Illia Ponomarenko was just beginning his day, preparing for the morning news meeting at the Kyiv Post and updating the grim COVID-19 statistics on the newspaper’s website, when he realized he was locked out of the system.
At first, Mr. Ponomarenko thought the computer problems he and other reporters were having on the morning of Nov. 8 were a glitch. But as the day unfolded, it became clear that the newspaper’s owner had decided to shutter a publication that had made its name delivering English-language news about Ukraine’s tumultuous politics to the outside world. The Kyiv Post, at least the muckraking publication Mr. Ponomarenko knew, was no more. All 30 of the newspaper’s editors and reporters were fired.
But that wasn’t the end of the Kyiv Post, nor the careers of its former staff. After a three-week shutdown, owner Adnan Kivan relaunched the publication online with a new chief executive officer, a smaller staff and a new focus on producing advertising-friendly stories. Its former staff, meanwhile, moved even more quickly to launch an online publication of their own, the Kyiv Independent.
They vow to continue their investigative work even without the support of a wealthy owner. “We failed at saving the Kyiv Post, so we decided to save its values and its team,” said Mr. Ponomarenko, who reports on the Ukrainian military for the Independent, just as he did for the Post.
It turned out that Nov. 8 was the opening salvo in a battle over not just the fate of the Kyiv Post but the standards of journalism in a country where powerful oligarchs control almost all major media outlets.
The Canadian government has waded into that fight, offering more than $200,000 to support the upstart Kyiv Independent.
Ashley Mulroney, the director of the Ukraine Development Program at the Canadian embassy in Kyiv, said the promised grant, which will be distributed via the European Endowment for Democracy, was “part of broader Canadian support for free media and democratization in Ukraine.”
The original Kyiv Post, which was founded as a free weekly in 1995, always had more influence than income. Its English-language coverage of the pro-Western revolutions of 2004 and 2014 – as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region – was read widely by the diplomatic and business communities, as well as the vast Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the United States.
The reporters considered it part of their job to counter Russian propaganda, which regularly portrays Ukraine as a country that collapsed into chaos after the 2014 revolution that ousted the Kremlin-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych. The period in November when both the Kyiv Post and Kyiv Independent were silent coincided with a massive Russian military buildup at the border with Ukraine, as well as a misinformation campaign that sought to justify Moscow’s possible use of military force against its neighbour.
While there are dozens of Ukrainian- and Russian-language media outlets in Ukraine, there is no English-language counterweight to Kremlin-controlled outlets such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News. “Russia’s spending millions of dollars every year to have a very strong media voice in the English world, and you have to admit they do a good job of it,” said Olga Rudenko, a veteran Kyiv Post reporter and editor who was elected editor-in-chief by her colleagues at the Kyiv Independent. “We need to have high-quality outlets – like the Kyiv Post used to be – to counter the Russian narrative.”
But the fight isn’t only with Russia. The old Kyiv Post, led for the past 14 years by editor-in-chief Brian Bonner, held up Ukraine’s young democracy to Western standards, exposing corruption and incompetence wherever it found it. Mr. Bonner, who was fired along with the rest of the newsroom on Nov. 8, said the Kyiv Post’s scrappy reporting brought it into conflict with every Ukrainian government it covered, including the current administration, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr. Zelensky has tried to present himself to Western governments as a reformer, and Mr. Bonner says the Kyiv Post’s critical coverage of his administration was seen as undermining that message. He said he believes the government started leaning on Mr. Kivan, a real estate mogul whose holdings are mostly in the Black Sea port of Odessa. Mr. Bonner says Mr. Kivan, a Syrian-born businessman ranked by Forbes as the 42nd-richest person in Ukraine, came to see owning a crusading media outlet as more trouble than it was worth.
“The President’s office denies it, the prosecutor’s office denies it, Kivan denes it – but I know we were under pressure,” said Mr. Bonner, who also served as the paper’s chief executive officer until his dismissal. “The Kyiv Post survived [former presidents] Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovych and Poroshenko but died under Zelensky. That was a huge surprise to me.”
Mr. Bonner and others, including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, called on Mr. Kivan to sell the money-losing Kyiv Post. But Mr. Kivan not only kept the brand, he entrusted it to Luc Chénier, a native of Alexandria, Ont., whose background is in advertising, not journalism.
Mr. Chénier, who replaced Mr. Bonner as CEO, makes no apologies for seeking to make the relaunched Kyiv Post a publication that tells a more positive story about Ukraine. It’s a new tone he says advertisers will be more willing to support. He says many people have told him they stopped reading the old Kyiv Post because the paper, with its relentless focus on corruption and government malpractice, had become “too depressing.”
“There’s always negative news coming out of Ukraine. I’ve stayed here for 21 years and I know that this is just a droplet of what Ukraine is,” Mr. Chénier said in an interview in the empty Kyiv Post offices just ahead of its online relaunch. “We’re Ukraine’s global voice – not Ukraine’s corruption voice.”
Asked what kind of stories the new Kyiv Post might cover that the old one didn’t, Mr. Chénier said he’d like to see less of a focus on domestic politics and more reporting on foreign investment, sports and tourism. He said he could also envision Kyiv Post journalists working on custom or branded content, which sees advertisers pay for articles about their businesses.
He is still in the process of hiring a new editor-in-chief but said he has the budget to attract a well-known international journalist to head the newsroom. The new editor will oversee a staff of 15 reporters, and Mr. Chénier said the goal is for the Post to finally start making money. “This is a business, not a non-profit organization.”
The battle between the two publications is a bitter one. Former staff say the new Kyiv Post makes a mockery of the brand by watering down the reporting to appease its owner and avoid offending the government. Mr. Chénier accuses the former staff of forgetting that Mr. Kivan, not the reporters, owned the paper.
The fight is something of a David and Goliath story. The Kyiv Post not only has the established brand, but a newly reinforced advertising department and a spacious year-old office in the centre of Kyiv.
The staff of the Kyiv Independent, meanwhile, work from home or cafés scattered around the capital. While the new publication’s supporters work to deliver promised funding, its 30 employees have gone without salaries since its launch. The endeavour, so far, has been supported primarily by 655 Patreon subscribers who are collectively contributing almost $10,000 a month. Its website was created pro bono by a local technology company.
Mr. Ponomarenko said deep-pocketed buyers had come forward offering support, but the staff collectively decided they no longer wanted to deal with the whims of a single owner.
“We want to terminate this practice of being dependent on one name. We had bitter experience with this, so we want to be dependent on many names,” he said. “We’re not taking dirty money. Hopefully, we will prevail.”
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