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In Ukraine, most quality journalism is done by online media, but many outlets depend almost exclusively on advertisement for their income.
— Ukraine's online media outlets have long offered an alternative to politicized traditional media providers, especially the major TV channels.
— Big media conglomerates (used by businessmen to wield influence) distort the media market, making it difficult to make money with quality journalism online.
— Ukraine has a very active civil society, including a vibrant citizen journalism community.
— Going digital remains a huge challenge for many regional media outlets.
— The reform of the public service broadcaster UA: PBC has led to more balanced reporting, but its reach is much too small to offer a viable alternative in a politicized media landscape.
A video camera, two tables with microphones – in a stylish press-center, two ecologists are presenting their new recycling initiative for the city of Kharkiv. The brick wall behind them features the logo of Nakipelo, a young media organization that works to counteract the lack of impartial information in Ukraine’s second largest city.
Nakipelo covers topics from the refurbishment of a city park and the success stories of Kharkiv’s biotech industry to the war in the Donbass region. For civil society organizations, Nakipelo’s press center has long become a crucial platform to increase their visibility. Nakipelo streams their press conferences live on Facebook so they can be used as part of their advocacy work. The young media outlet sees hosting press conferences as part of its mission to work for a stronger civil society in Ukraine.
Maidan protests sparked many new media outlets
It is not a coincidence that Nakipelo has assumed this role. The team started engaging in journalism as citizen reporters during the Maidan protests of 2014. With the Russian annexation of Crimea and pro-Russian tensions rising in Ukraine’s Donbass region, there was substantial fear that the situation would become increasingly unstable in predominantly Russian-speaking Kharkiv. The team remembers that time, "one of the most pressing issues was the lack of information." Nakipelo, Russian for "It’s boiling over," started reporting. For many on the team, it was their first exposure to journalistic work.
During the Maidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in the Donbass that followed, Ukraine experienced a huge rise in civil society activity. When pro-Russian protests started in Kharkiv in spring 2014, Oleksandr Anchyshkyn (among many others) started tweeting, posting information on where pro-Russian actions were planned. Today he has 10,300 followers on the messaging service. His goal is to hold local government accountable. "I want to tell people about problems, so that the authorities can act on them," says Anchyshkyn, who since has run for the local council of his hometown, Dehachy near Kharkiv.
Five years after Maidan, Ukraine’s society is still highly politicized. "People want to be heard," says Nakipelo’s co-founder Roman Danilenkov, describing the motivation of many citizen reporters. "They want to change things." Having matured into a professional media outlet, Nakipelo continues to cooperate with citizen journalists like Anchyshkyn, training them and publishing their stories in a project supported by DW Akademie.
Digital media offer different voices
Nakipelo is part of Ukraine’s vibrant digital media landscape, offering quality journalism and voices different from those in the traditional media. As most major media outlets are owned by conglomerates controlled by the country’s influential oligarchs, going digital provides an alternative to the politicized traditional media institutions, with low entry barriers for new projects. Under the authoritarian rule of former president Victor Yanukovich, high profile journalists left their media outlets under pressure and founded new ones online; more appeared during the Maidan protests.
Quality journalism is mostly digital
Today, most of Ukraine’s quality journalism is digital, including some high-profile investigative media projects, though a lack of professionalization remains a problem for many media outlets. "There is good journalism, but there is not enough of it," says media expert Tetyana Lebedeva. In her opinion, a lack of media and information literacy among journalists makes media outlets vulnerable to spreading fake news. Regional online media institutions, in particular, are still copying too much information from other sources. Many traditional media outlets with regional audiences struggle with their transformation into digital media houses.
Difficult market for independent media
In Ukraine, online media outlets don’t require licensing or registration. Despite a low barrier to enter the market, many media outlets struggle to remain viable in a market deeply distorted by oligarchic media conglomerates. As political influence is more valuable than financial profit to their owners, most of the oligarch media operates at a loss. This creates an unfair playing field, says Maria Fronoschuk, media consultant and CEO of Platfor.ma, a media website, "For other media outlets, it is very hard to compete with their budgets and reach." Fronoschuk says that "most rely mainly on advertising as a business model." But the small advertising budgets available do not allow for substantial growth, "especially if you want to report on socially important issues – and not only on cats."
In Fronoschuk’s experience, many media outlets lack the resources, both financially and in terms of know-how, to analyze their audience in a way that would allow them to tailor their products and business models to concrete target groups and thus increase profitability. "It’s almost a vicious circle."
Unmarked paid content widespread
As a result, "jeansa," journalistic slang for paid commercial or political materials disguised as journalistic content, continues to be a widespread phenomenon in Ukraine’s digital media landscape. In a study on the spring 2019 presidential elections, the Institute for Mass Information found 9.8 percent of all materials published on the candidates in regional media outlets were paid for, and were thus "jeansa."
Public service broadcasters too weak to fill the gap
In this difficult business environment for digital media, public service media could fulfil an important role in offering balanced reporting on relevant issues. Two different models of public service media have emerged in Ukraine. When the commercial Ukraine TV channel TVi changed ownership and was politically streamlined in 2013, its journalists founded Hromadske(English: Public TV), an Internet TV and radio station, as well as a news website, financed through crowdfunding and by grants from donor organizations. Hromadske offers high quality news and background talk radio and TV on relevant political topics. There is also UA:PBC, the former state broadcaster turned public service TV and radio channel. Still fighting with its existing poor reputation, UA:PBC’s ratings are currently less than 1 percent of market share. However, while TV programming is still perceived as fairly uncompetitive and boring, its news programs are seen as the most balanced available in the Ukrainian TV market. In terms of radio, UA:PBC launched a well-reviewed new youth radio station, broadcast mainly through the Internet.
What experts say:
Maria Fronoschuk, CEO of Platfor.ma and media consultant:
Maria Fronoschuk observed a huge wave of new media right after the Maidan revolution. Due to difficult market conditions however, very few managed to grow into professional media outlets. "In Ukraine, we cannot talk about a serious media market with real quality journalism. Many of the small media outlets that appeared after the revolution have turned in blogs. They don’t update very often, and none write about society in Ukraine."
Tetyana Lebedeva, Independent Association of Broadcasters HAM:
Despite the high-quality journalism published by some Ukrainian online media outlets, the general quality of online publications remains low, says Tetyana Lebedeva: "Truthfulness, objectivity and balance have not yet become a prerequisite – not for TV and radio journalists, nor for their online colleagues."
Iryna Solovey, head of Garage Gang, a civil society organization focused on social innovation and the development of Ukrainian society.
Iryna Solovey advocates for more solutions-based journalism. As part of the current transformation of Ukrainian society, media outlets should better orientate their audiences by informing them about what impact current events will have on their daily lives. "There are media outlets that take on the responsibility to shape the discourse. But I don’t see that media are forward-looking enough. Each publisher measures his success not by what he contributed to the public debate, but on how much attention he got with his content. For me it’s important to see the whole picture."
— Improve funding for public broadcaster
In Ukraine’s difficult media market, a public broadcasting service could play an important role in fostering debate within society and making space for more diverse voices. However, UA:PBC would need more funding in order to live up to the expectations put on it after its transformation from a state broadcaster.
— Online media outlets need to experiment with new business models
Ukrainian online media providers are in need of new business models in order to become viable in the digital media landscape. However, many media houses, especially in outlying regions, lack the know-how to find new sources of revenue. They must embrace a culture of innovation.
— Give citizen reporters a voice
As many owners regard their media outlets as a means of wielding political influence, Ukrainian media providers do not include a sufficient diversity of voices from civil society in their coverage. The media landscape would therefore profit from the voices of citizens reporters, many of whom are active within civil society.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer