Dose of reality When Zahoor fired Bonner, above, the newsroom went on strike and Zahoor was forced to rehire him. (Oliver Bullough)
If you search for “Ukraine news” on Google UK, you might expect to find the BBC or The Guardian atop the results. Those are, after all, vast news operations that have poured resources into the Ukraine story, from the first protests against President Viktor Yanukovich last fall to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Instead, the search engine’s top result is something called the Kyiv Post, with the slightly hokey tagline: “Independence, Community, Trust.”
American Google turns up similar results, with Kyiv Post again outpacing more prominent outlets, including RT, the lavishly funded Kremlin propaganda outlet.
The more you learn about the Kyiv Post, the more you realize how remarkable it is that it holds its own against these behemoths. Its newsroom budget is less than $25,000 a month. It has but 19 editorial staff; it has faced repeated attacks from regime-allied oligarchs. The fact its reporting survives at all, let alone flourishes, comes down to the unlikeliest of pairings: a journalist from Minnesota and an Anglo-Pakistani billionaire. Each has his own reasons for loving Ukraine, and the Post brought them together.
Brian Bonner, the paper’s 54-year-old editor, and Mohammad Zahoor, the flamboyant steel trader-turned-publisher who bought the Post in 2009, may love Ukraine, but neither is willing to coddle the Ukrainians. Witness, the Post’s June 12 editorial. Bonner and Zahoor had recently had lunch with a circle of businessmen, one of whom criticized the paper’s relentless focus on corruption and war. The paper was talking the country down, he said, scaring away customers, investors, and tourists. “When Ukraine suffers, we suffer,” the Post replied in print. “Readership has never been higher, because the world is tuning in to the horrors unfolding, and revenue continues to be sluggish because of the uncertainty.”
With the Ukrainian currency sliding, the economy in recession, and jobs for the paper’s expat readers scarce, the Kyiv Post is, like the businessmen’s investments, in a precarious position. But it has been in other precarious positions during its 19 years reporting on this ex-Soviet republic, and yet it has maintaned a stance that is almost unique in Ukrainian media: Truth is better than money.
Its reporters have been working constantly since November 2013, when President Yanukovich provoked protests by rejecting a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. “I told the businessmen just like we wrote in the editorial: Blame Putin, not the messenger,” says Bonner. The businessmen, he notes, “have their fortunes on the line. So they don’t like a dose of reality.”
Accidental crusader Zahoor says nostalgia made him buy the Post. Now he’s at the forefront of a huge press-freedom story. (Oliver Bullough)
Less than a fortnight after the editorial appeared came more welcome news: the Post had won the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. The medal has been awarded since 1930, and the list of recipients reads like a directory of the planet’s finest news sources. None has come from Ukraine before, and only two have come from the former Soviet Union. “The Kyiv Post has led the charge for a free press in Ukraine and has held true to the highest ethical standards,” the award citation states. Bonner predicts the paper will have 60 million pageviews on its website this year, the most in its history.
The Post, founded in 1995, was part of the crop of English-language newspapers that sprouted across the old Eastern bloc after the Berlin Wall came down: Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow, Baku, Almaty. The quality of these papers was variable, with the likes of The Moscow Times running large, professional operations, while journalists at smaller rivals, such as Pulse St Petersburg or the Times of Central Asia (I worked for both), struggled to find news, and to know what to do with it when they did.
The papers had plenty of willing employees, young Brits and Americans who were happy to work for a few hundred dollars a month in cash and the chance to get started in journalism. The readership was expats, who didn’t know the local language and wanted to know what was going on. The papers translated local politics, listings, and know-how into English, and advertisers loved them.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Odd couple."