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Successful media in Ukraine: unfulfilled myth or reality

Are quality media capable of being business projects independent of their owner’s financial and political policies a possibility in Ukraine? This was the topic for discussion for participants of the News Integrity Learning Labs, that were held on November 28-29 under the auspices of Internews Network and the Institute of Mass Information. It was attended by representatives of Ukrainian media NGOs, Ukrainian regional and national media editors, as well as media researchers from the European Union and the United States. IMI has already written about two aspects of this discussion, the threat of fakes and the fight against manipulations.

IMI Executive Director Oksana Romanyuk, who was moderating the meeting, noted at the outset that there is a social fragmentation of the media with a deterioration in the quality of its content. There are certain reasons for this, including the fact that fakes and satire are pushing people to distrust the media, as well as a focus on information dumps that seem to promote the dissemination of socially important information, but with repulsive means. According to Romanyuk, in the future, the media will be divided into aggregators, which will be simple in consumption, and respectable but “slow” media.

The main problem for most Ukrainian media is that they don’t earn their keep, they’re not business projects and are therefore dependent on their owner’s wishes in their editorial policy. Several participants of the meeting mentioned this fact, in particular, deputy editor-in-chief of the Detector Media website Maryana Zakusylo. “The impact of the owners of media content is especially tangible on TV stations, their editorial policy is to defend the interests of the owner, not social service,” the expert noted.

If we talk about TV channels, in Ukraine they earn 4 times less than they need from advertising. This data was shared by Kateryna Myasnykova from the Independent Broadcasters Association (IBA). “TV stations compensate the lack of financing by the owners with media corruption (bias pieces). Their level reaches 15% in Western Ukraine and up to 35% in the south. At the same time, they do not consider reporting about the authorities a type of corruption,” Myasnykova said. According to IBA’s executive director, in places where the owner’s funds prevail, there is a more tangible influence on the content, and vice versa, in places where the editorial board is more independent financially, editorial policy is freer.

Television is aware that it is losing its audience, and is, therefore, combining different forms of reporting information: in addition to broadcasting, there is also digital promotion through YouTube and social media, as well as an active use of websites and offline resources. So when, for example, the editor of the news aggregator TSN (1+1 Media) Kateryna Kobernyk told they produce 30-40% of their own content, Petro Shuklinov from Liga.Net refuted that it was necessary to clarify that the aggregator processes content produced by the corresponding TV station 1+1.

Kobernyk and Shuklinov also debated the topic of yellow journalism. According to Kobernyk, “one way or another, viral funny videos, a simplified approach actually meet the people’s needs. The audience allegedly criticizes the funny and simple stuff, but it itself dictates them. We observe the tendency that we need to lighten information, there is a demand for such videos”. Taras Bilka from Hromadske TV Zaporizhzhia supported Kateryna: according to his observations, people in polls about their preferences in the use of information “want to seem smarter, saying something about reforms, but in reality they are not disclosing what they are actually watching and choosing”. Therefore, he, just like Kateryna, is trying to find a middle ground. He doesn’t want to lose his viewers and at the same time wants to provide them with something useful. For Bilka, these are community-oriented topics (for example, how the largest dogwood garden in Europe located near Zaporizhzhya survives, or a trout farm, pieces about home-grown air designers or collectors of racing cars in the region), plus respect for sources of exclusive information, defending them from the authorities, etc. For Kobernyk, these are pieces on history, such as stories of settlers from Western Ukraine, whom the Soviet authorities had moved to Donbas: “People often don’t understand what they want, until they get a taste.”

Tetyana Honchenko, editor-in-chief of the Zaporizhzhya website, has a similar opinion on ‘teaching’ the reader. She became head of the media outlet 2.5 years ago and has made it self-sufficient and profitable (according to her, for Zaporizhzhya, the existence of a website with commercial advertising revenue is a phenomenon and a precedent), but not just with the help of ‘sweet pills’: “We cover difficult topics in an accessible ping-pong mode: this side said this, the other side said that, for example, in corruption scandals. This is something the audience is interested in. The number of clicks for longreads has increased 5 times”, says Honchenko.

Petro Shuklinov from Liga.Net was the most irreconcilable toward yellow journalism, “It’s wrong to follow those who opt for yellow content. If we listen to what people want, it’s a nightmare! Our Ukrainian audience is no different from all other countries, we just have to focus on those who want quality. There are a lot of yellow platforms, and those who offer quality will never be in the majority.” The maximum that Petro agrees on is the use of an explanatory journalism format (up to 3 thousand characters). He is convinced that if his website turned yellow, then its audience would change: those who need quality would go to other media, instead, new people would start visiting Liga. Liga is an independent self-sufficient project. “Content quality determines everything. People with other views may not agree with it, but they can also criticize it”, believes Shuklinov.

Katerina Kobernyk believes each media outlet has the right to choose its vector of development. According to her, nowadays a website’s admin technology allows you to see everything: whether a person reads only the title, where he stopped reading the piece and whether he continued until the end. Therefore, her recipe is ‘first do that which you’re good at and what you’re not ashamed of. Journalism is, in fact, just a profession.’

Grants are one way of keeping the media afloat, but grants are issued under a certain idea, position or trend development. Taras Bilka informed that 6 out of 21 projects conducted by Hromadske TV Zaporizhzhia are being carried out for donor grants. Out of 15 other projects, 3 were moved to the blogosphere. 6 people are involved in the work, they neither position themselves as journalists nor activists, “It’s enough to be a citizen of Ukraine and to know the law,” says Bilka. Hromadske TV Zaporizhzhia uses Facebook as its sole platform.

The citizen journalism project Nakipelo from Kharkiv, which was represented by its head Natalia Kurdyukova, lives on grants which are provided, in particular, for the editorial staff to teach local activists to provide information in a coherent and professional manner, as well as for the selection of socially important topics. According to Kurdyukova, the website is not in the top 10 most visited websites in the region, but that is not the goal. “We are not compelled to write about everything: we write about people, about reforms. We have longer news pieces,” says Natalia.

In her opinion, the 10-15% activists represented in society roughly make up the demand for intelligent information. At the same time, according to her, in the Kharkiv region activism is very effective, but there is a lack of normal influential mass media capable of covering it. Since 2014, sites for press centers where public initiatives could be covered began to appear, and this still works up to this day.

30% of the Nakipelo‘s content is made exclusively for FB, including videos and more. The Dumskaya website in Odessa does roughly the same thing. However, a Facebook  post alone is not a reason for its distribution by the outlet. “We just analyze what is happening on FB and with opinion leaders”, says Kurdyukova. “We use FB posts if there was a previous article and we keep following the facts. We are cautious with information.”

Another media outlet which partially exists through grants is the Lviv Tvoye misto, presented at the discussion by its founder Taras Yatsenko. Taras never gets tired of talking about the feeling of a mission of being with the community, its interests and topics, as well as talking about the possibility and reality of finding a balance between “nice and useful”. “We can influence and create demand for high-quality content, but in order to do this we must know the audience’s needs and add a touch of quality content. And the audience knows we are looking for this balance.”

Regarding financing, grants account for 10-15% in Tvoye misto‘s budget, the same amount comes from contributions by benefactors, and 75% comes from advertising, “We never publish just any advertisements, they shouldn’t be toxic to our readers”, says Yatsenko. Regarding the trends to be covered, the media takes information from 100 roundtables held by public representatives and the authorities, and also directly from the consumers for whom Tvoye misto has become a medium which can be trusted. “Let`s talk about the situation on our roads”, explains Yatsenko. “Everyone is interested in safety, both pedestrians and drivers, we explain that the city’s problems concern everyone.”

The mass media which are usually deprived of grants are former communal outlets. According to the general director of the Ukrainian Association of Media Business Oleksiy Pohorelov, there are about 670 of them. When such an outlet becomes successful, the authorities oppose its destatization (Diana Dutsyk from Detector Media used of Svativski Novyny from the Luhansk region an example). But when the editorial board goes with the flow, it’s difficult to save. Dmytro Klimanov of the Regional Press Association explained that in the Luhansk region of the 12 media, which the association managed to unite and work to revitalize, only 6 can exist on their own. In his opinion, up to 30% of communal newspapers will not survive destatization. Borys Rodiyevsky from the website Obukhiv online (Kyiv region) said that his media outlet receives funding from small advertisers (restaurants, pizza deliveries), as well as through the ‘sale of phone calls’ and their count.

Oleksiy Pohorelov voiced his opinion on what local media in Ukraine should do in order to survive:

  • Study their audience (to study demand through all-Ukrainian monitoring organizations), combine media outlets.
  • Develop effective and modern management, education for local markets, entrepreneurs, communities and authorities. Strengthen participation in various associations.
  • Often communities create their own sites without involving journalists, and their quality is poor.
  • Each journalist should involve himself in self-education and self-organization.

The participants see the future of media in Ukraine as follows, “Specialized media are the future” (Kurdyukova); “Everything will be more and more personalized. When there is no person in the picture, in the image, it’s not interesting” (Bilka); “News from journalists may die, their job will be taken over by robots. On the other hand, there will always be stories. Those who receive money will survive. Small media will exist like small vegetable shops exist, because their service is more human than in the supermarket. And large media will “thicken” (Shuklinov); “The quality of information will be the decisive factor, explanatory journalism will develop. Technically, there will be more media but professional journalism will never go away.” (Zakusylo).

Roman Kabachiy, IMI

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