Kyiv Post CEO Michael Willard
As interviews go, it was a gentle tete-a-tete with a young reporter from the Business Channel. Some might call it a puff piece. The harder-edged, slightly political comments were left on the cutting room floor. In truth, they were probably more bon mots than bombshells.
As with any well-trained media specialist, I had my messages coiled and ready to unleash when asked a general question about growing a business in Ukraine. I gave it a political twist by saying Ukraine did not have an image problem, but a reality problem.
In other words, no matter how much gauzy advertising is produced or double-talk government language – as Abraham Lincoln so wisely said (truncated here) – you can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all the time. Reality always comes home to roost.
My second point was simply that Ukraine will never progress as a nation until a leader – any leader – decides that he or she wants to leave a legacy of good government to his or her grandchildren, rather than a legacy of theft and self-aggrandizement. A nagging thought stayed with me after the broadcast.
Were my news nuggets simply overlooked or was it self-censorship by the channel?
Recently, I was asked by journalist and scholar Mark Hunter of INSEAD how the Kyiv Post manages to seemingly write with impunity about the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych without the power structure’s heavy boot crashing down on us.
I gave him obvious answers for a case study he was preparing about our newspaper:
1) The Kyiv Post is an English-language publication and the administration assumes while it is one of the main windows into Ukraine for the outside world, its audience is small in relationship to the Ukrainian universe; and
2) Over its nearly 20 years of continuous publication, the newspaper has created a reservoir of powerful allies.
There is more, of course.
The fact is that in every Kyiv Post story, reporters strive to get both sides. Chief Editor Brian Bonner has urged our journalists to get both sides early on to avoid, when possible, having to write that the other side could not be reached for comment by deadline. That’s often a cop-out.
In my year as CEO – and having been given oversight of the newspaper by the publisher, Mohammad Zahoor – I have stepped gently, believing the newspaper’s strength is in its independent reporting. Its honest brokering of news over the years is why it is the “World’s Window on Ukraine.”
Except when potential legal issues arise, the journalists decide what goes in the newspaper.
Almost every issue includes one or two controversial articles. These stories were well-reported and fair.
On a few occasions, I have made suggestions that I felt strengthened a story.
In the last year, legal action has been threatened twice, once on a story relating to one of the president’s sons, and another having to do with our series of stories on the safety of Kyiv’s bottled water. Both were solidly sourced and reported.
The reaction to stories that might give rise to legal action is set by Zahoor. If we are wrong, the publisher instructs us to apologize and retract. If we are sure we are right, we defend. In my time at the Kyiv Post, there has been nothing we would retract, and nothing we’ve had to defend in court. We have gotten things wrong, however, and apologized for those mistakes and corrected the errors.
This doesn’t mean that I have always been thrilled with each story, slant or editorial opinion.
For example, when System Capital Management, Ukraine’s largest business group, offered Madonna tickets to journalists and the Kyiv Post refused them for being an expensive gift, I was proud of the stance we took. However, I saw no reason for an editorial that criticized Rinat Akhmetov (System Capital Management’s primary shareholder). A polite refusal – which the Kyiv Post did – should have been sufficient.
If I have an issue with a story or editorial after the fact, I generally give my opinion in a morning note to staff that I write each working day. This occurs occasionally. The Kyiv Post does not court controversy, but neither does it shy away from areas where many others fear to tread.
Kyiv Post CEO Michael Willard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org