KIEV—For Ukrainian journalists, “jeans” is not just a pair of denim pants, but also a media piece published for a payment without any mention of the latter. It’s simple: you pay, they publish—this is jeans. Why “jeans”? No one really knows. But it would be fair to say that in Ukraine, secretly paid-for stories come in as many styles and are almost as ubiquitous.
“Jeans” is not a recent phenomenon here, but has been part of local media life since the early 1990s. Indeed, jeans are a natural extension of Soviet media practices that included direct government interference in the editorial policy of broadcasters and publishers, all of which were state-owned. Jeans have become especially common in Ukraine since 2004, after the Orange Revolution had perturbed the post-communist course of things, ushering in a new era of political and business conflicts. These conflicts spilled over to the pages of general-audience media and filled them with materials intended to advance policy agendas and business interests of different sides. The financial crisis of 2007-2009, which was especially hard on Ukraine, gave even more space to jeans by shrinking the advertising market, cutting off a key support of legitimate revenue.
I started preparing this story before massive protests erupted in Ukraine in response to government’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. The scale of the protests, and the political changes they could bring, may turn out to be the needed catalyst for major shifts in the structure and practices of Ukrainian media market, including the pervasiveness of jeans.
Prevalent as the practice is, many people aren’t fully aware that jeans exist at all—and this is a problem. This cloak of secrecy and semi-acknowledged status reduces room for informed discussion—and, ultimately, decisions—among the interested stakeholders, readers first and foremost.
In any case, leaving judgments aside, the most productive way to really understand how jeans work and why they survive in Ukraine is to trace their place in the Ukrainian media’s business model, to look at the size and pricing of the jeans market, where the demand comes from, why the supply exists. In other words, to figure out who pays the proverbial piper and why the piper lets someone behind the scenes call the tune.
Officially, jeans don’t exist—you can’t call the editorial office of a media entity and order a story for a mutually agreed-upon fee. If you try, you will hear, “We do not publish anything for money, except the conventional advertisements.”
But the reality is different. Indeed, the Institute of Mass Information, a Kiev-based NGO devoted to promoting quality journalism and educating media consumers, regularly monitors Ukrainian media to measure the incidences of jeans. The institute tracks six national newspapers and magazines, and four online publications. According to their results (all links are in Ukrainian), jeans stories in Ukrainian print publications made up an estimated six percent of all copy during 2013, while in online publications the rate is substantially higher, in August reaching a peak of 18 percent. Approximately seventy percent of jeans, according to IMI, is political, that is aimed at promoting some political party or agenda, while the rest is business-related, that is aimed at pushing some product or improving the public image of certain businessmen. Ukrainian Educational Center for Reforms, another NGO, which monitors smaller and regional-level publications, reports jeans rates of 16.3 percent in print outlets in September and 16.9 percent in online ones.
The NGOs’ methodology is straightforward: a panel of media experts read the scrutinized publications in full and identify jeans materials if a story: represents the interest of just one side; blatantly promotes certain products or services; or covers politicians at ribbon cuttings and other trivial events. If a story appears in identical form in different publications, it means it has probably been paid for. Jeans also tend to feature comments from people who are not competent to express an expert opinion on the issue being covered.
“Things will not get better after signing Association Agreement with the EU—Symonenko,” is a story ran by news website Obozrevatel.com that is an illustrative example of jeans, and has been categorized as such by the IMI experts. This piece reports the Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko’s statement on the dangers of closer integration between Ukraine and European Union for the country’s economy: a view that has always been one of the cornerstones of communists’ political platform, has been reiterated many times over the past several months of active Agreement-related negotiations, and is characterized by cataclysmic exaggerations often superseding any economic arguments. Tellingly, it is based solely on the party’s press-release. (Neither the website nor Symonenko responded to the IMI’s report or a request for comment from me.)