“When the war started on February 24th, we were ready. We had a pre-prepared news story about Russia attacking Ukraine. We immediately switched to covering the news, cancelled all planned longreads and went into a round-the-clock news mode.”

After the war started, LIGA.net – one of Ukraine’s most prominent and most popular online news outlets – saw the interest in its work skyrocket. Seeking verified information about the war and its impact, readers flocked to LIGA and other news organisations. In March, the publication got 80 million views from 12 million unique visitors – the traffic more than tripled compared to the previous month.

This emergency mode ended within a few weeks, and now LIGA is returning to more normal work processes. Yet, the war has profoundly impacted the outlet, just as it hit the Ukrainian media market overall. 

The Fix spoke with Iuliia Bankova, editor-in-chief of LIGA, about how her team operates during the crisis, how the newsroom services its readers, and how the ad-supported media weathers the ad market collapse.

[Editor’s note: LIGA.net is among Ukrainian media organisations that have received support from the fundraising campaign run by The Fix and a consortium of other organisations].

Retaining the team in the time of hardship 

LIGA.net has close to 50 people in its newsroom. Despite the financial hardship the war has brought, they have retained the editorial team – no one has been fired. (A few people quit, with one journalist volunteering for the army). To save money, the company had to scale back a recent salary increase and forgo all financial bonuses for team members. 

Bankova says the hardest part of her job in the first few weeks of the war was to keep the team together. There was a lot of uncertainty – some team members had to relocate to more secure places, some faced logistical or psychological difficulties, and it was often unclear whether a certain journalist was safe and able to work. 

Those who could work did so constantly. Bankova recalls that people didn’t want days off even when asked to take one – constant work helped distract them from the horror and anxiety unleashed by the war. 

Now, life has more or less stabilised, though. Most of the team remains in Kyiv, though the office has been deemed not safe enough to work from there. Some people moved to Western Ukraine or abroad.

Today, one of the biggest challenges for Bankova is navigating the war censorship. Before the 2022 Russian invasion, Ukraine was far from achieving full press freedom, but the country made visible progress and ranked considerably higher than its authoritarian neighbours Russia and Belarus. Now it’s the country at war, however, with growing martial law restrictions on what journalists can and can’t report. 

Skyrocketing traffic, focus on news

When the war started, LIGA’s traffic skyrocketed. In 2021, monthly views of LIGA’s website averaged at 15 million, Bankova says. In February 2022 (already including the first five days of the war), the website received 26 million views. In March, the figure reached 80 million views from 12 million visitors – and readership remains extremely high. 

Social media readership also grew considerably – according to Telegram Analytics, LIGA’s Telegram channel grew from 20 thousand subscribers before the war to 50 thousand, with the largest increase in the first three days of the invasion. LIGA’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have over 300,000 followers each.

LIGA’s most popular news product is its round-the-clock news chronicle that documents the most important events related to Russia’s invasion in three languages – Ukrainian, English, and Russian. A third of the newsroom is now working on updating news.

Iuliia Bankova says that, in the first weeks of the war, readers had no appetite for anything but news. Now, news still dominates, there is slightly more interest in analysis, opinion essays, and especially personal stories of the people who’ve survived Russian occupation and atrocities. 

Before the war, LIGA.net concentrated on business news – but it has had to shift its focus, covering politics and society at war. Most news outlets in Ukraine are essentially covering the same topics now, just finding different stories and different angles, Bankova says. 

Weathering the ad market collapse and making ends meet

Despite the soaring increase in readers’ interest, Ukrainian news outlets took a big financial hit since late February. The war has seriously damaged Ukraine’s economy and almost fully obliterated the ad market – the main source of revenue for many media organisations, including LIGA.net.

LIGA is trying to find a solution in two major sources of revenue, which existed before the war but played a minor role in the budget – reader revenue and grant financing. Iuliia Bankova says that in March they launched an appeal to readers asking for financial help and saw a fivefold increase in the amount of money brought by readers.

The most basic paid plan allows to switch off ads on the website and costs $1 a month. In peacetime, more expensive tiers gave access to exclusive materials – however, during the war LIGA made all its content freely available. 

LIGA.net’s home page features a large banner with an appeal from Iuliia Bankova asking readers to support the outlet for the sake of responsible, high-quality journalism

The editor-in-chief herself spends much of her days in the thick of fundraising – looking for potential donors and communicating with existing ones, helping prepare grant applications. She estimates that 85% of LIGA’s money comes from donors now.

There is hope that the ad market will slowly rebound – some businesses that stopped operation at the end of February are now resuming work, and there is even modest interest in resuming advertising. Yet, the revival of Ukraine’s economy is still a long way off – and so is financial stability for Ukraine’s independent media.

Photo from www.liga.net/donation_ua