Last month, the owner of The Kyiv Post, considered Ukraine’s leading independent English-language daily, fired his whole editorial staff without prior warning. Now, the Post’s former editorial staff has launched a new publication, The Kyiv Independent, with a focus on quality and independence. “We didn’t save the Kyiv Post, but we can save its values”, the new paper’s team tells IPI.
On November 8, 2021, Kyiv Post defence-affairs journalist Illia Ponomarenko went to the office for a working day like any other. But it quickly became a day he would not soon forget. First thing in the morning, Ponomarenko heard he was fired, along with the entire editorial staff. After a conflict over editorial interference between the paper’s editors and its owner, real estate developer Adnan Kivan, the 30 journalists were told not to come back.
“It was a huge surprise for us,’ Ponomarenko told IPI. “You just come in the morning and your boss tells you: sorry guys, I did what I could but you’re fired. And there was nothing we could do.”
The editorial staff immediately responded with a joint statement stating that the Kyiv Post “had been killed without any warning”. But there was more to do: “After that, we decided that we should try to save the newspaper”, Ponomarenko said.
We were fired by the newspaper owner for defending the editorial independence. But we won’t be silenced. Ukraine needs on-the-ground English-language journalism of the highest quality and our readers need a source they can trust.
That’s why we are launching The Kyiv Independent! pic.twitter.com/RqdVqTOkkV
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) November 22, 2021
On November 22, the former editorial staff of the Post launched a new publication called The Kyiv Indepedent as well as a Patreon page to gather member support. Now, the Kyiv Independent has officially launched its new website, together with a podcast, a newsletter, and other editorial productions. How did this new publication come about so quickly, and what are the Independent’s plans for the future?
After the news broke, the team received an “unexpected” level of public support, Ponomarenko said. “We always perceived ourselves as some kind of niche newspaper for politicians or people interested in diplomatic missions”, he explained. “But support also came from regular people who are interested in what happens in Ukraine. That showed us we needed to continue our work.”
The whole editorial staff of The Kyiv Post decided unanimously to join the relaunch as the Independent. The process happened naturally, according to Olga Rudenko, the Post’s former deputy chief editor and the Independent’s current editor-in-chief. “There’s this whole formed team of people who are used to working together”, she told IPI. “They are photographers, videographers, editors, and journalists. There’s no other team in Ukraine that could do an English-language media outlet, building such a team would take years.”
“We realized that we didn’t save the Kyiv Post but we can save its values”, Ponomarenko said. “Normally, journalists might drift apart to different media outlets. But without the Kyiv Post, Ukraine would not have a major independent English-language media outlet. So we wanted to retain this niche, and we wanted to do it quickly.”
Days after the incident, the team therefore started launching a newsletter to keep its readers updated about the future of the paper. The staff then started a podcast on the process of the quick relaunch, called Media in Progress. “It was important for us to start as soon as possible, to make sure the Kyiv Post, which was making a restart with a whole new editorial team, would not come back online earlier than us”, Daryna Shevchenko, the paper’s new chief executive officer, said.
Fears about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine increased the need to quickly resume reporting. “It’s not a moment where you can afford to not have good coverage of news for the international community”, Rudenko said. “We have the Russian threat, and on top of that there is the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a huge community of English-speaking foreigners in Ukraine and businesses who would otherwise not have reliable sources of information.”
Shevchenko added: “Russia has a lot of unreliable news sources that push the Russian agenda in the world, including when it comes to coverage on Ukraine, on which Russia spends millions of dollars.” Although the Kyiv Post isn’t the only English-language publication in the Ukrainian market, it is almost the only one that publishes critical content, she stressed. “Without the Kyiv Post, there is an information vacuum for English-language coverage, and people will start Googling and end up reading misinformation. We decided we would not wait for that.”
Despite continuing its predecessor’s original values, the Kyiv Independent is by no means a copy of the Kyiv Post, Ponomarenko emphasized. “We decided to make the paper a bit more classy, and a bit more modern. We decided to get rid of some sections that had been there for a long time. And we focus on new multimedia content, such as our podcasts.”
Building a business
The Kyiv Independent also decided to make some changes in terms of its business model. Shevchenko said the paper would “never again” rely on one owner. Now, the staff collective owns the paper Kyiv Independent. Future investors will have their stock of shares as well, but none of them will have more shares than the newsroom. Also, the paper has chosen what it believes will be a more sustainable business model by diversifying its sources of income. “We reached out to many international donors and partners for help.”
Shevchenko, a former Post journalist, joined the Independent after she learned about what happened on November 8. “At first I was just offering moral support to the team, but it quickly turned into a full project”, she recalled. “After a few calls, I was pitching the company to my business partner in London, telling them about this bold, ambitious editorial team of professionals, filling a gap in the Ukrainian news landscape. By the third call, we were talking about partnership already. It was all happening very fast.”
The paper has now built a three-year plan to become financially sustainable. “In the first year, the paper will heavily rely on grants, which is natural in a crisis”, Shevchenko said. “But we’ve also asked readers for support.” The Kyiv Independent’s Patreon page now has 678 members, making it the most supported business via the platform in Ukraine. “We have more than 6,500 dollars committed to us monthly already in Patreon. And it’s growing everyday.” A crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe has already collected 11,000 pounds. “We had a lot of people just, you know, messaging us to hold on, but also offering money, offering help, some offering us an office, others offering expertise”, Shevchenko said. “We are very grateful for that.”
To reduce the dependency on donors in the long run, the Kyiv Indepedent also plans on carrying out commercial activities in the future, for example through native advertising. “Basically we want to do all kinds of things like content monetization, podcast monetization and video monetization”, Shevchenko explained. “But developing this will take some time.”
The relaunch of the Kyiv Indepedent has only brought the Post’s former team closer together, according to Ponomarenko. “The team ended up being so tremendously passionate about this whole thing”, he said. “I never expected to see a newsroom being so hardline about the values of journalism, their independence. What is key for this is that we spend so much time together, we are like a family type of newsroom. We don’t just work together, we spend life together.”
The Independent’s most important goal, according to Shevchenko, is becoming a sustainable, healthy business that can survive thanks to its independent journalism. “We want to show that a media start-up can actually be attractive business-wise and can attract good investors”, she said. “You can work by your values and standards of international journalism, and you can still make good money and you can be sustainable.”
Last night we gathered some friends & supporters to share our vision of the Kyiv Independent’s future.
Chief editor Olga Rudenko & CEO Daryna Shevchenko walked the guests through the origin story & strategy of the Kyiv Independent, and introduced its team. 👇🏻
📸: Oleg Petrasiuk pic.twitter.com/VamOLkzOTt
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) December 15, 2021
She added: “Also, you cannot just shut down a 26-year-old newspaper that’s been doing its work for three decades.”
For Rudenko, it’s about resilience. “I want to show that we will successfully push back against a system that says journalists are either servants to those in power or they are silenced”, she said. “It sounds a bit sentimental even, but to me it’s really important to demonstrate that a group of people with high levels of integrity and dedication can really move the needle.”
Although there is a long way to go, Ponomarenko has faith that his newspaper will become an important and enduring independent media outlet in Ukraine “Currently, we’re working 24/7 to bring the paper up its feet, not because we want money, but because we believe in the concept. We want this country to be a better place to live.”