Stefan Korshak, 60, is a character out of a novel.
One of the Kyiv Post’s legendary reporters, an American citizen who made Kyiv his home, Korshak worked for the Ukrainian newspaper in 1997–2000 during a time known as the wild 1990s, when oligarchs and mobsters were violently taking over the ruins of the Soviet Union.
Back then, being a journalist was much harder than today, Korshak told the Kyiv Post on Sept. 10. “In those days, journalists were not accepted by society and they fought harder to get information out,” he said.
Gangster era in Ukraine
Korshak wrote many stories about murdered journalists like Borys Derevyanko, founder and editor of Odesa’s newspaper Vechernyaya Odesa, who was gunned down in August 1997 on his way to work.
Derevyanko’s gangster-style murder was Korshak’s first story of the sort, but not the last, as it was the daily routine in the 1990s in Ukraine, when those who spoke out against corruption put their lives at risk.
However, Korshak served in the U.S. army from 1985 to 1989, and he covered wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh — to cite a few — and his military background proved useful in those times, especially in resisting intimidation, he said.
He recalled a 1997 story, when he and his colleague broke a story about a beauty pageant “that may or may not have been connected to shady persons,” he said.
Titled “Panicked contestants flee pageant,” the story tells about a pageant organized by local businessmen and two Lebanese entrepreneurs, the Harfoush brothers, including the oldest Walid, who is now the head of Euronews in Eastern Europe.
After interviewing original sources, taking statements from the Harfoush brothers and embassies, it appeared that 11 contestants from various European countries had fled from the event after alleging sexual harassment. The organizers reportedly “used strong language” to force the contestants to come to an unscheduled party at a club.
Five years ago, Korshak wrote an article for the Kyiv Post’s 20th anniversary, in which he recalled the story. The organizers shared “a real dislike for reporters,” he wrote. When one of them said to Korshak in a vaguely threatening manner that he hoped to read “something positive,” Korshak replied that he could “buy the newspaper, it costs a hryvnia.”
“But it was the 1990s, and it was not a real threat, just some kind of intimidation,” he recalled.
Talking to people
For Korshak, such stories show that the routine work was more interesting in those days.
“You had no choice than to talk to people, and it was entirely depending on your personal connections,” he said. However, “hardcore journalism” such as investigation stayed the same, despite the arrival of social media.
“The way we get the story is pretty much the same,” he said.
Social media introduced citizen journalism, but there’s still demand for professional reporters who can sort information better and check their facts. The question in today’s reality is how to deliver accurate facts when there’s so much inaccurate information out there, he said.
Favorite Kyiv Post story
Korshak did write stories that weren’t about wars and mobsters.
“I always liked nature stories,” he said, as he recalled his favorite, a dolphin story titled “Dolphins find new ‘porpoise.’”
In August 1999, he managed to convince the Kyiv Post management to send him to Crimea for a working summer near the sea — the peninsula had been easily accessible for Ukrainians right until its illegal annexation by Russia in 2014.
The Sudak Dolphinarium described in the story on dolphins was run by people who used to teach dolphins to attack and deliver explosives to the boats during the Cold War, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, the sea mammals had to find a new purpose.
“I did an article on Crimean wine, I did an article on Crimean Tatars, and I did an article about this (dolphin) research center which had been converted to a sea show center for summer tourists,” he said.
“They used to be in the Cold War, and now they were in show business,” Korshak said, “just like old colonels, except they were not human — they were dolphins.”
Korshak said dolphins are very smart animals, as most of the dolphins were pretty quick at learning how to get a fish, and that’s how former kamikaze dolphins transformed into sea show stars, he said.
Korshak was particularly proud of the article’s tagline, quoting it: “The Post approached Ksenya, relaxing between performances, for comment. The Black Sea native responded in squeaks and squawks. By all appearances, he wanted a fish,” the article wrote.
For Korshak, it was a great story, “not only because I was in Crimea during summer near the sea, but I was also getting paid to interview dolphins which makes it my favorite story,” he said.
For Korshak, being a good journalist means being a multimedia journalist, especially when it comes to photographs.
He figured that if he could convince Brian Bonner or Igor Greenwald — Kyiv Post chief editors back then — that he could take his own photos, then he would have a better chance to go on assignment.
“You can’t go out on the field and just write. Even if you are Shakespeare, you have to deliver pictures,” he said. “There is always room for brilliant journalists who do nothing else other than interviewing people and writing about it, but there aren’t that many jobs out there like that.”
Korshak differentiates good journalists and successful journalists. A young journalist should understand what kind of journalist he or she wants to be, he said.
“You can make yourself a personality, but it depends on how much you want to give yourself to hardcore journalism,” he said.
He said the more one adapts to the public’s interest and desire, the more likely they are to find fame. At the same time, there are true professionals who do hardcore journalism but stay unnoticed by the public.
“Clear it for yourself so you don’t spend a lot of time asking ‘Am I doing enough? Is this right for me?’ You have to think about it and decide,” he said.
Korshak also considers his military background helped him in journalism, in the sense of self-discipline and dedication to assignments. He was raised in this ethics, but the army settled it, he said.
“In the army, you don’t have the right to give up, you just have to try harder,” he said. “The difference between a good job and a bad job is almost always how hard a reporter tried.”
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