Plunged into a full-scale war, Ukraine has been surprisingly resilient – defying grim predictions by successfully standing up to a more powerful enemy, although with huge sacrifice.  

The same is true about the country’s media sector. Ravaged by Russia’s war and its economic impact, Ukraine’s news publications have taken a big hit – local outlets on occupied territories have been forced to close or collaborate, while for others revenue plummeted and security risks went through the roof. Ukrainian media expert Otar Dovzhenko believes that the country’s news media are in better shape today than analysts could have predicted six months ago – though the prospects are uncertain.

Otar Dovzhenko
Otar Dovzhenko

Dovzhenko is a contributing editor at Detector Media, one of Ukraine’s largest and oldest media watchdogs. He also chairs the Independent Media Council, an expert body that evaluates “controversial issues” in Ukraine’s news media sphere, giving guidance on journalistic standards.

In an interview with The Fix, Dovzhenko shared his observations about Ukraine’s news media sphere 200 days into the war – why the joint TV marathon has outstayed its welcome, what is the impact of Ukraine’s richest man winding down his extensive media business, why he sees little point in the “broadcasting the truth to the Russians” genre, and more.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Fix: How would you assess the general situation with the media sector today, now that we’re half a year into the all-out war? 

Otar Dovzhenko: All Ukrainians have a big secret everyone knows but prefers not to talk about – things are always a bit better than we like to complain. It’s been so for the media sector. Everyone used to grumble before the war about news media being poor, lacking sources of revenue… In reality, much fewer news outlets died in six months than we feared; many media live on. Surely, they live in an austerity mode, with fewer people, less content, lower salaries, less revenue. But they’re alive, and it’s already a victory. 

The biggest changes took place on the TV market. Major channels united into the joint marathon, which will last for an indefinite period of time. It’s like the channels have been drafted to the army, and they serve with their own resources and without pay. We’re not sure how long it can last… [Editor’s note: Ukraine’s biggest TV channels started producing and broadcasting a single marathon almost immediately after the invasion. In March, the practice became a legal requirement under martial law; president Zelensky cited the importance of “a unified information policy” during the war when making the marathon mandatory for nationwide channels].

United Marathon Logo
United Marathon Logo. Source: LvivShablia, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the channels that don’t produce and broadcast the marathon are severely restricted in what they can show – it’s not clear what entertainment content there is during the war… TV is an expensive business, and it’s hard to earn money there; the market without audience measurement is highly volatile. Because of the economic downturn, pharmaceutical companies are the only major advertisers today.

Radio is a strange market today. Radio stations are broadcasting the marathon, some of them are broadcasting audio of the TV marathon, which generally makes little sense. Some entertainment radio stations are trying to restart broadcasting, but there’s a big problem of how to replace Russian-language content and Russian music which played an important role before the all-out war. Overall, the radio market is experiencing a big transformation.

Print media stopped at some point, then already started to return. Magazines are being printed, some local newspapers are being printed. However, the prospects are grim – there’s a huge problem with paper. Before the war, most paper was imported from Russia and Belarus, which is not possible now. Paper from Europe is 2-3 times more expensive. Some print outlets have raised the price accordingly, some are using up reserves, others call for international help. But I think that in a few months print media will physically run out of paper, and they will have to go online, make big cuts, or find alternatives.

Some online media are doing well in terms of audience growth. Those who cover the war have seen their readership grow by several times. Some publications have expanded, hired new people. International organisations are eager to support online media. On the one hand, it’s heartening that this financial support helps survive, but I also see a big risk of getting addicted to grants. The pool of available grants is relatively small in peacetime, so when financing dries up after the war, these publications will suffocate.

Now, when people are prioritising donations to the army, I wouldn’t count on them to have money left to fund news media through audience revenue.

I think that there’s a cluster of media that are doing relatively well because of their business instincts – they have a feeling what they should do, whom to ask for support, they have a knack for finding partners, including international ones. I haven’t heard “we are doing better” stories, but I see that some media are expanding. 

Still, I think that if the war lasts for, say, another year, the number of media organisations in Ukraine will go down considerably. First of all, that’s because of the [local] media that have traditionally lived from election to election; if the parliamentary election isn’t held in 2023, their reserves will dry up, they will have nowhere to go for money, and they will disappear.

Small regional media, small channels are having a hard time with little revenue and big costs… Within a year, what’s left of them will be a brand, a licence, and a few people on staff. It would be highly expensive and difficult to restore the team.

Obviously, our media are going online at a rapid pace; because of the war, many people are not able to watch TV or listen to the radio… That’s why I think that digitalisation and the move to online will accelerate considerably, and within a year we’ll have online media dominate among the forms of media consumption.

The Fix: Recently you wrote a column criticising the way the joint TV marathon is run. Could you summarise for us what’s the problem with the marathon and what solution would be most appropriate? 

Otar Dovzhenko: From the beginning in late February, the TV marathon was the way for TV channels to survive because they couldn’t broadcast normally on their own – people were fleeing Kyiv, there was panic with Russian troops advancing near the city. Thus, a few nationwide TV channels united into a single broadcast; each channel produces a few hours of content a day, which is broadcast by all participating channels. The government controls the process but does it softly, without direct censorship. Everyone liked the idea then.

However, the marathon is economically difficult. The channels pay for production themselves, but they do not receive compensation from the state and cannot run advertising during the marathon.

In the meanwhile, the government is noticeably impacting the editorial policy of the TV marathon through the state channel Rada TV, which participates in the marathon and is promoting specific government officials and is engaging in black PR against their opponents, such as previous president Poroshenko and his team. The 1+1 channel is also promoting certain politicians who are close to the channel’s owners. [Editor’s note: the 1+1 channel is private but its owners have been reported to be close to president Zelensky and his team].

The biggest problem here is that other channels that participate in the marathon cannot refuse to broadcast problematic content. It absolutely goes against the marathon’s values and the marathon’s declared goal, which is information defence and information war against Russia. 

We at Detector Media are writing about this. I wrote about this quite harshly [in the column mentioned in the question], but unfortunately we don’t have other ways to influence the authorities during the war… I suspect that if the marathon lasts in this form for another 6-12 months, without the support from the state budget, the media groups producing it will reduce it to the cheapest necessary minimum. 

The Fix: What should the government do here? Should they end the marathon altogether, or would it be enough to ensure Rada TV abides by journalistic standards? 

Otar Dovzhenko: I think that at least they have to stop using the marathon for the private interests of the politicians and owners. Besides, it needs to be transformed. First, the marathon doesn’t have to run across the clock, no one needs to watch reruns throughout the night. Second, perhaps it would make sense to let some channels go and allow the channels to broadcast the marathon only partly, letting them run ads during the rest of the time so they don’t lose as much money.

There are no TV measurements now, but what analytics is available shows that the public interest in the TV marathon is decreasing – it dropped by 20% in the past two months. We don’t know what was the baseline, but the dynamics is clear – the marathon is becoming less interesting and less important for people. 

The Fix: One of the biggest media news stories of the summer was Rinat Akhmetov’s group exiting the media market. How do you estimate its impact on the Ukrainian media market? 

Otar Dovzhenko: The impact is small today because the market as such doesn’t exist. Had it happened a year ago, it would have been hugely important – redistribution of the ad market, redistribution of the audience, of political impact. Today it means little. I think that football viewers have been impacted most because football channels have disappeared, and people are scrambling to find where to watch it. But the general impact on the audience is small.

Rinat Akhmetov
Rinat Akhmetov. Source: Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, this event is scary because we’ve seen a huge media company – that employed several thousands of people, that produced high-quality media product, even though not always adhering to journalistic standards – just disappear…

Why has it happened? Akhmetov says it’s caused by the registry of oligarchs. [Editor’s note: According to an official statement, Akhmetov decided to leave media business so he is not labelled as an oligarch per Ukraine’s recent law, which was passed in 2021 and recently came into effect. Learn more in The Fix’s story]. Many people doubt it, including myself. I think that the oligarch registry is a formal reason, but the real reason is that Akhmetov lost a huge amount of money because of the war, and in the situation when elections are not held, there’s no point in supporting a huge media group which doesn’t bring him political benefits. But, of course, he’ll never admit it publicly. 

The Fix: You mentioned that the financial situation on the market is not as bad as one might have feared. Why so? Is it thanks to the grants, or is there another reason? 

Otar Dovzhenko: I think it’s because a lot of media organisations have had shady revenue – in the sense that the money wasn’t declared or publicly revealed. Sometimes it’s “jeansa” [undisclosed paid-for material], sometimes partnerships, sometimes subsidies from owners or friendly businesses. Some media had reserves, some were able to sell assets. 

There’s a Ukrainian saying “before the fat man loses weight, the thin man dies”. It turned out that Ukrainian media have been fatter, and they are gradually losing weight now. They will end up dying eventually, but for now they are able to do a lot with little resources.

The Fix: Let’s turn to a different topic. Half a year ago, early into the invasion, there were a lot of attempts to “reveal the truth to the Russians”, speak with ordinary Russians via social media and other platforms. It seems that today the mood changed, and there’s much more scepticism [among Ukrainians]. At the same time, there’s [state-funded] Russian-language marathon Freeдом and other media initiatives. What do you think about it? Does it make sense for Ukrainians to spread information among Russians, and how successful are these initiatives?

Otar Dovzhenko: I’m extremely sceptical. I think that it’s Russians who should convey the truth to the Russian people; they have a lot of high-quality liberal media, journalists who have left Russia and can do this job as well as we do. When Ukrainians tell Russians about themselves in the Russian language, with Russian speakers and experts, it looks very funny and not serious. 

Regarding Freeдом – overall we need broadcasting in many foreign languages, including in Russian. But I don’t understand why we’re prioritising Russian. I think we should focus on broadcasting in English because the most important foreign audience for us isn’t Russians, it’s the world that has to support us. Today the English-language broadcasting in Ukraine is very weak. [At the same time, the Russian-language Freeдом marathon has an unclear concept with an unclear target audience].

The Fix: Could you give a few examples of interesting, original Ukrainian media projects, media startups you’re following today?

Otar Dovzhenko: I’m excited about the work of Babel during the war. They expanded, launched a successful English version. They are doing a great job both as a source of news and as a place for strong on the ground reporting. 

I’m invariably delighted by Reporters, a project from The Ukrainians that does deep professional reportage. Today it’s clear what’s been the point of all the reportage school that has developed over the years because during the war on-the-ground reporting is like first medical aid, it’s the first that’s needed from journalists to feel and understand what’s happening. 

There are also interesting media projects that emerged just recently, such as online project Grunt. Outside of professional media, I’m fascinated by a volunteer initiative to translate foreign military analytics, such as the analysis by Austrian expert Tom Cooper. They are translating the analysis by Cooper and other materials, while also crowdfunding for the army. It’s a cool initiative because that’s a situation when a media project is created to address specific needs of the moment, specific needs of the audience. 

There’s a lot of great projects, I can’t mention everyone. We at Detector Media are also trying to be interesting and relevant for the times of the war. Moreover, we added a lot of analytical projects related to social media monitoring… not so much expanded as redistributed our efforts. 

All media that survive until the end of 2022 deserve a medal.