The last 18 months have made most of us expert at adapting. There’s been no choice. I’ve found this newfound muscle to be very useful. When things go wrong now, I am more likely to shrug and adjust. That came in handy on my trip this week. I realized at Miami airport security that I forgot my laptop. Let mr tell you, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve made slides on your phone. So this week’s The Rebooting is the first column I’ve written on my phone and sent from the Istanbul airport.
The story of Mezhyhirya is almost too outlandish to be true and yet it is. Viktor Yanukovych built a sprawling estate on to acres of state property, using it to construct a gaudy palace with golden shower heads, a boxing ring, a stuffed lion and ostrich farm, funded by money stolen from the country he led. I was told the many workers at Mezhyhirya needed to hide when Yanukovych was around. Entering a jewel-encrusted elevator, I overheard a Ukrainian on the tour say something I understood from Serbian: Bozhe, or “Oh God,” said with an eye roll and extreme exasperation.
Mezhyhirya has become a symbol in Ukraine. It’s now a national park, home to the Museum of Corruption.
It was also the site of a triumph of investigative journalism as the secret of Mezhyhirya was exposed by painstaking work by Ukrayinska Pravda in 2014, playing a critical role in eroding support for Yanukovych ahead of his fleeing for Russia amid the Maiden Revolution. Journalists descended on Mezhyhirya and uncovered documents detailing the mind-boggling corruption that’s estimated to have drained as much of a fifth of the country’s output from 2010-2014. Mezhyhirya is a fitting place for a journalism conference.
I spent the past week in Kyiv, where I spoke at the Mezhyhirya Fest, a journalism conference for the region. My topic was why true investigative journalism needs sustainable business models to continue.
One of the best parts of travel is it allows you to shift contexts, both breaking up the day to day and shifting perspective. Of course, my experience is very much based on my own context in the US. At Digiday, we tried to operate on a global level, with a team in London, events throughout Europe as well as a joint venture in Japan. One of my favorite parts of my role was the ability to meet people from around the world and hear of their challenges. And many are the same for anyone in the publishing business.
- Getting people to value quality content vs cheap low-quality information.
- How to build a direct relationship with an audience and ideally a community.
- The need for reader revenue amid a tough ad market.
The wrinkle is the context these publishers operate in makes their approaches by necessity different. The political and economic situation in Ukraine is incredibly complex. This is a country at war with Russia, which occupies parts of its eastern territory, a war in Europe much of the world seems to want to pretend doesn’t exist. Ukraine has a small economy, where the median wage is a little more than $500 a month. The media sector is underdeveloped, with many publications under control of it closely aligned with powerful figures and political interests. Independent media is often reliant on grant programs from the EU snd US, allowing them to be discredited by opponents for being tools of outsiders pursuing their own interests — and putting off the development of workable business models. And then there’s the corruption. Ukraine ranks 117th of 180 countries in the Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
That certainly puts in some perspective the challenges media in the US and rich European countries face. For all the angst in newsrooms, Americans should keep in mind that they basically won the lottery being born there (or moved there). The US market is massive and deep. The ad market is massive, even with the dominance of platforms. People have ability to pay for subscriptions. When there’s talk of “subscription fatigue,” the context is juggling subscriptions to streaming services, news outlets and newsletters. In Ukraine, as one publishing executive put it to me, you’re competing with payments for transportation and necessities.
In that kind of context, different choices need to be made. I was able to sit in on pitches made by regional news startups from across Ukraine, everything from a news site covering Transcarpathia to a publication focused on Ukraine’s growing IT industry. These were impressive but eye opening. In small markets, you find people need to do many things. I remember visiting s media company in Belgrade to find it was also a Ycombinator, and WeWork. Focus is a luxury.
Beyond the macro economic, political and social challenges of operating a media business in a place like Ukraine, there are basic issues. Take payments. Stripe doesn’t work here. PayPal only works for payors, not payees. Simply taking payments is hard. Many independent media rely on crowdfunding via Patreon.
I was impressed by the creative ways publications are trying to build a culture of paying to support independent news. At Ukrayinska Pravda, for example, members can join editorial meetings. A scrappy Lviv startup, The Ukrainians, is holding in-person meetups for its members to build a community.
This is hard work. People need to do several jobs at once. There wasn’t any talk about mental health, work-life balance or culture war stuff. That too is a luxury this context doesn’t afford. I’m not saying these things are unimportant, but everyone should be aware of their privilege that most others in the world don’t have.
Often I find context missing from Twitter threads and analysis. We tend to gloss over context since that requires nuance, and these are not times for nuance. Even speaking of publishers as a monolithic is missing the point. The context in which those publishers operate is critical — well beyond geography. A VC-backed publisher vs a bootstrapped have different contexts. Business publications and generalist consumer publications too. News and entertainment. When businesses generate their own publications, like A16z, there is a tendency to pretend Future operates in the same context as Wired. I can’t tell if ignoring context is strategic or lazy. Maybe a bit of both.
The so-called Creator Economy is the new monolith that obscures context, since it encompasses YouTube and Instagram stars with podcasters and newsletter writers. I struggle to see much connective tissue. The same holds for binary debates about advertising as a business model. Ads can make sense depending on the context. If publications want to improve media literacy and address news deserts — a major issue in Ukraine, I was told — wide access is a necessity. Maybe crowdfunding can help, but there is likely also a role for ads.
Thanks for reading this week. And big thanks to the Media Development Foundation, Eugene Zaslavsky, Andriy Boborykin and all the organizers of Mezhyhirya Fest for the invitation.