The Media Today

Q&A: Ukraine’s Media Development Foundation on news deserts in wartime

March 13, 2024
Lviv, Ukrainia - March 17, 2016: Ukrainian Newspapers in front of a shop in Lviv.

Two years ago last month, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The consequences for the latter country’s press were instant, huge, and, sometimes, deadly—by my rough count, thirteen journalists were killed in the first month of the war, in the line of their work but also at home or fighting for their country at the front. Ukrainian media outlets, particularly at the local and regional level, also suffered financially. Before the invasion, such outlets, like their counterparts in the US and elsewhere around the world, were already struggling to monetize in a digital world; afterward, advertising revenue dried up and many local newsrooms looked to international donors to survive, according to a report published by the Media Development Foundation, a Ukrainian nonprofit, in the spring of 2022. “Everything has been disrupted by war,” Andrey Boborykin, who helped lead the report, told my then-colleague Gabby Miller at the time. “Some publishers were quite well prepared for that and were responding to this challenge in a very rational and effective way, and some were totally, by all means, not.” 

Since then, the war has ground on, and journalists in Ukraine have continued to face threats—including, apparently, from their own side: as I reported in January, journalists who have investigated domestic wartime corruption in Ukraine have recently been harassed and surveilled. And, particularly for local outlets, the more mundane financial and operational challenges have persisted, too. Recently, MDF published a new report focused on Ukraine’s “news deserts”—a term, popular in much discourse about the decline of local news in the US, that is increasingly gaining global purchase. “After the full-scale invasion begun in 2022, a number of media outlets have ceased to exist either due to physical damage done to their hromada (it was occupied or destroyed) or due to a dire financial situation following the collapse of local ad markets,” the report concludes. (A hromada is a local administrative unit in Ukraine, similar to the idea of a municipality in the US.) “The war [has] exacerbated the issue with local media and media registries, as there are paper trails of editorial teams that no longer operate.”

The report focused on local outlets that serve citizens’ “critical informational needs.” (Some outlets were excluded from the research, including those with a more niche focus.) It also focused on eleven “frontline and borderline” regions that had been “severely damaged” since Russia’s 2022 invasion. (The MDF plans to expand its analysis nationwide going forward.) Of sixty-nine administrative subdivisions across these eleven regions, the authors graded nearly a third as “unhealthy,” meaning that no news outlet is based there, and that no, or only scant, coverage comes from outside. As the authors note, this doesn’t necessarily mean that residents in such areas get no news at all; the messaging app Telegram, in particular, has become a significant source of information in wartime Ukraine. Still, in the Luhansk region, for example, “many media outlets have simply ceased to exist due to the temporary occupation,” the report found. “Almost all media outlets from temporarily occupied hromadas are in exile, operating in the government-controlled part of Ukraine with only local informants.”

Following the release of the report, I spoke about it with Boborykin—who, aside from working as a program expert with the MDF, is the executive director of Ukrainska Pravda, a major independent news outlet—and Maksym Sribnyi, the head of the MDF’s research department. Our conversation, conducted over email, has been edited for length and clarity.

JA: The idea of “news deserts” has been a widely discussed one in the US (and elsewhere) for a while now. How did you and your colleagues become aware of the concept of “news deserts” and first think about applying it to the Ukrainian media landscape?

AB: The idea initially came from me, as I was reading quite a lot about news deserts from American and European sources, most notably the news deserts project produced by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and Margaret Sullivan’s book Ghosting the News. Surprisingly, the challenges currently faced by the local media industry in the US and Western Europe are very similar to what has been happening in Ukrainian local news for the last decade. One major difference is that we only had thirty years to build a free press [following the collapse of the Soviet Union], so there was almost no “great golden age of journalism” in Ukraine to feel nostalgic about. That also makes for a much lower base from which we measure overall decline. Another big difference is, of course, the full-scale invasion, which has accelerated the desertification of Ukrainian news since 2022. Until recently there hasn’t been any significant research into this phenomenon in Ukraine, and that’s why I started pitching that to the research team. We want this research to be used by the global community of media scholars as well as the international donors working in our region, as clearly some areas need more help than the rest.  

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What are some of the challenges of conducting this type of analysis in the Ukrainian context?

MS: The main challenge would be that there are no definite registries on media outlets now in place. We had one registry with some longevity; however, it was only for print papers, including party papers and university magazines, and was discontinued in 2021. After the adoption of a new media law, a new registry is being slowly put up; however, it [will be a long time] before it will provide some sort of useful data. So a lot of research is just finding media in the regions, hoping that they are operating now and didn’t close at some point in the past.

Another challenge is temporarily occupied territories. There is no definite way to gauge access to media outlets by people residing under occupation. To access websites with the domain .ua, one must be technically proficient enough to install some sort of VPN, and these connections are not registered as Ukrainian by site analytics. Print media is out of the question entirely, TV is heavily restricted, and radio coverage is more of an exception to the rule. 

Yet another challenge is peripheral actors in journalism—Telegram channels, regional Facebook groups, and all sorts of chats (home chats, residing-area chats, and so on). They are tough to analyze at all, as they aren’t media per se, yet the role of disseminating information is largely done by them.

You say in the report that there has been a lack of prior research on this phenomenon in Ukraine, but MDF conducted research on the shape of the media landscape in the years before Russia invaded. What are the biggest overall lessons to take away from these years of research, do you think, especially as regards how the local-news landscape has changed since the invasion? What are the biggest challenges local outlets face now (beyond the very obvious threat of direct Russian aggression and occupation)?

MS: The local media must be acutely aware of international relations between different states and Ukraine, since a lot of their revenue depends on grant funding. The biggest challenge is then the possible decrease in international aid to Ukraine. There are not a lot of ways to diversify revenue streams, as the ad market is still not as strong as in 2021 (albeit recovering in a way) and reader revenue is out of the question almost entirely (military needs are far ahead in fundraising). The other challenge is a loss of personnel to mobilization and attacks by Russian forces. We have media that lost their CEOs and/or editors in chief to the armed forces of Ukraine (and, unfortunately, some of these people have been killed in action on the front). Some media outlets have even reorganized their hiring scenarios not to include men of draft age.

This research focuses on eleven oblasts, or regions, that “are frontline and borderline regions that have been severely damaged during the full-scale invasion.” Why did you choose to focus on these areas initially?

MS: These eleven oblasts have had their whole media landscape severely reshaped due to the Russian invasion of 2022. If we are to map news deserts, we have to start in areas actively being desertified by enemy forces.

Some of the outlets you write about, serving the Luhansk region for example, are internally displaced. How do you think about these types of outlets within the news desert framework, which typically is very closely tied to the idea of an outlet being geographically rooted in a particular area? In wartime, how can an outlet be said to serve an area without physically being there?

MS: We assumed that the geographical area is not just square kilometers on a map. These areas have been populated with people who have some sense of regional identity (solidified by the Russian invasion). They are “people from Luhansk Oblast,” even if they live in Lutsk or Norway. So with the internally displaced media outlets, we gauged their coverage of issues important to people who have fled the area. These media outlets closely follow communities of their kin in different cities, highlighting them and keeping this identity. A majority of internally displaced outlets are just that—a lighthouse to gather all the scattered people of their city. 

Your methodology filtered out outlets that have opaque ownership structures, or cover niche areas, or have exclusively investigative content—even if they are otherwise high quality. Can you explain why you chose to do this? In the US, for instance, I imagine the presence of a local investigative outlet would militate against an area being classified as a “news desert”…

MS: The spirit of the “news desert” concept lies in vitalizing grassroots democracy. And local democracy consists of many daily choices one has to make. It is not always outrage about embezzling money, or being deeply tied to a local cultural scene. The framework of “critical information needs” includes all facets of local life. Investigative media should be present, yet they do not provide a comprehensive picture of local issues, much needed for constructive discussion and democratic processes. Investigations also arise from local beat reporting, and those same reporters cover the aftermath of the investigation. So we chose to focus our “news desert” definition on those media outlets.

The report mentions “the privatisation of state-owned newspapers and decentralisation reform” in Ukraine, dating back to before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Can you explain what this process is and how it has affected local news provision?

MS: Before that reform, every local governance body had their own “official” publication, an outlet that informed people of decisions, budgets, addresses by politicians, and so on. These media outlets were financed by governmental bodies; therefore, they were not interested in competition, market research, or similar issues. There were a lot of talented professionals operating these media, yet a large number of them were complimentary in their coverage due to the funding. After the reform, these editorial teams have been reorganized into “private enterprises” or other nongovernmental entities. In theory, the reform should have eliminated the issue of funding by local authorities and provided an independent media outlet in every single city, town, or village. In practice, though, only some of them have become independent. Some of them stayed on the old tracks with a new label (still funded by local government, just not directly); some of them ceased to exist. Now there is a patchwork between communities with independent media that hold local authorities accountable, local media that do not criticize local authorities at all, and without media. 

I note that your research got EU funding. How did that come about?

AB: MDF works with all major donors that have media programs in Ukraine. Part of our research output is funded by the EU, which is a major media donor in Ukraine. 

Finally, Andrey, we last spoke back in January, when there was growing concern among many Ukrainian journalists about intimidation linked to their work, apparently at the hands of allies of the government and the security services. Has that story evolved at all since we last spoke? What is the atmosphere like for investigative journalism in Ukraine now?

AB: I would say that the atmosphere feels a bit less intense now, but we are still far from saying there’s less pressure on journalists in Ukraine.

Other notable stories:

  • In other news about journalism and the war, Russian president Vladimir Putin this week signed a bill banning businesses from advertising with entities registered as “foreign agents”—further tightening a legal designation that he has increasingly used to hobble independent journalism, as I reported last year. Meanwhile, Russian authorities have reportedly charged Mikhail Zygar—a journalist and former editor of the independent broadcaster TV Rain, who has himself been tagged as a “foreign agent” and is now living in exile—with spreading “fake news” about Russian atrocities in Ukraine; the Moscow Times has more. And Leonid Volkov—an ally of the Russian opposition leader (and sometime journalist) Alexei Navalny, who died in prison last month—was attacked with a hammer yesterday at his home in Lithuania, where he currently lives in exile.
  • Also yesterday, Robert Hur—the special counsel whose recent report into President Biden’s handling of classified documents led to no charges but did cast aspersions on Biden’s mental faculties, sparking a media frenzy—testified about his report before Congress. Meanwhile, journalists were finally able to review transcripts of Hur’s interviews with Biden, and found, in the words of the Washington Post’s Matt Viser, that Biden “doesn’t come across as being as absent-minded as Hur has made him out to be.” Writing for Lawfare, Quinta Jurecic took the press to task for their initial coverage of the report. “Overstated though his report might have been,” Jurecic writes, “Hur’s interest in Biden’s age was no match for that of the mainstream press itself.”
  • Danielle Belton, the editor in chief of HuffPost, writes about the supercharged news cycle of the past few years, the bleak state of the news business, and how she has personally processed it all. “To some, it may seem hyperbolic, but to those of us who are both blessed and cursed with information, 2016 and the pandemic offered sobering realizations that no one is actually in charge,” Belton writes. “Oh sure, we have a president, a Congress and a judiciary. We have laws, and institutions that enforce them, if sometimes unevenly. But no one is really ‘in charge.’ There’s no single person or entity who can actually stop us from sliding into anarchy.”
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Jacob L Nelson, Zeve Sanderson, and Seth C. Lewis recap their recent research showing a “growing disconnect between how journalists see themselves and how people see journalists.” Rather than seeing journalists “as watchdogs acting in the public’s best interest, people increasingly see journalists as elites who are acting in their own interests,” they write. Such skeptics don’t necessarily avoid the news, but they do seek to fact-check what they consume—a habit that “actually leaves people more likely to believe misinformation.”
  • And the streaming service Max is out this week with The Girls on the Bus, a new series following fictional female campaign reporters covering a presidential election. “You can literally equate this presidential election and the state of American politics over the last decade to the worst reality show you’ve ever had to sit through,” Julie Plec, who cocreated the show with the former Times reporter Amy Chozick, told the AP. “To be able to embrace that idea and put it into this show does make it feel really of the moment and yet also timeless.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.