The sale comes amid a sharp downturn in advertising for news media, including Jed Sunden’s KP Media.
From a business standpoint, selling the Kyiv Post came easy for Jed Sunden, the newspaper’s American founder, sole owner and publisher during its entire 14 years of existence – until July 29.
From an emotional standpoint, however, the decision to part with Ukraine’s top English-language newspaper “was very tough,” Sunden said.
But Sunden said selling the newspaper to ISTIL Group, led by United Kingdom multi-millionaire Mohammad Zahoor, ultimately made sense – both for the future of the newspaper and for his KP Media company.
The sale gives KP Media a welcome injection of cash – neither Zahoor nor Sunden would say how much – to invest in the company’s priority Internet news sites and print publications. Those include Sunden’s Korrespondent magazine, korrespondent.net, bigmir.net, Afisha magazine and Kyiv Business Directory, among others. (The KP in KP Media, incidentally, stands for Kyiv Post).
“I still like publishing. It was not a question of lack of interest,” Sunden, 38, said. “It was a question of choosing priorities as a company. It remains a difficult market and we can’t do everything. We are heavily invested in Internet and want to make sure we have enough on that front.”
Sunden also said that he has sized up Zahoor and ISTIL Group as worthy owners of the Kyiv Post. He believes they will honor their pledge to invest more in the newspaper and respect its tradition of editorial independence.
“They are straightforward and the Kyiv Post will be in good hands with them,” Sunden said. “This is the best option. I’m very happy about this [buyer].”
In making the acquisition, Zahoor – who made a fortune in the steel industry in Donetsk – said that “the best years of the Kyiv Post lie ahead. We have great plans for the brand’s development, in print, on the Internet and with other media as well.”
Zahoor also said: “We are committed to upholding the Kyiv Post’s high standards of independent journalism, and will continue to allow the editors the freedom that they previously enjoyed. We recognize that the Kyiv Post was one of the few truly independent voices in Ukrainian media since its inception, which is why it enjoys almost unparalleled trust among its readership.”
Sunden started the Kyiv Post in 1995, with only a handful of employees and not much cash. A Brooklyn native, Sunden graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a bachelor’s degree in history. Upon visiting Ukraine in the early 1990s, he thought the nation needed an English-language newspaper – as many other former Soviet republics had by that time.
It was far from certain, especially during the authoritarian years of ex-President Leonid Kuchma and a lackluster economy, whether Sunden would succeed.
Aside from the lack of a free press and the authorities’ intolerance of criticism, the commercial viability in a place where a small percentage of people read English was also a question mark. In the early years, Sunden recalls that advertising was bartered – not sold. An airline, for instance, would give the newspaper free tickets instead of paying for space. By the late 1990s, however, most advertising space was sold for cash on the basis of market pricing.
By 1999, after the effects of the Russian ruble collapse of 1998 wore off, the Kyiv Post had become a solidly profitable enterprise. From 2000 to 2008, before last fall’s sharp economic downturn that devastated the advertising market, the newspaper enjoyed spectacular financial success – especially for a weekly newspaper with a circulation in recent years of about 25,000 copies.
For its entire existence, the Kyiv Post has dominated its niche, even as its page count has fluctuated with the ebbs and flows of the advertising market. It has bulked up to 40 pages while at other times slimming down 16 pages, its current size. And a larger share of its revenues and readership, as with many other newspapers, is now coming from its online version.
The financial success went hand-in-hand with its editorial success. Whatever Sunden’s shortcomings as a publisher, and his critics would say he has more than a few, he’s always protected the editorial independence of journalists on news and opinion pages.
Standing up for editorial independence is not only the right thing to do, Sunden said, but a good business practice as well. Owners and publishers who use their publications to pursue a political agenda or interfere with journalists’ independent judgments “tend to lose the trust of the readers,” he said.
Editorials – the staff-written viewpoints that represent the newspaper’s opinion as an institution – were exceptions, and common ones for publishers. Sunden wanted editorials to reflect his political ideology. He is a libertarian who believes in low taxes and minimal government regulation, in free speech and in free markets. He also takes a critical view of Kremlin political leaders and the threats they pose for Ukraine’s newfound independence.
Sunden also used the newspaper under his ownership to write personal columns and blogs about causes near and dear to his heart. For years, Sunden campaigned against Ukraine’s lingering vestiges of communism – and for the removal of all monuments to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
He has not succeeded yet, but he also hasn’t quit.
The Kyiv Post, moreover, tries to reflect its motto – “Independence, Community, Trust” – at all times. To those ends, the newspaper has sponsored the annual “Best of Kyiv” awards to honor top businesses. During the last Christmas holiday season, for instance, the newspaper ran a series of articles about the needs of Ukraine’s poorest citizens and how to donate to worthy causes. The newspaper has also devoted a lot of space to publicizing community events and introducing Kyivans – expatriates and Ukrainians – to each other.
Sunden credits a succession of journalists since 1995 with establishing the Kyiv Post’s reputation for independent, hard-hitting reporting and outspoken commentary.
“The Kyiv Post has done great reporting and built a strong legacy,” Sunden said. “The team at Korrespondent came out of the Kyiv Post. The reporting the newspaper did on [the 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy] Gongadze was great. There is still such a lack of news in English about Ukraine. Having an audience for this news – and the trust of this audience – is a tremendous asset.”
One early Kyiv Post chief editor, Igor Greenwald, who served in the mid-1990s, stood out. “He built a strong tradition here, adhering to standards of Western journalism,” Sunden said. “He beat that into my head as well as the heads of journalists.”
The standards carried on with reporters and editors who followed, among foreigners and Ukrainians alike. Vitaly Sych, Korrespondent’s chief editor, started at the Kyiv Post, as did many other notable journalists working in Ukraine. “You can see in the journalists and in their traditions that what they set up in the early years carries on to this day,” Sunden added.
The path, however, was often bumpy.
Members of the Kuchma administration took a dim view of the Kyiv Post’s criticism and assertiveness, if audiotapes allegedly recorded by the president’s former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, are true. “If you believe the Melnychenko tapes are real, you can hear them discussing ways to apply pressure to the Kyiv Post,” Sunden said.
On one of the tapes, a voice resembling that of former Kuchma ally Oleksandr Zinchenko is heard talking about his preference for indirect pressure over heavy-handed tactics in bringing journalists to heel. “I think that [the authorities] don’t understand what they’re doing when they attack newspapers like Silski Visti and the Kyiv Post,” said Zinchenko, who has denied ever making such remarks. “There are other ways – economic means, like doubling the rent, for example.”
While Ukraine has made great strides in freedom of the press, and in creating a more favorable business and political climate since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the nation is danger of retreating without constant vigilance. That means that society and news media are not out of the woods yet, Sunden said.
“It’s still a quagmire,” Sunden said. “The ad market in Ukraine is under substantial pressure.”