A newsroom in wartime

It was just one hundred and one days between the launch of the Kyiv Independent, on November 15 last year, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 24. The newsroom had barely been operating for three months on its new mission “to serve as the true, independent voice of Ukraine.” Now it would face its greatest test.

On the morning of Russia’s invasion, Daryna Shevchenko slept in. The night before, she had taken a sleeping pill to help her doze off. The blaring sounds that greeted Shevchenko when she awoke in Kyiv—screaming air-raid sirens, exploding munitions—announced the beginning of a new and terrifying reality in Ukraine.

Shevchenko, whose role as chief executive officer sees her steer the managerial and commercial sides of the newsroom, suddenly found herself working breaking-news shifts. Commercial and advertising revenues dried up overnight. It was frantic trying to produce the quality journalism the world was seeking about the war while trying to ensure the safety of staffers. Shevchenko describes, in those early weeks, the feeling of a newsroom running on pure adrenaline.

After spending the first two weeks in Kyiv, witnessing Kalashnikovs being fired on the streets near her home, Shevchenko made the arduous, three-day journey to western Ukraine. “On the first quiet night,” she said last month, “you could actually hear your thoughts.” She returned to Kyiv five weeks later and has been based in Ukraine’s capital ever since.

Last month, Shevchenko and I met in the concrete-and-glass Westin Bonaventure Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles, at the Online News Association conference. We spoke in October, a few days after Russia had launched a devastating assault on Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This month, the office from which she spoke to me over video call was emptier than usual, with reporters dispatched to cover the latest Russian missile attacks and report on liberated settlements after the Ukrainian counteroffensive. But, she said, “the newsroom is as busy as ever.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

JB: In recent days Kyiv has been hit with missiles again after a period of relative stability. First of all, how are you doing on a personal level?

DS: It’s a complicated question. It was quieter for some time. But Kyiv has been targeted throughout that period as well, just not as massively, and the air defense was working well enough to protect the capital. But a few times missiles hit the suburbs. So this period of relative silence didn’t give us a feeling that we were out of war.

The massive attack on Kyiv on Monday created a lot of flashbacks to the first day of war, February 24, for me. It wasn’t as scary or as shocking as February 24, but it did give me flashbacks, and disrupted the whole workflow. Basically, when something like that happens, the editorial team has to work nonstop, and on my side on the managerial team everything is canceled or pushed back.

 

JB: You’ve just spent three weeks on the road, including being in Los Angeles. Now you’re back in Kyiv. That transition must have been abrupt. But you’ve also spoken about this amazing spirit of unity in Ukraine. What has it been like returning?

DS: A lot of people have asked me whether I feel safer outside of the country. But on the contrary, I feel much safer inside Ukraine. It’s just a mental feeling. It doesn’t have anything to do with objective reality. The feeling of safety is more about being among your people and your community—having your support system in place and knowing everyone around you understands exactly what you’re going through. You meet a barista in a coffee shop and, when you smile at one another, you just know they understand. This is a huge support. So I was relieved to come back home.

 

JB: On the business side, when the newsroom was launched, back in November 2021, you went for all finance streams—memberships, patrons, crowdfunding, syndication, and the commercial and advertising side, which collapsed at the start of the war. How are you handling revenue now after eight months of war?

DS: We are trying to develop all of those and think of new ways to make money, develop the brand, increase brand awareness. The funding is essential for our independence and our mission. We’ve had a lot of progress in developing memberships. We want to get to ten thousand members by the end of the year. We’ll be doing online events, flash mobs, calls for action, running different kinds of stories to engage our readers and have them join our community. We are also very active in trying to find syndication deals. As for the commercial side, the market started reviving a few months into the war. It’s nowhere near what it used to be, but it’s still reviving. Before the invasion, within three months we made around $20,000 in commercial revenues. Since the invasion started, in the remaining eight months, we made pretty much the same or maybe even less. We’re also very understaffed. It’s very hard to find staff for the commercial department.

 

JB: You spoke about all of these revenue streams trying to support the newsroom’s mission. How do you define that mission?

DS: We see our mission as being a bridge between Ukraine and the world. Delivering the truth about what’s going on. Essentially, being “the voice of Ukraine’s resistance”—that’s what we’ve been called in the press, and what we’ve kind of internalized.

 

JB: And to do that, you’re obviously tackling a wave of Russian disinformation and propaganda, which you’ve said is like “trying to cure cancer.” How do you go about doing that, and how difficult is that challenge?

DS: It’s a complicated question. There are a lot of levels at which Russian propaganda is working. In many senses, Russian propaganda is targeting Russians—to sell the story to their own people so they won’t make waves. And they’re obviously successful in that. Then there’s the ways Russian propaganda is targeting the rest of the world, and also Ukrainians. We’re dealing less with [exposing] fakes in Ukraine, because we’re reporting for a global audience. And generally we’re seeing, in my opinion, less fake news distributed by Russian propaganda than in the past, but more fake narratives that have been internalized by Westerners and intellectuals that are based on a knowledge gap about Ukraine, a lack of context. There are a lot of misinterpretations and misjudgments. We launched a special project recently called Explaining Ukraine, which is evergreen content basically like Wikipedia—key data points about the country, history, civil society—that helps our audience look critically about what’s said about Ukraine.

 

JB: Russian propagandists have jumped directly on small mistakes by the newsroom, and written directly about the Kyiv Independent to further their narratives. What’s it like operating under that huge level of scrutiny?

DS: Being a media company means you always work under a huge level of scrutiny. But in our case, we understand it’s a huge responsibility. Every mistake we make is something Russian propaganda can use—not just against us, but against Ukraine and the Ukrainian cause. It can also deceive unprepared readers, making them think we’re untrustworthy. Our editors make a solid effort; I can only remember one or two cases when we made a factual mistake and had to apologize and retract it. Which I think is a good track record, frankly. We’re all human, and humans make mistakes, especially as we’ve all barely taken days off since the invasion. So it’s a lot of pressure, but our mission is to be as accurate as possible.

 

JB: As an English-language newsroom, you’ve said your role is like being in the “diplomacy business,” telling the world about what’s going on. Can you elaborate on that idea?

DS: When a crisis like this happens in the world, a lot of international media companies—with a lot more resources than Ukrainian media—tend to send their journalists and reporters. And that’s great. I’m a big supporter of that. But the thing that they’re missing is the knowledge and understanding of the local context. That’s what we have. We are an English-language media company that is Ukrainian. Eighty percent of our staff is Ukrainian. We know the history, we know what’s happening, we know who’s who. So often, when someone is interviewed in the [international] media, like a lawmaker, and they’re presented as a “freedom fighter,” we know who that person is and how that just isn’t true. And we write in English; it’s not translated. We adhere to all the Western journalism practices and standards to produce content at the level of international media, but with the added value of knowledge of the local context. That’s unique.

 

JB: In terms of coverage from Western outlets, there’s been some dissatisfaction, over the months of the war—for instance, calling it a “conflict” or mixing up city names, simple things like that. What advice do you have for editors to get things right in the future?

DS: We recently created a cheat sheet for the editors on what wording to use for covering Russia’s war against Ukraine. I’m shocked that I still meet people who call Ukraine “the Ukraine,” like it’s some smaller part of something bigger. Which it’s not. We have to finally put a stop to it. Because words matter. Words are something Russian propaganda feeds off. If you’re calling it “the Ukraine,” how can you call out the Russian propagandists who say it’s part of their huge Russian Empire?

It seems like people are still too focused on Russia. For decades, everybody invested in Moscow bureaus. The global news business has a very strong habit of looking at Ukraine—and Central Asia, Caucasus—through a Russian lens. That’s created a lot of mistakes. I remember one story—I think it was a German reporter who called me when the Zaporizhzhia power plant was attacked for the first time. She asked me where I was. I said, “I’m in Kyiv.” And she said, “Well, did you hear the explosion?” And I’m like, if you just looked at the map of Ukraine you’d understand it is almost six hundred kilometers from here! It’s just amazing. There’s so much more people need to learn about Ukraine to understand what’s going on.

 

JB: Your job as a newsroom is also to hold the Ukrainian government and president to account, and you’ve described that quest for truth as “a form of patriotism” in itself. With President Zelenskiy becoming something of a rock star in the Western media, are there ever moments of tension in holding power to account?

For us, worrying about Ukraine and its future means being truthful about what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s not about covering up the mistakes of Ukraine’s government. We released an investigation recently uncovering the wrongdoings of International Legion commanders [which alleged leadership figures were implicated in “abuse, theft, and sending unprepared soldiers on reckless missions”], something we advertised in the beginning of the war as one way to help Ukraine. We didn’t have any doubts about running it. It was an obligation.

With Zelenskiy, the world met him when the war started. We met him before. We’ve followed his career into the presidency. I think he stepped up his game. But also, that is his job. I would expect that of my president, to stay in the country he’s living in when it’s in trouble. I think his celebrity game is more in the West than in Ukraine, although his polling in Ukraine skyrocketed as well. He’s doing well, but he’s a representative of the people. And that’s something the people of Ukraine remember—and I do hope something he remembers. He’s doing well for now, but that doesn’t mean for a second that we as a civil society will ever stop watching him.

 

JB: Finally, we’re over eight months into the war, and some Western media outlets are not covering the war in as much detail as they did at the start. How do you combat that war fatigue?

War fatigue is the main danger for us—for our mission, for our business. Ukrainians will keep reading the news about the war because it’s a matter of life and death to them. But for us, the world’s attention is crucial for victory in this war. It’s a big question: How to keep their attention? We are trying to get more creative, find new formats, and launch new products—new platforms like TikTok, YouTube, documentaries. But I have to say that Ukrainians will not give up the fight, even if it’s without the world’s attention. It will just come at a higher price. And we’re already paying a huge price. And we have to remember this is a proxy war—Ukrainians are not just fighting for Ukraine, they’re fighting for democracy across the world. Ukrainians are losing lives for this. So we’re asking all our colleagues in the media to keep talking about Ukraine, and if they need help, to contact us and we will answer.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Economist, TIME, New York Magazine and others. In 2019, he was awarded Best Newcomer in the State Street press awards.

TOP IMAGE: Ukraine flag. Ukrainian flag on black storm cloud sky. stormy weather