A month ago, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war has taken many thousands of lives – but it also severely damaged Ukraine’s economy, and the country’s media market alongside. Yet, independent media is as important for Ukrainians as ever in times of war.
Andrey Boborykin is a Ukrainian media analyst; he is an author of a Telegram channel and a podcast about media and platforms. He’s also a media manager, now working as executive director at Ukrayinska Pravda, one of the biggest media outlets in Ukraine.
Along with other media publications, Ukrayinska Pravda (UP) received a huge boost in readership during the war. Its websites got almost 900 million views in a month, an unprecedented number. Social media readership and viewership also skyrocketed.
National and local media play a particularly valuable role for millions of people during the war. They provide practical information that informs people’s everyday decisions – such as whether it’s safe to leave their home.
Yet, the traffic doesn’t get converted into revenue. Ad market in Ukraine has gone out of the window, and attracting reader revenue is hardly possible at the time when some people lost their income, while others focus on funding the war effort.
At the same time, while taking a significant financial hit, Ukrayinska Pravda is still in a relatively good position. As one of the most prominent outlets, it receives the attention of both international donors and advertisers. The biggest looming problem is the crisis of local news, Boborykin says, and it’s one international donors should pay more attention to.
The Fix spoke with Boborykin about Ukrayinska Pravda and the Ukrainian media market during the war, as well as his views of what comes next.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Fix: Recently, you made a Twitter thread about Ukraine’s media market during the war. Could you summarise the state of the media market at the moment for me?
Andrey Boborykin: As I wrote in the thread, Ukraine’s media market [before the war] used to rely on the advertising business model. Most money went through direct buying and native advertising. 30-50% of publisher ad revenue went through programmatic advertising.
Since the start of the war, around 90% of clients stopped any native advertising projects, and 90% of large buyers of programmatic ads aren’t purchasing them – including biggest advertisers like [electronics retailers] Allo.ua and [online retailer] Rozetka… Overall, the effectiveness of programmatic advertising fell by, I think, 70-80%. There’s a comparable drop in money.
Thus, we can say that the main sources of revenue for Ukrainian media companies that relied on a commercial business model went away.
Regarding Ukrayinska Pravda specifically, we’re now actively reconfiguring programmatic ads to monetise foreign traffic. We’re also actively fundraising, looking for grants, including with help of Jnomics, as well as ourselves. [Editor’s note: Jnomics is a media consultancy based in Kyiv and London that’s part of the media consortium working to fundraise for Ukraine’s media support. The consortium includes The Fix, and several Jnomics’ leaders are also editors at The Fix]. Basically, we have no choice but to seek help from international donors and the audience.
Again, when it comes to reader support, it was at the early stages before the war, and it hasn’t been [developed seriously] yet. I don’t think the Ukrainian audience is now seriously inclined to donate to the media. Some people are, but it’s not widespread, and [donating to media] likely won’t be able to compete with donating to the army, to some infrastructure projects and volunteer projects. Therefore, by and large, [foreign] grants are our best hope. Particularly for publications like Ukrayinska Pravda.
More from The Fix: Ukrayinska Pravda: Bringing innovation to the membership model
I think that within two-three months we at Ukrayinska Pravda will be able to cover a significant chunk of our spending with programmatic ads because we have a notable portion of our traffic from Tier 1 countries [the world’s wealthiest countries], such as the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Western Europe. Many Ukrainians are now moving there, and they keep reading UP. Today [traffic from these countries] reaches up to 25% of our traffic. Foreign programmatic ads bring much more money than Ukrainian ones, even in the best of times, so potentially we would be able to cover a substantial share of our expenses thanks to them.
But, again we’re talking about UP, which is now on the top-5 most visited websites in Ukraine. Our audience has risen by three times, from an already large base. Only up to five news outlets in Ukraine can afford to [make significant amounts of money on programmatic ads] – ourselves, NV, Obozrevatel, RBK, and TSN. That’s the situation [on the market today].
The Fix: So, in the mid-term perspective for Ukrayinska Pravda and publications of a similar level, you’re expecting that two main sources of revenue will be programmatic ads and international donor support, right?
Andrey Boborykin: I’d like it to be around 50/50, but we’ll see. It’s definitely not 50/50 at the moment.
We’ll experiment with Club UP [the club for UP’s paying members], with individual donors abroad. As we see, there’re a lot of people living abroad who want to help the Ukrainian media. I think we will launch campaigns [to fundraise among people living outside Ukraine]. In any case, it won’t be a decisive part of our revenue in the near future.
Also, there’s a hope that, in the middle-term, the war will end, and we will go back to a fully operational ad market, adding direct ad sales.
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The Fix: I’d like to ask more about reader revenue based on UP’s example. I have two questions here: what is the share of reader revenue in UP’s budget now and what is the dynamic you’re witnessing since the war started? [Is the number of paying members stable, or is it declining?]
Andrey Boborykin: In the whole budget, it’s not a big share, of course. I can’t say an exact figure, but it’s up to 5%, perhaps even less. It’s not a lot of money [for us] so far because UP is a big company, and therefore we have a big budget.
But reader revenue has been growing for us since last fall… January and February were good months from the perspective of Club UP growth [but we don’t yet have good data on how it was impacted by the war]. The growth in club members slowed in March, of course, [because of the economic situation in Ukraine], but new people are coming in.
We plan to develop Club UP further. Perhaps we will simplify it a bit, introduce a possibility to donate once, decrease the number of tiers – but overall we see it as an important element of our further strategy. However, the club’s aims were never focused on monetization only. It’s first and foremost a project for community engagement, community building; monetization comes second.
The Fix: What do you think is the future for Ukraine’s media market overall? What’s next for smaller media, particularly online outlets – what’s their future?
Andrey Boborykin: I think the most realistic way forward for them is looking for donor funding.
Obviously, not everyone will be able to find it. I know of the initiatives creating sales houses for media and international organizations, but I don’t think they will be able to support all media outlets.
I think the situation is critical. Doubtless, it’s worse for smaller media than for larger ones. It’s easier for those who already have experience working with grants than, for example, for UP – we haven’t worked with grants systematically to cover significant portions of our operating budget for a long time. It’s even worse for the local media. I think the situation is catastrophic in the regions.
The Fix: What is the solution to save Ukraine’s media market? Is it to attract donor funding, grants from foreign organizations?
Andrey Boborykin: Yes, and we need to spread the word more among Western outlets about the situation with journalism in Ukraine.
The other day, I read an article by Margaret Sullivan, who is a brilliant researcher of local media in the US, but she wrote a strange article about journalism in Ukraine. She didn’t mention anything about Ukrainian media, she wrote a lot about the concerns about American reporters and Russian journalists who are looking for asylum in Europe…
Therefore, I am trying to speak as much as possible [with the international community] and convey the situation with local media Ukraine – and I think you should do the same thing.
More from The Fix: Saving Ukraine’s journalism
The Fix: Let’s switch to the topic of traffic. You wrote earlier that UP had half a billion views [in over two weeks since the war started]. The traffic is very high, the interest is very high. What’s the situation now that we’re almost a month into this war? Is the number of views still higher than before the war?
Andrey Boborykin: Now it’s, of course, lower than in the first week of the war, but it’s still very high. I think it’s in the region of 800 million views. [Editor’s note: According to the numbers published by Andrey after the interview was conducted, UP attracted over 878 million pageviews from over 66 million unique visitors – an absolute record for the publication.]
I’ve never seen such numbers in my career. At any moment, about 70-80 thousand people are on the website. We’re always on the top of the most popular websites in general, we’re among the most popular websites in the “news” category.
The Fix: What are the main sources of traffic for UP’s website?
Andrey Boborykin: The main sources are Google Discover and search. It’s also [other] Google products like News (though [Google News] isn’t decisive). We have a good share of traffic from Facebook – it’s a lot in the absolute numbers, though it’s not a big percentage, something around 5%.
The Fix: What about other social media platforms?
Andrey Boborykin: Facebook is the most significant [source of traffic]. We started working more seriously with Facebook than we used to before.
Telegram is performing well for us, but it’s not significant in terms of traffic. The same situation is with Instagram.
We’ve grown significantly on YouTube; over the past 30 days, we received ten times as many views as before – around 50 million.
The Fix: What types of content are most popular?
Andrey Boborykin: It’s definitely news. Most traffic now comes from “hard news” about what’s happening on the front lines, plus everything related to key political decisions, as well as news about what happens in Russia.
Also, we launched a successful English-language edition, which is entirely powered by volunteers. As of [March 22nd], it gathered 10 million views and 3 million unique visitors since the start of the war. I think it can compete with top English-language sources on Ukraine in terms of the audience. Visitors mostly come from the US, Canada, and the UK.
We didn’t expect [such a large readership for the English edition] at the beginning. We are planning to invest resources here, we will certainly develop both the content and the product. We’ve started working systemically with the English edition – it was added to SmartNews, a popular news aggregator in the US. We’re also getting a lot of traffic from Reddit, which is unusual. Twitter and Google Discover are also important sources of traffic.
The Fix: How many people are working on UP’s team? How has the war impacted the team?
Andrey Boborykin: We have completely preserved the team, we didn’t fire anyone. All people are now working mostly on creating the news, and we keep producing video content. We fully regrouped to concentrate as much as possible on covering the current situation. We’re focusing on the news; there are volunteer teams who help there as well.
We almost stopped publishing new podcasts; the audio team is working as part of the broader editorial team for now as well.
UP’s team includes around 100 people excluding volunteers.
Most of UP’s team is now working from small hubs and independently in Western Ukraine. We’ve rented a few houses and offices there. Plus, many people are working individually from their homes. I’m working from Chernivtsi [a city in Western Ukraine], as does our video team. Of course, there are also some people who remain in the regions where active combat takes place.
The interest in news among readers remains very high, though it’s now a bit lower than it was in the first week of the war. People need [practical information] – has the air raid siren been canceled, where fighting takes place, what is the situation in the country. It’s all news, not long reads, certainly not slow journalism. So, we don’t know when we’ll go back to the pre-war setup – it depends on the global situation.
Photo from club.pravda.com.ua