By Illia Ponomarenko
(Six reporters from Kyiv Post have trained in the Alfred Friendly fellowship program since 2014. Ponomarenko, whose fellowship was cut short in 2020 because of the pandemic, was the defense and security reporter at the Kyiv Post and now covers those topics for the Kyiv Independent. He has reported about the war in eastern Ukraine from the start)
There seemed to be nothing unusual about our regular morning news content meeting on Monday, Nov. 8, at The Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s oldest English-language newspaper.
When it was my turn, I gave a short update on COVID-19 in Ukraine and then started to post my article on the situation as the meeting continued.
Sipping my coffee and yawning, I saw that the website dashboard was not responding to me. I asked our website mechanics to fix what I assumed was a simple glitch.
It turned out we had all been locked out of the computer system at that very moment.
What followed was a funeral speech by the boss, chief editor Brian Bonner.
“This is my last goodbye to you,” he said. “I’ve been given an order to shut this newspaper down. There will be no stories, no printed issues, no nothing. Starting from now. I did all I could. Please forgive me.”
We were fired. All 50 of the newspaper’s staff. We were ordered to leave the office that very day.
Publisher Adnan Kivan, a development tycoon from Odessa, following his numerous failed attempts to interfere with our editorial independence and hiring policies, just decided to get rid of us.
One of Ukraine’s most respected publications, with 26 years of history and readers from across the world, including top diplomats and politicians, was killed in a snap. A sweet child of ours, for the sake of which we spent so many sleepless nights writing stories, was no more.
We did try to save the Kyiv Post. We asked Kivan to let us continue using the brand or sell the newspaper to a willing buyer. We did this twice. The answer was no.
Kivan wanted to continue exploiting the brand, and hire more obedient and agreeable reporters and editors.
So that was it. We ended up alone on the beach. We exchanged glances and talked about what we wanted to do next.
And the core content staff of 30 people in our 20s and 30s — Ukrainians and expatriates from America, Britain, France, Canada, Russia and Japan — decided to stay together. We decided that we needed to establish a brand-new media outlet that would keep the independent flame burning.
So we started The Kyiv Independent, the successor of the Kyiv Post’s core principles and standards of quality we were all taught to follow.
We sought sponsors and investors, dealt with paperwork to get regist
ered, and established our business plan. For the past two months, we’ve worked day and night to rise from the ashes.
Thanks tothe great enthusiasm of my mates, we launched this full-fledged media outlet just three weeks after the Kyiv Post was slaughtered. I have never seen a newsroom so aggressively loyal to the core values of true journalism and so eager not to give up without a good fight.
After all, we couldn’t let our country do without a good and credible English-language media outlet talking to the world. Particularly now, as Russia threatens to escalate its war in Ukraine’s east.
In many ways, this endeavor was enabled by our extremely loyal and supportive audience, to our great surprise. And the fact that our cause is important and popular.
The death of an independent Kyiv Post was quite a scandal in Ukraine and beyond. There were periods when we would give two or three interviews to global media outlets every day. As the new year rolls in, we’re still giving interviews about what happened on November 8.
We lost count at over 200 articles and podcasts covering our story in the first weeks.
As of Jan. 6, we’re the biggest Ukrainian media outlet in terms of popular funding from regular rea
ders: we now have 700 patrons on our membership platform, which is a record in our country. Within days, we raised over $10,000 — again, thanks to former Kyiv Post readers willing to help us get back in business by sending us a bit of their money.
What’s great about what’s happened to us is that our case has demonstrated that, against all expectations, people in Ukraine appreciate true journalism and are ready to do something to help it survive.
The Kyiv Independent website was launched by a Kyiv-based IT company at no cost to us. Many lawyers volunteered to advise us on legal issues pro bono. Right now, I am writing these words sitting in an office room belonging to a large co-working space network in Kyiv. The company’s owner had sent me a message on Facebook: “Guys, if you need a place to work and meet at, just come to us; it’s free.”
What happened along with the birth of The Kyiv Independent was something even bigger.
So I decided to say no to quite a few job offers from other media outlets and stay with my old home team. This romantic story of rising from ashes against all odds definitely deserves a chance to play out.