the paper and runs as an enterprise that is usually unprofitable and requires subsidies.

He’s a larger-than-life character, an oligarch with an unusual pedigree: a Pakistan-born U.K. citizen, and a billionaire who made his fortune in Ukrainian steel production. He travels in high London society; his current quest is to make his wife Kamaliya, a former Mrs. World, the next Lady Gaga (Der Spiegel cruises London with Zahoor). The Zahoors both had twin daughters last year and starred in Fox U.K.’s “Meet the Russians” reality show. (You thought that billionaires buying into the press was just a U.S. phenomenon?)

The necessity of balancing the budget has retarded the Post’s digital progress. Consequently, high on Bonner’s roadmap for the site: improving its technology, at no-to-low cost. Among the issues: The site crashes too frequently at times of high recent usage. Its digital pay system is part of the Post’s content management system, and lacks flexibility. Its commenting system is ailing. It lacks a good database of subscribers/registrants. Its internal search is poor.

There has to be a few Western technologists who could lend a pro bono hand or two to an important media outlet in a threatened democracy.

Ukraine is a tough place to make sense of. It’s changed a great deal in its 23 years of independence, and yet in many ways it hasn’t. There’s official society, and then there’s how things really work. The black market is a major competitor for mainstream business. Oligarchs dominate real power.

I had the chance to visit Ukraine in 2002 on a family genealogy quest and could only get a small glimpse of the way things worked. Alex, our combination guide/translator/bodyguard/driver, could well explain the nuances of Ukrainian society — if you probed enough. It took probing, though. Asked about the origins of the Doctor surname, which goes back at least four centuries in western Ukraine, he drew a deep breath.

“Of course, it describes a doctor, or a learned person, someone well educated,” he offered. Is that the likely derivation? I asked. He paused, and after hesitating offered the alternative definition: “Or, it could come from the transitive verb ‘diocht.'”

What does “diocht” mean, I asked?

“It means to grease a wagon wheel. So Doctor” — or Diochter, in one of many transliterations from the various official languages of Ukraine over time, including Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian — “is one who greases wagon wheels.” (I’ve come to prize both Doctor derivations, the latter indicative of the quest to find ways to fund the news business.)

Alex didn’t know how I might take that instantaneous lowering of status, from learned one to wheel greaser, but then that’s the whole point. Never state a singular opinion — which may get you in trouble with someone in authority — if you can state a couple of them and allow room to maneuver. That’s a hell of a backdrop for running an independent news site, but that’s the territory the Kyiv Post must navigate.

Photo of a photographer shooting the Euromaidan protests in December by Teteria Sonnna used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 17, 2014, 11:43 a.m.
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