Kyiv Post‘s unlikely success

An editor from Minnesota and a Pakistani billionaire are riding the story of their lives as Ukraine unravels
September 2, 2014

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.

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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.

“We were classic expat,” says Bonner. “Where to eat; where to get laid; where to get drunk. In fact, that’s how I fell in love with the Kyiv Post. I was here in 1996 for the first time, and didn’t know Russian or Ukrainian. The Kyiv Post was my navigator for everything.” Bonner worked for the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time, which was owned by the Knight Ridder chain. He came regularly to the former Soviet Union, often to fill in for the chain’s Moscow correspondent.

Ukraine had staggered out of the USSR. Its lackluster reforms made a handful of oligarchs extremely rich, often on the back of the gas trade with Russia, but left everyone else facing wage arrears and high inflation. Bonner joined the Post in 1999, as the whole economy was collapsing in the wake of Russia defaulting on its debt. He left again shortly afterward, returning in 2008, just in time for another economic disaster.

In January 2009, the paper’s founder, Jed Sunden, who had created a small media empire for himself in Ukraine but was now feeling the crunch, put the paper up for sale. For an English-language newspaper like the Post, prosperity is tied to the number of English speakers in its city, which is a function of how the local economy is doing, since expats tend to work for foreign companies. In 2008 and again in 2010, with its banking sector in crisis, Ukraine turned to the International Monetary Fund for bailouts. In 2009, its economy contracted by nearly 15 percent. Foreigners left in droves.

Buyers for the Kyiv Post were not exactly queuing round the block. What it needed was a rich man, one with a fondness for its heritage and an indifference to whether it made any money or not. Remarkably, it found one: Mohammad Zahoor. He remembered the paper from the 1990s, and explained his decision in one word: “nostalgia.”

“I knew from day one that commercially it was not going to survive,” Zahoor says. “The only thing I was striving for was to at least break even, so the journalists and newspaper can feed themselves instead of asking for subsidies.” The brand and goodwill cost him just over a million dollars, the Post reported at the time.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine has not attracted many huge foreign investment projects. The market is too small, and corruption has been too stifling. Last year, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index rated Ukraine at 144th in the world, alongside the Central African Republic. That kind of corruption scares away all but the most robust foreigners.

Zahoor, who was born in Pakistan but became a British citizen, is a robust foreigner. He arrived in Soviet Ukraine in 1974 to study metallurgy in the factories of Donetsk, before moving to Moscow to trade steel. He invested in steel mills in eastern Ukraine and, despite pressure from local competitors, managed to modernize one plant and sell it in 2008, at the very crest of the economic wave, for a sum estimated in the Ukrainian press at around a billion dollars. “Everyone was looking to buy steel assets; I was the only one who was looking to sell steel assets because I thought this is not going to sustain,” Zahoor says. “Six months after I sold the mill, the market crashed. I felt bad for the buyer.”

We spoke in his office on a leafy Kiev boulevard. He was wore a beautifully cut midnight blue jacket with a purple silk handkerchief in the top pocket. His office walls featured photos of his wife, Kamaliya, a former pop star, actress, and Mrs. World, her face framed by a golden mane of hair.

No one can accuse Zahoor of not enjoying his wealth. He and Kamaliya appear regularly on red carpets around the world and were featured together on a British reality-television show called Meet the Russians, which inspired the Daily Mail headline: “Are these the tackiest tycoons in Britain?”

A profile in British GQ—headline: “Blingski Korsakov”—described how Zahoor and the writer waited almost an entire day for Kamaliya to have her eye makeup done to her satisfaction. A private jet was also waiting, at a cost of $7,000 an hour, because Zahoor had decided they should go to Odessa for lunch. They finally got there for a late supper. Kamaliya has been quoted as saying she once spent nearly $110,000 in a two-hour shopping spree, and been photographed bathing in champagne.

Under the circumstances, Zahoor’s decision to spend a million dollars on a bankrupt English-language newspaper in Kiev appears relatively modest. He had agreed to stay out of steel as part of the deal to sell his plant, and was looking for other businesses to get involved in. He invested heavily in print quality and added pages. He spent money on the website and tried to create Russian- and Ukrainian-language versions (they did not work out). He also removed the classified advertisements for “massages,” signaling a change in tone.

“They made money, but Zahoor made the decision that it’s going to be a family newspaper, we’re not going to take that money,” said Bonner.

We were sitting in the Post’s offices on the top floor of a handsome stucco-fronted residential block about a 15-minute walk from Maidan, the square in central Kiev where the revolutionaries fought Yanukovich’s riot police. Its windows looked out onto rooftops bathed in summer sun, as squadrons of newly fledged swifts screamed by. The room was lined with open-faced box files containing a decade’s worth of copies of the paper. “You can see where the crisis hit, we had very thin paper, you can see exactly,” says Bonner. “October 2008, we had 16-page papers with poor newsprint, and you can see where Zahoor took over, we had fat papers, 32 pages, lots of color, nice newsprint.”

In early 2010, some six months after Zahoor’s takeover, Ukraine elected a new president. The choice was between photogenic populist Yulia Tymoshenko, who dominated the west of the country, and ex-convict Viktor Yanukovich, whose heartland was the industrial east. Bonner felt the paper should take a position, and endorsed Tymoshenko. Its characteristically pithy headline when Yanukovich won was: “From Prison to President.”

“We editorialized repeatedly about the dangers of electing Yanukovich, and that didn’t win us a lot of friends,” says Bonner.

Yanukovich quickly seized control of the country. He jailed Tymoshenko and took over large chunks of the economy. His son Alexander, a dentist, soon became one of the richest men in the country. Media outlets that told the truth about what was happening irritated Yanukovich.

The Kyiv Post was one such outlet. Vlad Lavrov, one of its journalists, also works for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which has focused on stories about graft despite pressure from officials not to. In April 2011, the capital buzzed with rumors about grain exports being blocked. Traders suspected it was designed to force prices lower and allow officials to buy up the harvest themselves, then sell it later when the block was lifted.

In an interview, the Post challenged agriculture minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk over the holdups. The minister failed to provide a reasonable explanation, and Bonner thought it was an important story. Zahoor disagred. Bonner ran it anyway. Zahoor fired him.

Bonner says: “We were under significant pressure not to publish the story throughout the week.”

Zahoor says: “It was not a full story, so I fired him, not for the story itself but for not obeying what we agreed. And it is not his newspaper, in fact. It is my newspaper.”

Almost all media outlets in Ukraine were and remain controlled by oligarchs, who use them to further their business or political interests, but the Post was supposed to be different. Zahoor had never previously intervened in specific editorial decisions, and Bonner’s sacking was a worrying sign. The newsroom went on strike.

Faced with overwhelming opposition from the journalists, Zahoor reinstated his editor, and the two have not clashed since. The Post now had a united team, which was lucky since it had enemies enough elsewhere. A tour of the newsroom, which is decorated with the journalists’ favorite front pages, shows some of the reasons why: “Ukraine’s greatest crimes, injustices and other tragedies” (December 11, 2008); “All in the Family” (about Yanukovich’s assets, March 2, 2012); “Liberty or Death” (January 24, 2014, at the height of the anti-Yanukovich protests).

“Whenever we try to be neutral, it looks like we’re in the opposition,” says Zahoor. “Everybody thinks it’s a CIA newspaper.”

Just two months before Bonner was sacked, the Post had survived a defamation case brought by Dmitry Firtash, a government-allied billionaire who felt an article about the murky Russia-Ukraine gas trade in which he made his fortune had damaged his reputation.

He sued in London, where the libel laws favor the complainant and where he was trying to build a new life as a philanthropist. It was not a farfetched venue, since another oligarch had successfully sued a Ukrainian magazine in London in 2008. But fortunately for the Post, this time the judge thought differently, ruling that he did not have jurisdiction.

Losing the case would have bankrupted the paper, and Bonner thinks Firtash’s aim was to close it down. The Ukrainian authorities, Zahoor says, then launched court cases against other parts of his business empire, including a project to turn a beautiful but derelict building in central Kiev into a luxury hotel. They wanted the paper to dial back its coverage, he says, “which we did not.”

Anti-corruption activists say Yanukovich’s favorite businessmen abused the state procurement fund, embezzling up to 30 percent of it and using the money to finance lavish lifestyles. Sergei Kurchenko was one businessman who became extremely rich during Yanukovich’s time in office (he is widely assumed to have fled to Russia when the president did, and has denied any wrongdoing). By 2013, he was accumulating media outlets that specialized in reporting corruption. Forbes Ukraine was among them, and its editor, Vladimir Fedorin, quit in protest, believing (rightly) that Kurchenko would neuter its coverage. I asked Fedorin who was left doing accountability journalism when Forbes was dialed down: Zerkalo Nedeli (Mirror of the Week, a magazine), Ukrainska Pravda, and Kyiv Post, he said.

That meant that by September last year, only three news outlets in a country of 45 million people were still reporting on the central issue in Ukraine: the entire government was on the take. That month, Kurchenko offered $3.5 million for the Post, far more than it was worth. Its print edition only has 15,000 or so readers and advertising revenue is dwindling.

Zahoor said he would consider selling the paper, but only to someone who would preserve its “soul,” and he could not trust any oligarch with ties to the government to do that. He thought they were trying to control the media as part of a strategy to transform Ukraine into the kind of managed democracy Putin has built in Russia, and he wanted no part in it. “It would have been a betrayal of the readers,” Zahoor says.

Two months later, revolution broke out. Ukrainians finally tired of officials stealing approximately a sixth of GDP every year, and demanded closer ties to the EU. Protesters came to Maidan—they called it “Euromaidan”—carrying the blue and gold flags of the EU. “Intense would not even describe it,” says Katya Gorchinskaya, Bonner’s deputy, describing what it has been like to ride this story. “It’s boiling, completely unsustainable; you live on adrenaline all the time. Quite often I would go to bed and hope that when I woke up it would have all gone away.”

Reporting the revolution was exhilarating, but it was bad for business, as the economy slumped once more and advertisers dropped away. Bonner has canceled the paper’s subscriptions to AP and Reuters, and allows his reporters to freelance to supplement their salaries. In the months since the revolution, his reporters’ bylines have been seen in Mashable, the Financial Times, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The paper has received grants from international organizations to allow its staff to travel, and it erected a paywall on its website—$50 a year—in an attempt to make money from its millions of visitors. Some 2,000 people had coughed up by the end of July.

Zahoor still makes up the shortfall, but Bonner is determined to make the Post work financially: “When a guy’s already giving you $5-10,000 a month, you can’t go asking him, ‘Hey, daddy, can you raise my allowance?’ We had to hustle up our own money, and now we’ve got to hustle up more,” he says.

On February 21, 2014, the day after clashes with police killed some 100 protesters, the paper’s headline was: “Bloodlust.” The next day, Yanukovich fled. Less than a week later, disguised Russian servicemen began to take over Crimea. And so it goes on, with Bonner at the center of it all. “I love Ukraine,” he says. “I’m an American, and my country’s always my country, and I’m sure I’ll go back. But after more than 10 years of my life here, this is almost like home, and I love it almost as much as America.”

Oliver Bullough is a journalist and author from Wales. He worked in the former Soviet Union from 1999-2006 and has written two books about Russia