For Mariia Davydenko, the war started eight years ago.

Before, she worked at a TV channel in Donetsk, an industrial centre in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, however, Donetsk and other parts of the Donbas region were occupied by Russia-controlled separatist groups.

Davydenko had to move to Pokrovsk, a smaller city in Donbas that has remained under Ukrainian control. Soon, her team founded local news outlet Vchasno focusing on Donbas news. They set out to create an independent media that would be valuable for the local community, particularly the civil society. 

Vhasno’s team helped hold local authorities to account by successfully investigating corruption – and were on a path to build a commercially sustainable independent news outlet, having created a robust video production operation. While part of Donbas remained under the control of pro-Russian puppet states, the unoccupied part was a place of opportunities for economic development and vibrant cultural life. 

Yet, Russia’s overt military invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has changed everything, causing many thousands of deaths and disrupting Ukraine’s development. Donbas has suffered the most – it’s where the most fighting is taking place now. After failing to take Kyiv, Russia retreated from Ukraine’s north and has focused on trying to occupy Donbas.

Vchasno’s team has found itself in the thick of these events. The interest in Vchasno’s work has skyrocketed, and finances are in good shape thanks to international donors, but the personal challenge of covering the war and daily life in Europe’s most dangerous region is enormous.

Mariia Davydenko both leads Vhasno as its director and reports for the outlet from the ground in eastern Ukraine. The Fix spoke with Davydenko about how her organisation is operating during the war and the unique challenges of covering the war so closely to the frontlines. 

How Vhasno’s team is weathering the war

Vhasno met Russia’s overt invasion of Ukraine with a team based in Pokrovsk and comprising ten people. The war has exacted a toll on the team, Davydenko says – two people were called to the army, two others had to quit the job. 

Vhasno has started working with one freelance journalist and is looking for more people. In the meanwhile, however, team members have multiple responsibilities at the same time – Davydenko herself is both a manager and a reporter, and the outlet’s camera operator assumed responsibility for social media management. 

To ensure seamless coverage, part of the team evacuated from Donbas to western Ukraine, a much safer city of Chernivtsi. They are working remotely and ensuring Vhasno’s news coverage. Other journalists, however, remain in and around Donbas – including Mariia Davydenko herself. 

Vhasno’s team is also engaged in volunteering on the ground – for example, the journalists help purchase gear for Pokrovsk territorial defence forces, and they have donated some of their own valuable equipment. Davydenko says that taking an active, patriotic stance has always been their approach, and Vchasno was leading volunteer initiatives before the 2022 war as well. The war has brought new urgency to this mission. 

Davydenko says one of the hardest challenges of her work as a manager has been to hold the team together. When the war had just started, Vchasno’s director feared that the work of her team would be disrupted – people would go to different cities and the team would fall apart. The worst predictions didn’t materialise, though. Vhasno’s remaining team has been united, and its work has been as stable as possible.

While logistical challenges have been solved, the work has a heavy emotional toll. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of her job, Davydenko reflects, is learning about the deaths of the people whose stories Vhasno was covering before the 2022 war – soldiers and activists.

Soaring readership, with challenges alongside

Vhasno is one of the largest news outlets in the Donbas region. Mariia Davydenko says their website attracted 365,000 unique visitors in March, the first full month of the full-scale invasion. By comparison, 14,000 people visited the website in December, and February saw 65,000 unique visitors.

Screenshot from Vchasno website

Vhasno also has a presence on social media, which have been playing a significant role as a source of information for Ukrainians during the war. Davydenko says that engagement on Facebook rose by five times in March. Vhasno’s Telegram channel has over 8,000 subscribers.

Davydenko defines her outlet’s core audience as active people residing in Donbas. Most of the audience has traditionally come from the parts of Donbas controlled by the Ukrainian government, including from people who’ve had to move from the occupied territories. Vchasno also has readership in the occupied part of Donbass, as well as in some other countries. 

The most popular pieces on the website are stories that are of interest for local activists. For example, in 2018 Vhasno conducted a notable investigation into corruption schemes within Pokrovsk local authorities, which attracted a lot of attention. Stories about local activists and military veterans are popular among the audience as well.

Increasing interest in Vchasno’s work in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion has also meant more attention from malicious actors. Davydenko says they’ve been targeted by multiple DDoS attacks. Vchasno withstood the attacks, but they had to spend a lot of time fighting and preventing DDoSing, and there were occasions when the website was unavailable for a period of time because of the attacks. Besides, Vhasno’s journalists have been receiving threats seemingly coming from Russia-controlled separatist entities, Davydenko says.

Vhasno’s website was blocked in Russia recently. However, in the situation where Russia is an oppressive authoritarian regime, and the vast majority of the outlet’s audience resides outside of this country, this blocking has been the least of their problems. On the contrary, it has almost become a source of pride in the newsroom – a recognition of their honest journalistic work.

The very long path to financial sustainability 

Since its founding, Vhasno has relied heavily on international donors for funding its work. The outlet was involved in various content projects, such as reporting on the development of democracy in Donbas and investigating corruption.

At the same time, Vhasno had long been working to achieve commercial sustainability. Davydenko says that over the past two years the organisation covered 30% of its budget with commercial means, most notably with commercial videography and information support of local events like festivals and forums. The plan was to eventually raise the proportion to 60% of revenue coming from the commercial side.

The 2022 Russian invasion has put a stop to all these plans, however, erasing practically all commercial revenue. Vhasno has managed to secure enough donor funding to weather the financial storm. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and European Endowment for Democracy (EED) are two biggest donors, Davydenko says. Other organisations provide support as well, including Ukrainian nonprofit Media Development Foundation and the Czech Embassy in Ukraine. 

Davydenko says that Vhasno has enough money to pay salaries, and the financial position is satisfactory, though the organisation is looking for additional funding to develop a website that would be able to better withstand attacks.

Photo from vchasnoua.com