Reporting on War: the Kyiv Independent
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): The Kyiv Independent is a relatively new outlet. Provide us a brief overview of its founding, as well as your involvement with the publication.
Lili Bivings (LB): For about 20 years, there was an English-language newspaper in Ukraine out of Kyiv called the Kyiv Post, which was very well known within Ukraine. It had a print version that came out every week that people liked to be seen with and get photographed with. It was cool. It was also a very traditional kind of newspaper.
I worked there for about eight months in 2021 before starting my masters at Columbia. Essentially, I didn’t know where I was getting into graduate schools yet, and I didn’t know what my plan was. I got a job there as a business reporter, and then I became business editor. I became very close with the staff, because as an editor, you’re working crazy hours. I later came to New York for school.
In November 2021, the oligarch owner of the Kyiv Post, who had purchased the newspaper three years before, decided to fire the entire staff over the fact that the editorial team was defending its independence. He was trying to put in his PR manager as an editor, and they absolutely refused. It was not going to happen. There was a huge dispute, and his solution was to fire everybody. Of course, he thought that he’ll just get rid of all these annoying journalists and replace them with a bunch of hacks, and then it’ll all be fine. He had no idea how the business works and that everybody that was working at the Kyiv Post had been working there forever. You couldn’t just replace them, because they were Ukrainians who spoke fluent English and could write at that level—that’s not easy to find, so while the Kyiv Post still exists, it’s now a shell of its former self. Also, it is completely financed by this oligarch.
Within a week of being fired, the old staff of the Kyiv Post decided to create the Kyiv Independent. Initially, everybody had thought that they would go their own way, find jobs with other outlets. But this was just too heinous and outrageous to ignore. They had to respond in some way, and their response was to create their own outlet. Within a week, they had a newsletter that was coming out, which I was helping with. I was here in New York doing my masters and helping out as I could. I wasn’t a full employee, just a part of the team, doing things that they need help with. Then, within three months, Russia invaded.
Russia launches its full-scale invasion and the newspaper all of a sudden becomes one of the most read English-language sources on what’s happening in Ukraine. On social media, we went from 30,000 followers on Twitter to nearly 2.1 million seemingly overnight. The night it began, I was very sick with COVID-19, and I remember it as a fever dream: I didn’t even know what was happening. I woke up the next day feeling slightly better, and I have not stopped working every single day since then, sometimes remotely and then last summer in Kyiv. What this has looked like was me picking up the news shift, along with a few other people that are in North America, to ensure that we maintain 24/7 coverage while the Kyiv team was asleep between midnight and 9 am Kyiv time. We still maintain this schedule, with a team over here that starts our shift at 5 pm and ends at 2 am on the East Coast. Initially, it was every single day, which is brutal while also trying to be a student at the same time. At that point, I think we were running on a lot of adrenaline, because I don’t actually remember being exhausted. I remember struggling to finish tasks, but I was managing all of it somehow. We have a larger team now, and we’re able to better manage those hours.
Currently, I am working remotely as an editor. I do both as well, the news shifts in the evenings but also stories and other projects. At the end of the day, we’re a startup. A lot of people wear a lot of different hats, and I help as I can.
JIA: Among the staff members who had been summarily fired from the Kyiv Post, was the idea to recreate the Post in another publication, or were there other founding principles that informed what the new publication was going to be? In other words, was it a refounding of the old or a genuine founding of the new?
LB: It was a founding, because the first thing was that the Kyiv Independent will never have an owner. It will always be owned by its employees and will be funded by memberships, donors, grants. The money will never come from just a single owner. That was very important for us. It was clearly a bad model for a paper of this size. It’s different from other models, but for a newspaper made up of people that are trying to pursue independent journalism, it doesn’t make sense to have an owner—especially not one who’s an oligarch. It’s not viable. It’s unsustainable. It doesn’t align with our values as independent journalists. The main thing was that this paper would be owned by its journalists.
But also, I think the idea was that it would be something much more democratic than the old school model, where there is a hierarchical structure of decision-making. The Kyiv Independent is structured in such a way where many people have the power to make decisions, to field suggestions, and to contribute in their own ways. It’s different, in this way, from the old Kyiv Post.
The final part was that the paper would always be Ukrainian-run. Before, the oligarch owner was not Ukrainian (he was not Russian, either, thankfully) but he was from Syria, having moved to the Soviet Union a very long time ago. Also, Brian Bonner, who was the chief editor of the Kyiv Post, was an American. This isn’t a direct criticism of those people. Rather, the idea was that the paper this time was going to be run entirely by Ukrainians, including the editors and the CEO. We have people on staff from all over the world: I work at the paper, along with many others, but I think the focus really was to have it be a Ukrainian paper as much as possible.
JIA: In the days of the Post, and then in those first couple of months at the Independent, before the war, who was the audience? What was the readership?
LB: The audience for English-language coverage from Ukraine came from three main areas. First, there were people who work in governments. Many embassy people would read the Kyiv Post and then the Kyiv Independent because it is easily-accessible English language coverage about Ukraine, which is important as many embassy employees don’t speak Ukrainian, even the ones who work there. Second, international experts: people who work at think tanks or academics who are following what’s happening in Ukraine. These are people who focus their work or their studies on the region. Third, there is the business community: people who are looking to invest or do business in Ukraine who are going to want to follow what’s happening. It was a big audience, though it was also relatively niche. All of these are very specific groups.
When the Kyiv Post was closed down, a lot of embassies in Ukraine published tweets and wrote that it was tragic. This was one of our main sources of information in Ukraine: those embassies follow us on Twitter, for example. They have now told us that the Kyiv Independent is something they’re actually reading as well. Sometimes we interview people from embassies, or we have contacts with them for whatever reason, and they will tell us that they read us. It’s the same thing with the business community. We have those relationships for business reporting. We would contact them for interviews and the like, so we knew that the Kyiv Post and later the Kyiv Independent was something that they were reading. Certainly, the people doing research and experts were in contact. Before I moved to the Kyiv Post, I worked at the Atlantic Council, the think tank in Washington, D.C. The Kyiv Post was an important source of their information, and since I still have contacts there, I know the Kyiv Independent is as well. This is all anecdotal, but it’s still real. We of course have data on our readership, tended to by the business development team. When we have strategy meetings, they provide all the statistics.
JIA: On a more basic level, what is the status of the English language in Ukraine? In this day and age, every country has some relationship with it. What purpose does it serve in Ukraine, and who uses it?
LB: Based off IP addresses, something like 30% of our readership is in Ukraine. That might be embassies, but there are also Ukrainians who are reading our coverage. This was the idea behind the Kyiv Post, and it’s true of the Kyiv Independent as well. The English language in Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, the capital, is becoming a language of business because IT has become one of the largest sectors in the country and is a huge part of the overall economy. Partly, this is because it can be done remotely, and many firms outsource that kind of work. A very tech-savvy populace enables this—possibly it is a historical remnant, a legacy from the Soviet Union—in which hundreds of thousands of people in the field are working for tech companies abroad. They have to speak English: the language of that work is English, especially if your clients are American, which many of them are. Additionally, English is now becoming a language of use, especially in the capital, with the war. There’s this huge influx of foreign journalists, volunteers, dignitaries, and other people constantly in the capital. In the countryside, a lot of Ukrainians have been working as fixers for foreign journalists. It’s become a big thing, and you have to speak English to do that job. It’s really growing quickly.
One of the things that I always found funny when the full-scale invasion started was that great journalists and different diplomats would see videos online and be surprised when Ukrainians spoke English. I lived in Ukraine before this started, and I knew that it was developed and modern and cool, especially in Kyiv. It has amazing restaurants and bars and shops, everything really. But people didn’t know that. I think they thought Ukraine was this backwater, and so they were shocked when they spoke English! It’s growing and changing very quickly. But I think Ukrainians have really internalized, unfortunately, this kind of inferiority complex that they are somehow lesser, and so they compensated by trying to move forward quickly. One of the ways of doing that for yourself, at the individual level, is learning English, for international jobs or travel.
JIA: What was Kyiv Independent’s presence on the ground? Was everyone based in Kyiv, or were there satellite bureaus with journalists working remotely and reporting back to the capital? In particular, was there an in-person presence in the eastern portion of the country, where there had been ongoing hostilities for years?
LB: Almost everyone on the team was in Kyiv. One of our journalists is Russian, and he had left Russia in 2014 when Russia invaded the first time. Both because he was a journalist and also because he was very pro-Ukrainian as a Russian, he didn’t want to live in that country anymore. He exiled himself in Ukraine. He was worried that if there was a Russian invasion and they succeeded, he would be one of those people on a list. It had come out, before the invasion, that Russia had these lists of people they would kill if they were managed to occupy certain territory and those people lived there. He was on one of those lists, as a Russian journalist who is outspoken about Russia. He knew that, but he’s also married, so he decided to leave with his wife before.
JIA: Prior to the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022, what was the feeling in the newsroom? How much was known about what was to come?
LB: There had been reports since December 2021, Americans putting out their intelligence, that Russia was going to invade. We didn’t know exactly when, but the feeling was within a month or two. We were reporting on that all the time, and the Kyiv Independent team was acutely aware that at least the Americans were convinced something was going to happen. Russia had been building up troops on Ukraine’s border for so long, so everyone was prepared for something. At the same time, no one actually thought this would ever happen, because it’s kind of insane: the idea that a country would fully invade another country. Most people really didn’t think that it would happen like this. From what I gather, I think a lot of Ukrainians suspected that something might happen, but that it won’t be a full-scale invasion: instead, the Russians would quickly attack the eastern part of Ukraine.
Yet, at 4 or 5 am on February 24th, Kyiv was literally being bombed, and there were Russian aircraft in the sky. It was this terrifying event, and I think that that is what the people were not prepared for. It was not like when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, when it was done in an almost inconspicuous way. Russia used these militants pretending they were local people, local separatists, when in reality they were Russian forces without insignia using limited amounts of military equipment to make it seem like a homegrown movement. But this was full-on, missiles and bombs raining down from the sky. I think it was something that nobody could imagine when it happened. Everybody has this memory of texting their mother or father or best friends, saying, “It started.” In February this year, for the one-year anniversary, we at the Kyiv Independent actually published screenshots of our employees’ first conversations with people, and everyone was saying, “It has begun. It started.” Built into that syntax is this idea that we already knew what it was: the war has started, or Russia’s invading.
The reason that most people didn’t leave, I think, was this combination of not believing it would really happen and the Ukrainian government reinforcing that belief through their line, even though they knew it was about to happen because the Americans had told them over and over again. Bill Burns, the CIA director himself, had gone to the government to inform them. But the Ukrainian government made the decision not to inform the public about the truth. I think that was because they didn’t want mass panic, and you could probably debate forever whether or not that was the right decision. There are a lot of people who think that that was not and an absolutely horrific thing to do to your own people. Some people think that everybody would have fled. And then what do you do? The economy would have collapsed, even worse than it did. That’s the theory: if you had told everyone, everyone would have left, including men, who are no longer allowed to leave. Like I said, that’s seriously up for debate. I don’t even know where I fall on that.
But yes: there was a lot of anticipation for it. Then, once it was finally happening, I don’t think there was much surprise among the Ukrainian people, because they have known who Russia is forever, relative to them as Ukrainians. They understand what Russia is for and how Russia uses them and how this has been historically so. I think that it wasn’t ultimately that surprising to most people, with the exception of some of the older generations who grew up in the Soviet Union and who really believed the idea that Ukraine and Russia were these brotherly nations, friendly, even.
JIA: Take us into the newsroom in those first few days or couple of weeks. What did it look like to start reporting on this?
LB: The first day, I remember people saying they wouldn’t leave, and most didn’t leave right away. But it was really scary, and it became untenable doing this work in metro stations or bomb shelters. Trying to get this work done was exhausting and impossible. In the beginning, people were essentially working 24 hours per day. If you have to do that, you have to constantly be going underground, and then above ground, moving around and searching for Wi-Fi. It was very hard. But it’s also stressful and difficult to have your family with you. All of these people had to determine where their families would go. And some of them have children, so trying to work and while figuring out how to keep a family safe was very challenging. A lot of people did leave in the initial month. Then, when Kyiv was liberated in March, everyone came back save a few people with children who stayed away.
Those first few days, I would get on my computer and scan all types of sources for news. In Ukraine, a lot of officials use Telegram channels—something strange for us as Americans, but that’s how they announced official information, on Telegram or on Facebook. That’s how I received a lot of breaking news. We of course didn’t want to use people’s photos and videos as news: we had to wait for official confirmation, so we would wait to see some government official post something somewhere. When I look back at the news we were writing back then, when we were stressed and exhausted and always in a rush, the writing was full of mistakes and we were mostly writing very short things. We weren’t expanding on anything, because we were just trying to get as much out as fast as possible all the time. If you go back and look, it is night and day compared with what we publish now, because at the time, we were a three-month-old startup. We had no process in place for publishing 24/7 news on a newsfeed all day long. It was a bunch of people who had never done this before, many of them non-native speakers, trying to write things as fast as possible and publish them in an accurate way and in a way that is well-written. Much of it was learning as we go and deciding how we would write things, what our style is for certain things. Someone would publish something, and then someone else would say, “That’s not how you’re supposed to write that.” That’s how we learned how to write: by making mistakes.
Another thing, for us as a team, was that we never thought in all our lives that we would have to learn the difference between a missile and a rocket or artillery and Grad multiple rocket launchers. I think it is something that for us is actually tragic. We had to learn what these words were because they were actively being employed and used to kill people that we had to report on. This was from both an organizational perspective as well as from a writing perspective, learning words like these—and not just the Ukrainians, learning them in English like I was also. I didn’t know what any of these meant; I didn’t know what a phosphorus bomb was. I had never heard of that. That we were forced to learn these words is something that has stuck with all of us. I don’t know what it does to a person to have to write 24/7 about people being killed. Personally, I’ve gone through so many different phases of sadness and anger and depression throughout this last year, and now I’ve gotten to a state of numbness, because writing that five people were killed doesn’t have an effect that I can feel in the moment anymore. For our team, it’s been really like that from day one, though it remains striking how we were required to write about such awful things all day long and do so in a timely manner. We had to do it accurately, following journalistic standards and setting aside our own emotions.
My coworkers have had to write news on attacks that were happening to their parents’ communities. I can’t even imagine. But in the newsroom, those were the things that were being talked about, what we were feeling and experiencing.
JIA: What has been the process of expanding the operation, including onboarding new journalists and staff?
LB: It starts with our new office. The original had no sunlight. But we are growing as a team, and the office environment now is almost regular, if you could call it that. It is something that has been difficult for us to celebrate. We have become successful because of the war, we are well-known as a brand, as an outlet, because of Russia’s horrible war. We are always cognizant of the fact that our success is because of this war, and we don’t celebrate it in that way. The same goes with our funding: because of the war, Ukrainian organizations and outlets are receiving a lot of funding. This is great, because we need those things to keep informing the world and helping people in Ukraine. But again, it is difficult to celebrate that when you know what the reason is.
We are expanding the team, but the reason we are growing and expanding is because of Russia, because people are donating a lot of money and supporting the Ukrainian efforts. For example, our most recent desk is a new team that we just announced. We have three people who are going to focus exclusively on Russian war crimes. It’s going to be an investigative desk that only investigates war crimes. But that’s weird, right? It’s great that we can devote resources to an entire team that focuses on something so important, but it’s also heinous. We are in this kind of situation all the time, where the things that we’re doing that are successful are because of this horrible reason.
At the same time, we are planning for the future. Much of our strategy and growth plans are focused on when the war is over. It’s a smart thing to do business-wise, but it’s also a way of keeping us sane, because if we’re making plans for a future where this isn’t happening, we’re looking ahead with a feeling that a future exists—even if we don’t know when that will be.
It’s interesting thinking about growth, since while it’s uncomfortable to talk about because of the reason that we’re growing, I think we simply try to do a good job and improve. We’re always trying to figure out how to do things better, how to improve internal processes as well as all of our publications. In this way, we’re contributing to Ukraine’s development. We’re attempting to set a good example in Ukraine of independent journalism, which contributes to growth overall.
JIA: How do you find additional journalists and staff that can succeed in this very particular environment?
LB: One of the things that’s really hard for us as an organization is finding people who fit this niche. We need people who speak English, Russian, and Ukrainian, or at least has familiarity with one of them, and then is fluent in the other two. They must be able to write in English well, if they are Ukrainian. If they are native English speakers, they must be really interested in Ukraine and know the country really well. Also, not everyone wants to be a journalist, for reasons that we all understand. While we do hire remotely, mostly we are looking for people in Ukraine because it’s much easier to work with people in person. It’s hard for us to find people that match what we need. You might think that because we’re growing rapidly, we have this reach and audience and therefore we would have an easier time. But it’s simply hard to find the right people.
JIA: The Kyiv Independent had a small presence on Twitter before this, and then suddenly it blows up and gains two million followers. A lot of official information comes from Telegram, and people are generally tech-savvy. What role does technology play in the publication, both on the front-end with content distribution and the backend to sustain a website with heavy traffic and to process payments?
LB: The organization was already somewhat remote, but it was also centrally located in Kyiv. I have a short anecdote from the first day of the invasion: our website crashed because we were not prepared for the kind of traffic that we were going to get. It was a WordPress-like site, with a simple word processor that someone had put together in a few days back in November.
Since then, we have been sorting out these kinds of issues as we go along, since there are constant problems. One of the things that we did when the invasion started, to return to your previous question about people being prepared, was to distribute all the passwords for everything a few days before the invasion started. If the worst happens and none of us are able to get online, I was given access to all that information. More generally, technology has been everything for us. I don’t think we would have the recognition that we have without Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, because we have a widely-read Telegram channel, as well as more traditional distribution through email. But our newsletter, which comes out every day, is one of our most read pieces of content. For a newsletter to have a greater than 50% open rate every single day is ridiculous. Nobody gets that. These technologies have made our work possible. It just wouldn’t be the same if we were only a website.
As much as we criticize social media—which I do constantly as well— those platforms actually made a huge difference in the war because Ukraine was able to get its message out. It wasn’t just the Kyiv Independent: it was the President’s office, the Ministry of Defense, the Ukrainian Government information operations generally, which have been able to generate support for Ukraine. All of this has been possible because of social media, and they were hugely successful in that much of the Western world mostly supports Ukraine, including unanimously in Washington, in the United States. Look at all the Ukrainian flags you see everywhere. That’s because of the way that information spread about Ukraine’s cause. There is now deep sympathy among the American population, which is difficult to explain. Why would you see Ukraine flags everywhere? There are Ukrainian people, but not that many. It was this messaging, transferred on social media, that I think it made all the difference.
And I think the fact that Ukraine is a tech-savvy country meant that they were already prepared to do just that, to jump on social media networks and get the message out quickly in a way that resonated with people. Many people don’t know this, but in Ukraine, similar to in Estonia, which is the most frequently-cited example, most Government services now are all on one app called Diia. You can pay your taxes, you can have you have your driver’s license on there, your ID. You pay your taxes every month on it, as taxes are collected monthly. You can register your marriage on it. It’s incredible: a user friendly, aesthetically-pleasing app that works well, never malfunctions, and has all their government services on it. They laugh at us all the time because they know how the taxes work here. They tell me, “Lily, it’s really bad. I literally click two buttons on this app, and my taxes are paid.”
I think there will likely be many opportunities to write entire books in the future about how tech has proven to be one of the decisive factors in the war. Think about how Russia also tries to get its information about the war out there, and most people simply don’t believe it. Their messaging, their propaganda, just doesn’t stick or speak to people the same way that Ukrainian information operations do. But it’s propaganda as well. We just don’t like to use that word if it’s on our side, though it is still propaganda. Technology is everything.
JIA: You concluded by mentioning Russian propaganda, much of which is factually inaccurate. How does the Kyiv Independent confront Russian disinformation? On the back-end, are there cybersecurity concerns as well?
LB: We utilize two-factor authentication for everything, and all of the additional steps to log into accounts occasionally creates bottlenecks. For example, I am the one with the phone number attached to one of our accounts, so anytime anyone wants to log in, I have to provide them the code. Dozens of people need this, so all day, I am receiving codes and forwarding them to my colleagues. I suggested one time that we outsource the two-factor process to a centralized website, and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. While I don’t personally manage those aspects of the business, I can tell you that there is a dedicated team making sure that all of our accounts and technologies are secure. We are required to have certain types of passwords. There’s a whole process.
We don’t focus specifically on combatting Russian disinformation. We sometimes cover narratives that are untrue, but our way, as an outlet, of dealing with Russian propaganda is not direct. We don’t have a group of people on our team going after fake news and false information and debunking it. We try to deal with Russian disinformation in a different way, which is to not use certain terms and terminology in references, because those ways of referring to people or events are actually Russian. By deploying those terms, you would be spreading Russian disinformation and therefore Russia’s version of events. Take, for example, the phrase “special military operation.” There was no special military operation in Ukraine. There never was. Invading a country fully is not a “special military operation,” by definition. We have never called it that because that, to us, would be dishonest to our readers, using words and phrases that are coming from the Kremlin’s playbook or from Putin’s mouth himself. Also, that would be spreading disinformation, in our view. Another is the Russian claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine and the subsequent “referendums.” We did not call them that. We called them “fake referendums.” We also indicated that while Russia claims that 90 percent of people voted to join, that’s doesn’t take into account everybody on the ground in these places sending messages through secure channels saying “The Russians are coming to my house with a gun and telling me how to vote.” Nobody is voting 90 percent to join Russia in Zaporizhzhia, yet certain outlets reported it that way. Reuters would say that 90 percent of people in Crimea, according to the Kremlin, voted to join Russia. Really? That’s our way of dealing with it: using very specific language for certain things so that we don’t spread the Kremlin’s language, which in essence is disinformation.
We do this for the Ukrainian authorities as well. For example, the Ukrainian Government never writes “occupied territory.” They always write “temporarily occupied territory.” They’ll refer to “temporarily occupied Donetsk,” because for them, the idea is that it is impossible that it would be permanently occupied by Russia. That’s a Ukrainian narrative: there’s no such thing as occupied, only “temporarily.” We don’t spread their specific language of how to refer to things as well. I don’t want it to seem as though we’re only fighting disinformation on one side. It exists on both sides.
JIA: What sorts of challenges arise reporting on propaganda, which is an important part of the information ecosystem outside of Ukraine? For example, how do you report on Russian disinformation without repeating or amplifying falsehoods?
LB: We simply do not use what the Kremlin says. When Putin claims that Ukraine isn’t a real country, he’s clearly not a trustworthy source of information. If the Kremlin says something, we as an outlet do not take that at face value. Sometimes people will reiterate that it’s what they said. If that’s the case, and it’s important to report on that, then in the article the writer needs to be very specific about that: this is what was said, and this is why it’s not true. You only use what they said. If there is a specific reason in your article for which you need to indicate what they said, not simply as news but to convey more about a situation, then it is indicated that this is what they said. We also do not adhere to this idea that both sides must have a voice, not when one side is a Ukrainian person who was standing there when the missile fell on the building. Those are not two equal sides of a war. A Ukrainian who is literally suffering physically and psychologically and a Kremlin spokesperson? Those are not equivalent voices in a situation.
We also try to adhere to journalistic standards, even while, at the same time, we are a Ukrainian outlet. We do believe that our independence has a stake in the fight. It cannot be one-sided. There has been a lot of external backlash over some of the investigations that we have published, including on misconduct in the Ukrainian military or in the International Legion.[i] Some have said that it’s bad for morale. But I think that our position has been that even talking about difficult circumstances and reporting on problems in Ukraine is actually patriotic. It means that you want the truth out there so that Ukraine can improve. We do receive backlash like that for the way that we discuss certain issues, but that’s to be expected.
JIA: What is Kyiv Independent’s relationship with other journalism, news generation, and information gathering that’s happening across the country? Is there an organizational relationship with some of these outlets or even individual journalists? Are there internal policies that guide those interactions or is much of it, given the nature of war, ad hoc?
LB: On the one hand, we make fun of those outlets for their almost obsessive two-sided objective journalism thing. On the other hand, we still respect them as outlets. They are serious outlets, and some of their reporting is amazing. The New York Times is a good example, because their reporting on Ukraine is amazing, and they’re doing fantastic work. They have tremendous resources and great journalists who do great on-the-ground reporting. But then their editorial staff will publish an op-ed arguing that we should stop giving money to Ukraine for weapons. We still respect those outlets and certainly use them for information. If they report on something they had access to, we will credit those reports. We won’t simply ignore it.
We also use other outlets as sources of information—certainly the big ones, which are doing good reporting. We maintain those relationships especially for our investigative reporting. We have relationships with other investigative journalists and other outlets across Europe, and we directly work with them because many of those investigations demand huge amounts of effort, requiring many different streams of work. In that way, there is a lot of collaboration with other outlets.
I would be curious to see what New York Times reporters think of us. One of our most-read editorials basically attacked the Times, asking how they could publish an op-ed arguing to stop supporting Ukraine financially. They must have seen it or heard about it. They probably think we’re some rag-tag group of independent journalists from Ukraine. We don’t try to have an adversarial relationship with any outlet, because we respect the work that they do. But sometimes they annoy us because they don’t have that local perspective.
JIA: Beyond relationships with other news outlets, what does the cultivation of sources outside of media look like? How else is information gathered on-the-ground?
LB: Personally, I never set out to be a journalist. I fell into it. My former boss at the Atlantic Council knew Brian Bonner, the former chief editor for the Kyiv Post. I went back to Ukraine without a job after my internship there. Bruce had reached out to her to ask if she knew someone who speaks English and can write. I just happened to be there, and he gave me the job, so this idea of cultivating sources and getting information is something that I am still learning myself. And one thing I’ve noticed is that journalists are pretty secretive people. I don’t even know how the journalists I work with do it, though I am editing their work. My sense is that it is a very individualized thing, especially with some of our journalists who are speaking to people about sensitive topics. Often, I have no idea who their contacts are, and I don’t think that they know who each other’s contacts are. Sometimes we are told, if someone on our team will be informed of something by someone that includes important information. We will then be told by that person if they feel that it’s necessary to share with us as a team, especially if it concerns operations with the invasion or something similar. But you will never find out who that person is, that person who told them.
While the culture of cultivating sources in journalism in general is very secretive, I do think that one thing we are still building as a new outlet is our relationships with people. Outlets that have been around forever have the upper hand because they’ve had more time to build relationships, as well as more time to build their brand. For example, if you are someone who wants to leak information, you’ll go to Reuters or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal because their reach is enormous. It takes decades to build that up. People leak information to those outlets not because they love the truth, but because it benefits them somehow. It’s a whole thing. I have a friend who works in Washington, D.C., and officials in the government have those relationships with media outlets. That’s a whole side of things that I don’t think we have. But we’re a young team, with young journalists and young editors. It takes a long time to cultivate those relationships with people, and it requires experience having published important stories. People then know who you are and you’ve interviewed them multiple times about those stories. Fortunately, the Kyiv Independent has no trouble securing interviews with people because our name is well known.
Ultimately, it’s a relationship question. Our information comes from different sources: either official sources published openly or information gathered from sources on the ground or things journalists themselves have seen.
JIA: What’s next? While there surely has not been any real time to reflect, what does the process look like of always trying to improve?
LB: In the midst of all of this horror, my colleagues are trying to build something. We have a CEO, a CFO, a chief business development officer. They are attempting to take this group of independent journalists and editors—all very independent people who, as journalists often do, sometimes go a little rogue and do their own thing—and create like a real media company.
It’s the little things. We started using Gmail, but it took all summer to get the whole team on Google using Gmail and Google Calendar. Over the summer, I would get a Google Calendar invite and accept it because I’m so used to it. I would be the only person who accepted the invite, and our chief business development officer would be furious, asking rhetorically just how hard it is. At the same that there are those little things, there is also much grander planning, an actual real strategy. We recently held our strategy meeting, and it was so impressive to me that a small group of people, not more than 30 Ukrainians, are able to sit and work super long hours to create a very detailed, outlined strategy for the next several years of our organization, in the middle of this war.
Everything is growing, including the sectors of our work that are not focused on the war, such as business and culture reporting. We want to establish a business desk and a culture desk to move forward with that kind of coverage so we are not just an outlet that reports on the war and that people aren’t just coming to read us because they want to know what’s going on with the war. We aim to be seen as an interesting and authoritative source of information, and a large part of that is becoming not simply a Ukrainian newspaper but a regional, if not a European, newspaper. We know that in order to grow as an outlet, through both personnel and reach, we have to be more than just about Ukraine. There is a limited number of people around the world who are interested in Ukraine, unfortunately, so we have to do more coverage about Russia. We also need to add to our existing reporting on Belarus, which is some of our most-read coverage because I believe we are one of the only English-language sources that is doing in-depth coverage on Belarus. Additionally, this includes going to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Central Asia and becoming regional by hiring people in those countries, remotely if need be.
That is our ultimate goal as an organization. Our view of ourselves is being Ukraine’s voice in the world, not just being as a country’s voice, in terms of what’s happening in Ukraine, but asking what kind of Ukrainian voice is needed in the world. This requires honing our perspective as people who are either Ukrainian or have lived in Ukraine for a long time and using that perspective on other regions and events throughout the world. I think it is a particular perspective from a country that has been going through so much for so long, one that has developed a specific voice that it can bring to other events happening in the world.
It’s extremely motivating. We have these future plans that we can think about and daydream about all the time, when the current reality is so terrible that it really does help motivate us, I think, to have that that larger vision.
[i] See, for example, Anna Myroniuk and Alexander Khrebet, “Suicide missions, abuse, physical threats: International Legion fighters speak out against leadership’s misconduct,” The Kyiv Independent, August 17, 2022, https://kyivindependent.com/suicide-missions-abuse-physical-threats-international-legionfighters-speak-out-against-leaderships-misconduct/ and Anna Myroniuk and Alexander Khrebet, “Investigation: International Legion soldiers allege light weapons misappropriation, abuse by commanders,” The Kyiv Independent, November 30, 2022, https://kyivindependent.com/investigationinternational-legion-misappropriation/.