Despite enormous challenges, local journalism in Ukraine has persevered and adapted since the start of the war. What are the most pressing challenges now and in the future?
In its most recent report, the Ukrainian Media Development Foundation (MDF) analyzes the state of local news in Ukraine. DW Akademie spoke to MDF’s Head of Research, Maksym Sribnyi, about media viability in Ukraine, audience needs and the role of the media in a much hoped-for post-war period.
DW Akademie: According to the Media Development Foundation’s report, more than half of the media outlets already plan for a possible post-war period. What do you think is the role of the media in a recovery process?
Maksym Sribnyi: The role of the media is of utmost importance. One of the most important functions of the media is being a watchdog for democracy. The recovery process involves lots of investment and resources and there is a dangerous possibility that corruption will thrive. We need media organizations to act as the checks and balances of this process.
This is why we teach media organizations how to conduct investigations, check registries and budgets, how to question local authorities and how to talk to people who want to whistleblow information. The war will likely go on for a while, but it will end at some point and the recovery process will start. The media should be ready for that.
Let’s talk about the audience. Obviously, people are increasingly looking for information in a crisis. But is there some sort of fatigue at a certain point?
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report – which unfortunately did not include the opinion of Ukrainian media consumers – stated that people are avoiding negative and distressing news. Media organizations in Ukraine, especially local ones, are not suffering as much as we would assume.
Ukrainian media research shows that frontline updates are the first thing people are going to read. But in addition to that, many local media outlets produce pieces about the history of regions, towns, and people.
It is quite ingenious how they think about their community and try to diversify the content to not cater too much to distressing news. People like to be seen, to be represented, with their needs heard – and their needs are not always related to the war.
What about people in the occupied territories? Are they being served?
The situation is very complex. I cannot say that the people in the temporarily occupied territories are rightfully served with information, but I also cannot say that they are completely forgotten.
People can engage with Ukrainian media through VPN usage and YouTube as well as with international content from CNN, MSNBC, or other television stations. But in their day to day lives, in conversations with people affected by the Russian propaganda, they are receiving bits and pieces of Russian-backed information.
What about linguistic minorities?
There are some regions where people speak Hungarian, or Romani or Slavic languages. These people are more affected by the news agenda of the Hungarian or Slavic media landscape.
Especially Romani communities tend to be underserved. They often lack a stable connection and devices to access online content and they do not have the financial means to subscribe to print media. Also, illiteracy levels are quite high.
There are some media organizations and informal news channels that produce content in Slavic languages such as Polish or Slovak. As for Hungarian, there are Ukrainian-based TV channels and online media.
There are efforts to bridge the gap between Ukrainian speaking people and those that speak other languages. But that is not easy. There are complicated political issues, especially between Ukraine and Hungary, that should be resolved on other levels.
The report states that donor support has played a crucial role in preserving the independent regional media market. What can the media development community do to support this in the long-term?
The donor community probably saved the Ukrainian media in 2022. Now, the main challenge is to ensure that media organizations are self-sustainable. In particular, this means diversifying income sources. But there are fewer income sources than before the full-scale invasion and some media rely almost 100 percent on donor funding.
Other than financial and organizational support, what are the most pressing needs of Ukrainian media?
Psychological and psycho-emotional support is one of the most requested services. We need people that have experience of working in crisis situations, with people who have gone through shock, trauma or secondary trauma.
Are there any gaps in the support for independent media?
I would argue that there are no major gaps. But we see that there is some clustering: Every donor organization relies on established partners that they have been supporting for years. New startups or emerging organizations have difficulties succeeding in grant activities because donor programs are usually not tailored to that kind of activity. MDF has launched a start-up program together with the European Union.
How can media organizations deal with uncertainty?
With mobilization and ongoing war, there should be sustainability mechanisms in the organization regarding finances, budgeting, and employees, as people might be mobilized and may be lost, unfortunately.
There should be a mechanism to systematize and institutionalize knowledge and skills. Gathering existing knowledge for guides and workbooks can also be a boost for morale and have a therapeutic effect as people see their experience represented, valued, and used.
Maksym Sribnyi is Head of Research at the Media Development Foundation (MDF). He specializes in qualitative research.
MDF is a Ukrainian center of excellence and media expertise hub. MDF was one of DW Akademie’s local partner organizations in the EU-funded MediaFit project. Within MediaFit, MDF provided journalistic capacity-building to local independent media outlets in 2022.
Interview: Evelin Meier (am)