It’s fitting that Kyiv hosted a conference on how to sustain quality journalism in the digital age during my last days as chief editor of the Kyiv Post. One of the hardest things I’ll do in my life will come on April 30, when I walk out of this newspaper. I’ve spent the last five years here and been blessed with the good fortune and excellent judgment to hire every journalist in the newsroom. So the newspaper that I love remains in very good hands.
But that’s not the same as saying that everything is OK with journalism and the Kyiv Post, which for nearly 18 years has provided news, investigations and opinions that give English-language readers tremendous insight into Ukraine. I am proud to say that we did our jobs fearlessly and covered events as we saw them, writing as if each edition could be our last one. In Ukraine, practicing such independent journalism is a rare privilege indeed.
The Kyiv Post’s financial survival will be the challenge for those who remain. Our struggle is a regrettable but common one in a profession that has been shedding jobs by the thousands and cutting costs every year since the dawn of the Internet age. Newspapers’ main source of revenue – print advertising – is drying up. Meanwhile, the industry has been slow to recover this lost revenue in the digital age.
Newspapers are only now abandoning a flawed business model in which we gave away our content online while charging for it in the printed form. The Kyiv Post launched its paywall on March 1, asking readers to pay $36 a year for website access. We have a few hundred subscribers but will need a few thousand of them to make a go of it and keep the newsroom full of truth-seeking journalists.
On April 22, some of those industry challenges were explored at a Foundation for Effective Governance conference that attracted some of the finest minds in journalism today, including Jacqui Banaszynski, my former editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota.
The international speakers in attendance agreed that finding a way to finance independent journalism is the goal. But top-notch and ethical journalism – the ability of journalists to pursue the truth without interference from governments, politicians, publishers, CEOs, sales managers and others – is under threat everywhere.
Ukraine has basically two commercial models of journalism and neither of them is in good health.
The dominant one is oligarch ownership, in which five tycoons control most outlets. Those are: Rinat Akhmetov, (who incidentally finances the Foundation for Effective Governance), Dmytro Firtash, Igor Kolomoisky, Viktor Pinchuk and Petro Poroshenko.
Don’t expect to find criticism of government from these news media outlets. Don’t expect to find hard-hitting investigations. Don’t expect the journalists at these TV and radio stations or newspapers to present points of view that clash with the self-interests of these owners. It just doesn’t happen to any great degree. These outlets are not run with the interests of the public and profits in mind, in the opinion of many independent media watchers. They are run as propaganda outlets, in my view, with owners willing to sustain an unending stream of financial losses to preserve their influence over public opinion.
The other model is the market model. It is also not doing well because of Ukraine’s weak advertising climate and the reluctance of readers to pay for content through subscriptions.
The market model is the one that the Kyiv Post has pursued for its 18 years in business.
Until 2009, that model worked well and profitably under American owner and founder Jed Sunden. But the newspaper never recovered from the global economic crisis. Mohammad Zahoor, the Kyiv Post’s second owner, saved the newspaper by buying it in July 2009 from Sunden for $1.1 million and then investing generously. We tried everything we could think of to regain profitability, but we never did.
Zahoor has decided to cut his financial losses and end his subsidies, forcing hard changes at the Kyiv Post. I am confident that he will never sell the newspaper unless he can find the right buyer at the right price – the right buyer being someone who will carry on the best traditions of the Kyiv Post.
Throughout Zahoor’s tenure, the journalists have worked without interference from anybody outside the newsroom.
The one big exception was the publicized dispute when Zahoor fired me on April 15, 2011, for my decision to publish an interview with Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyk that Zahoor did not want published. Mercifully, my dismissal was short-lived because the newsroom rallied around the principle of editorial independence and went on strike in protest, risking their livelihoods. I was reinstated five days later. Zahoor’s integrity and willingness to reach an agreement made it possible for the newsroom to get back to work without missing any deadline.
He could have crushed the strike and closed the newspaper. This is what some wanted him to do. But two years later, it is hard to see how such a course of action would have benefited Zahoor or the Kyiv Post. Zahoor and I put the unhappy incident behind us and have worked with each other since then in good faith. He is not a newspaper man, as he is the first to admit, but rather a civic-minded and non-political investor who believes the community --- through advertising and subscriptions – should now support the Kyiv Post financially.
The policy of editorial independence not only makes for good journalism, but I believe it’s the best business strategy despite the current losses. Sensationalist tabloids that offer titillating coverage of sex and scandals are profitable now, but I believe that readers will increasingly turn to trusted journalism to help them understand the complicated world in which we live.
Freedom of the press often belongs to those who own the presses, even in the United States, which has one of the world’s best free-speech guarantees embedded in its Constitution. In practice, this means that the newspaper owner is the only person who can guarantee editorial independence. Or, as conference speaker and Financial Times contributing editor John Lloyd said: “Journalists are dependent on publishers for their independence.”
The elements of independent journalism are easily defined: Journalists have the final call over what is published as news and opinion. A chief editor is in charge of hiring, firing and editorial budget management. The top editor must be free from conflicts of interest that could compromise news judgment. Advertising is clearly marked to distinguish it from news stories. Non-interference in the work of the newsroom is guaranteed. The chief editor has a direct agreement with the publisher and direct access to the publisher and the newspaper’s financials.
I have enjoyed all of these conditions in five years as chief editor. We work closely and cooperatively with our CEO and commercial department, but separately.
Once the issues of editorial independence are sorted out, news organizations must address the even tougher issues of financial sustainability. Truly strong editorial independence can come only from truly strong financial independence.
There are three business models out there – and hybrids of each – that the Kyiv Post must pursue to sustain success. They are: traditional paid advertising; financing from governments or non-profit foundations; and paid subscriptions from readers. News organizations also will likely need to branch out with complementary businesses that generate revenue. This is what the Kyiv Post is doing by hosting conferences and roundtables, publishing supplements, staging employment fairs and providing English-language editing services for corporate and other clients.
The innovators will thrive. The rest may go out of business unless they have a rich benefactor.
Why should anybody care about the future of independent journalism? To put it simply, no nation is a true democracy without independent voices exposing corruption, holding those in power accountable or exhorting society to do better. Democratic societies need journalists who will tell people what they don’t know and help them understand better what they do know. Nations without robust freedom of speech are poorer, more corrupt and less democratic.
The Kyiv Post will thrive as long as it remains true to its motto of “Independence. Community. Trust.” Our reason for living – to serve as the “World’s Window on Ukraine” in the English language – is bigger than any person. But the idealism will have to be combined with a way to pay the bills.
Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.