Closure of Kyiv Post is a wake-up call

The fired Kyiv Post staff in front of the newspaper’s headquarters. Supplied by Kyiv Post Staff

An independent media, must be financially independent.

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

The November 8 closure of the Kyiv Post by owner Adnan Kivan sent shock waves throughout Ukraine and Ukrainian communities around the world. As the leading English-language newspaper in Ukraine, the Kyiv Post had developed a stellar reputation as a crusading publication not afraid to expose corruption and tackle issues that many in authority would want to supress. As such, every president and government in Ukraine’s history attempted to influence the Kyiv Post.

American Jed Sunden founded the Kyiv Post weekly newspaper in 1995 to serve Ukrainian and expatriate readers with a general interest mix of political, business and entertainment coverage. It remained profitable until the economic crisis of 2008 and since that time has been subsidized by its two subsequent owners. The first was Mohammad Zahoor, a British businessman of Pakistani origin, who bought the newspaper from Sunden’s KP Media in 2009. In 2018 he sold it to Adnan Kivan, a native of Syria for around US$3.5 million.

The events that led to the closure were precipitated by a conflict between the owner and staff members over the future direction of the publication. Since then there has been considerable debate and finger pointing on social media regarding what happened. But perhaps the best source of information is an interview conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review with the former Editor-in-Chief Brian Bonner (link), who served in that capacity for 23 years, and posted on November 11. Significantly, both sides of the social media debate have accepted that as the most objective account.

Along with the Kyiv Post and his principal asset, the Kadorr Group, an investment and construction company, Kivan also owns a TV station, Channel 7 in Odesa which, according to Bonner, is “not editorially independent, nor even remotely commercially independent”. Kivan’s net worth is US$242 million and he is the 42nd richest man in Ukraine.

What started the internal conflict was a decision by Kivan to launch a Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post to be run by Channel 7’s Olena Rotari with a separate team and separate content. This decision was made entirely without the knowledge or consent of Bonner or anyone in his newsroom and when it appeared in a Facebook post by Rotari it “blindsided everyone”, says Bonner.

Kivan responded to the dispute by firing the entire staff of the Kiv Post and closed the paper, promising to return with a “bigger and better” newspaper. This happened on November 8. Three days later all the online subscribers got a notice stating: “As you requested, we’ve canceled your subscription effective 11th November 2021. You can resubscribe at any time, we hope you decide to come back soon.” Now that really defies any rational explanation. Maybe some requested that their subscription be cancelled, but certainly not everybody. That was an arbitrary decision by the owner, which means that whatever the future holds for the revamped Kyiv Post, online subscribers are not part of it.

The alternative is a new publication that the former staff of the Kyiv Post are considering should efforts to find another solution fail, which looks like the most likely outcome.

If a new publication is to be launched, then it is important to learn from the current debacle and establish a viable plan to sustain an editorially independent vehicle. And the key lesson here is that if you want to sustain an editorially independent vehicle, then it is imperative that it be economically independent as well.

As mentioned earlier, the Kyiv Post has not made a profit since 2009 and has been sustained by the largesse of its owners. According to Bonner “Kivan has actually invested the most, and interfered the least, of any of the three publishers of the Kyiv Post, and I knew and worked for all three.” This is what makes the current conflict so tragic. But the point is why should we allow the independence of a Ukrainian media outlet to become dependent upon the largesse of a rich tycoon.

The Kyiv Post’s yearly budget was US$1.2 million – half of which came from Kivan, and the other half from its commercial operations. Kivan has apparently invested US$7 million in the paper which he doesn’t expect to ever recover. One way Bonner hoped to expand the commercial revenue was by setting up a paywall for the Post’s website in 2014. Seven years later the total number of online subscriptions is less that 3,000 world-wide (2946 to be exact).

Geographically, the United States led the way with 26% of all subscriptions, followed by Ukraine with 14% and Canada with 12%. That amounts to approximately 360. For a country that prides itself on having the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the Free World (there are approximately 1.4 million Canadians of ethnic Ukrainian origin as compared with 1.1 million Americans), that number is – frankly – pathetic. Surely US$45 per year is a small sum to pay when one takes the need to maintain an independent media in Ukraine into consideration. And let us not forget that an independent media in Ukraine – as well as our own Ukrainian community media here in Canada – are critical weapons in a hybrid war. And a hybrid war, where the information (or disinformation) sphere is the battlefield, is what we have with the Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, too many people today fail to appreciate the importance of financially supporting professional journalism when so much is available free – especially on social media. The downside to this is not only that professional journalism suffers, but so does the truth itself as disinformation proliferates on the internet as a whole, and on social media in particular.

The closure of the Kyiv Post is therefore a wakeup call to Ukrainians worldwide. If we are to work with the Kyiv Post’s former staff and help them establish a viable independent English-language media vehicle based in Ukraine but distributed globally, then we have to get serious about making such a vehicle economically sustainable and independent.

The former staffers of the Kyiv Post have launched their own website (https://savethekyivpost.com), and on November 15, announced plans to start a new publication headed by Olga Rudenko, former deputy chief editor at the Kyiv Post. Jnomics Media, a media consultancy firm based in London and Kyiv, will be responsible for the business side of the new project. The founders of Jnomics are Kyiv Post alumni, Jakub Parusinski and Daryna Shevchenko. That same day they launched a daily newsletter with brief reports on the most crucial events in business, politics, culture, and more. It’s free and if you wish to subscribe go to this link (https://mailchi.mp/9d739c3b1dd3/ukraine-daily)

It is critical for our community here in Canada to get behind this team and do what we can to help support the independent media in Ukraine. But don’t forget about our own media here in Canada. We too need your support because we are all partners in providing the accurate information that is so crucial in a democratic society. A democratic society thrives in an atmosphere where the media can report without fear or favouritism. Where the media can challenge elites, comfort the afflicted and awake the comfortable.

The Washington Post has a slogan – “Democracy dies in darkness”. Nowhere is this truer than in Ukraine.