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June 6, 2023, 2:17 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“The news feeds do not sag”: A look at Ukraine’s local news landscape, more than a year into the war

Most of the publishers surveyed now view “external migrants” — Ukrainians who’ve left the country — as their target audience.

“Adaptation to the war has occurred, albeit incompletely.”

That’s one top finding from a recent report by the Media Development Foundation, an organization founded in 2013 to strengthen independent journalism in Ukraine. It’s released annual reports about the state of local news in Ukraine since 2020. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

This year’s report is being published amid a “running series of conflicts between the media covering the war and the Ukrainian authorities,” according to a recent report by Semafor. Both Western and Ukrainian news outlets have clashed with the Ukrainian government, but “Ukrainian journalists face more intense pressure than foreign correspondents to present an optimistic view of a conflict their friends and family are dying in,” one correspondent for the Ukrainian broadcaster Hromadske told Semafor.

This year, the report’s authors surveyed 39 Ukrainian media organizations, collecting information via 90-question surveys and from in-depth interviews “with editorial teams operating in occupied, front-line, or de-occupied territories.”

Here are some of the report’s findings.

— Ukrainian media outlets have broadened their scopes — a result both of Ukrainians fleeing the country but continuing to “follow news from their home cities, new residences, and the national context,” and of international audiences becoming more interested in what is happening in Ukraine.

“English-language content output is increasing, while Russian-language output declines,” the authors write.

The majority of surveyed media outlets (81.9%) maintain their communication channels exclusively in Ukrainian. A small portion (9%) offer both Ukrainian and Russian versions of their sites, primarily in the eastern region, where the presence of a Russian version is driven by audience needs. The number of media outlets with Russian versions has significantly decreased between 2022 and 2023. In 2021, 25% of resources had Russian-language versions of materials, and in the early months of the war, this figure dropped to 20%.

Another 9% of editorial teams manage their pages in both Ukrainian and English. Some media outlets are planning to develop their English-language pages to reach an international audience and promptly inform foreigners about events in Ukraine. In previous years, the number of editorial teams translating materials into English was smaller.

— The vast majority (93%) of the publishers surveyed said they view “external migrants” — Ukrainians who have left the country — as
their target audiences.

— Respondents were asked to identify the biggest risks they face. Here they are, from most to least frequently mentioned:

1. Military and safety risks:
a. Mobilization of male staff, resulting in critical personnel shortages;
b. Renewed offensives by the Russian army from the north and northeast;
c. Intensive shelling targeting critical infrastructure, leading to blackouts and disrupted communication and internet access;
d. Hazards during business trips.

2. Psycho-emotional risks— military and safety risks contribute to emotional burnout and anxiety disorders, hindering team performance.

3. Internal organizational risks:

a. Loss of financial stability;
b. End of grant support and inability to fund operations;
c. Regional personnel shortages.

4. Marketing risks:

a. Reduced traffic and reach due to search engine and social network algorithm updates;
b. Suspension of the advertising market (often linked to resumed hostilities and offensives);
c. Misunderstanding audience needs;
d. Attacks on websites;
e. Loss of competitive advantages within the media landscape;
f. Shrinking audience.

One publisher said:

“Currently, the content strategy is aimed at ensuring that consequences of Russian aggression have a minimal impact on the effectiveness of the editorial team and that all planned materials should be published on time. We have a stock of ready-made articles in case of unforeseen situations, so that the news feeds do not sag. Journalists who are in unstable regions regarding the availability of electricity took care of alternative sources of energy supply: power banks, etc. There are also colleagues who work from abroad. We try to pay more attention to short-term planning in order to know how to act in case of force majeure.”

— Information gathering within Ukraine is difficult:

For media outlets catering to audiences in occupied or front-line territories, content-related procedures differ significantly in numerous aspects, including information sources. Information about the situation in temporarily occupied territories is obtained from Ukrainian officials such as regional military administration heads and city mayors. However, understanding the situation requires consulting other sources, including channels of the occupation authorities and direct participants in hostilities on the enemy side. Editors use these sources to gather facts about temporarily occupied territories, such as the adoption of local “laws,” and remove narratives and anti-Ukrainian interpretations.

Media outlets actively seek sources to refute disinformation, including defense and law enforcement agencies, local authorities, military acquaintances, and people from temporarily occupied territories. However, there are objective limitations, such as restricted access to shelling zones for civilians, which makes on-the-spot situation assessment impossible.

A separate source of information is informants — people loyal to the editorial team residing in temporarily occupied territories and providing journalists with field information. Editorial teams maintain separate, protected communication channels with informants, as this poses extreme risks to these individuals. Interviews have revealed at least one recent case of an editorial informant being jailed. Journalists sometimes refrain from publishing information obtained from informants to protect their identity. Due to the departure of people from temporarily occupied territories and the tightening of control mechanisms by the occupation authorities, the number of informants and available information has decreased, making news from small towns and villages increasingly scarce.

“Only 10 to 15% of people have remained in these [small] towns,” one publisher from Southern Ukraine said. “These are mostly elderly people — it is almost impossible to find informants among them. Our biggest and scariest challenge is that we don’t know what’s going on out there. In addition to that, the Russians turn off communications.”

— Ukrainian publishers also face some unique distribution challenges:

The primary obstacle cited by editorial teams is social network restrictions, such as content blocking, shadow banning, and content blurring, even when it is not sensitive. These restrictions lead to a decrease in organic reach and limitations in ad management (51.2%). Media outlets registered in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions face additional restrictions, such as the inability to tag people and locations, and difficulty accessing page management tools. These constraints significantly impact information dissemination and require additional resources from editorial staff.

When certain social networks (e.g., Facebook or Instagram) block content, editorial teams actively promote content through alternative distribution channels (e.g., Telegram). Fewer editorial teams are currently exploring new social networks (such as TikTok) and their algorithms. Nonetheless, some editors still consider Facebook the most effective distribution channel, as their primary audience remains there despite network limitations.

Other common issues highlighted by editors include blackouts (19.5%), which began in October when missile attacks on critical energy infrastructure caused power supply disruptions. Editorial teams had to address the pressing issue of continuing their work amidst these challenges. Besides problems with communication, finding “uninterrupted points,” and procuring generators or charging stations, traffic declined significantly in late autumn and winter due to readers’ inability to access websites without electricity and internet access.

— The survey asked respondents to rate their mental state. Turns out “those who rate their condition as ‘normal’ are roughly equal to those who rate it as ‘bad.'”

“Compared to last year’s survey, when the great war had just begun and air raid alarms mainly influenced respondents’ mental state, respondents no longer mention this reason, suggesting they have adapted,” the authors write.

— Grants have become a major source of funding.

Prior to the full-scale invasion, the majority of the surveyed media outlets were not actively involved in systematic fundraising. However, grant funding has now become the principal component of editorial budgets and the primary channel for media monetization…For 50% of the media outlets, grant funding has increased by 50-100% or more.

— A little less than half the newsrooms are receiving financial support from readers.

Financial support from readers is available to 44.2% of the surveyed media. Most commonly, this occurs through Patreon, and less often through PayPal, bank details, banks, membership subscriptions, or YouTube sponsorships. One media outlet also mentioned that they added a “buy us a coffee” option to the English-language version of their site.

— In 2022, most publishers told researchers they were only able to plan about a week in advance. Now, they can think ahead by six months or more. A somewhat hopeful paragraph:

The aspect of planning horizon is particularly intriguing. Our previous research was conducted shortly after the liberation of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions. Planning was difficult at that time, with editorial teams operating on a day-to-day basis and a maximum horizon of a week. In 2023, we observe the resurgence of strategic planning for six months or more, with half of the newsrooms claiming they have the resources to foresee such a period.

You can read the full report here.

Photo of flowers and sandbags in Ukraine by young shanahan used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     June 6, 2023, 2:17 p.m.
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