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Young journalist shares the story of the Kyiv Independent, new English voice from Ukraine

Jun 24, 2022 | News, Ukraine, Canada, Featured

Toma Istomina, deputy chief editor at the Kyiv Independent speaks at the Ukrainian Journalists’ Association of North America (UJNA) annual meeting on June 11

Olena Goncharova for NP-UN 

Toma Istomina remembers her last day at the Kyiv Post as clearly as if it was yesterday. It was a usual morning for her at Ukraine’s oldest English-language weekly newspaper and everybody in the office was setting in when the employees were notified without warning they no longer had a job.

There was shock, but also a clear understanding that Ukraine desperately needs a new reliable media in English language after the owner of newspaper, a real estate developer Adnan Kivan, said that the publication would close immediately “for a short time”, adding that “one day, we hope to reopen the newspaper bigger and better.”

Speaking at the Ukrainian Journalists’ Association of North America (UJNA) annual meeting that took place at the Soyuzivka Heritage Center in Upstate New York on June 10-12, Istomina said she and her colleagues believed it was their duty to keep informing readers about what’s going on in Ukraine. Fears about a possible Russian invasion of the country at the time also increased the need to quickly resume reporting.

The closure of the legacy newspaper was abrupt and alarming, Istomina explained. Shortly after the Post published critical coverage of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office, one of the owner’s media managers announced she would head new Ukrainian and Russian versions of the publication and hire entirely new editorial staff. This was a surprise to the whole newsroom, including its long-serving chief editor, veteran U.S. editor Brian Bonner. The newsroom saw it as an attempt to undermine editorial independence and protested the potential move – right until they learned on November 8 they were no longer part of the Kyiv Post.

“When the Kyiv Post shut down there was no full-fledged English-language media in Ukraine, there was no state media in English language either that could communicate to the rest of the world as to what happens in Ukraine,” Istomina, the former lifestyle editor at the Kyiv Post and now the deputy chief editor at the Kyiv Independent said. “As journalists who worked for years in an English-language outlet in Ukraine, we knew how important it is.”

Lastly, she added, the team felt like they had been fired for doing their jobs professionally, adhering to the best journalism standards and “just didn’t want the bad guys to win.” Days after the incident, the team launched a newsletter called Ukraine Daily to keep its readers updated about the future of the paper, a podcast on the process of their relaunch followed shortly. And finally, on November 22, the former editorial staff of the Kyiv Post launched a new publication called the Kyiv Independent as well as a Patreon page to gather support.

The name of the newly launched publication, Istomina recalls, was a product of many rounds of debates: “It was a real struggle,” she said, adding that a committee was set, polls were conducted to pick the best name and yet it proved to be a difficult task. Now looking back at it, she says, it was a perfect name from the very beginning – despite being long – as it encapsulates what the team is.

Hurdles ahead

Little did they know at the time that in just a few months their media startup will have to endure a full-scale war on top of the uncertainty, extended work hours and little pay.

The war, however, not only brought all the attention to the small team working around the clock to deliver quality, fact-checked news from the war-torn nation, it also rewarded the team with tremendous support pouring in from all over the world.

The Kyiv Independent now has more than 2.1 million followers on its Twitter, and a steady following across its Facebook, Telegram and Instagram accounts. It’s raised more than £1.5 million ($2 million) on its GoFundMe page, and over 6,600 patrons have signed up to pitch in more than $66,000 worth of contributions each month. In the early days of its existence, the Independent’s team also relied on grants that helped to pay bills and salaries for staff.

As the full-scale invasion unfolded, the team prioritized short news updates that were prepared by the team members scattered across Ukraine, Europe and North America. Some of the team members also report from the frontlines providing detailed dispatches. Now the Kyiv Independent provides a steady 24-hour coverage on its website thanks to the dedicated teams in both Ukraine and North America, following the news literally night and day. The hard work paid off, and the website traffic went from under 100K users in January to 2.8 million in March, keeping the Kyiv Independent team busy.

Since then, four of the team members were featured in Forbes Top 30 under 30 list, while the Independent’s chief editor Olga Rudenko was on the cover of the Times magazine.

Istomina is certain that the Kyiv Independent’s success didn’t happen by chance. As they are writing their story during the most tragic time in Ukraine’s history, she said it is thanks to the dedicated team that stayed together, they managed to achieve these results. “We moved really fast and didn’t try to make it all perfect. If you want to make things perfect, you are not getting them done,” she added. Lastly, Istomina says, it was “a good story” that helped the Kyiv Independent take it off to a good start.

Editor’s note: Olena Goncharova is the Canadian correspondent for the Kyiv Independent.

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