UA:Pershyi’s audience grew in 2019 due to its broadcast of the presidential debate held before the second round of the election; Countdown, a talk show covering the election; sporting events such as the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the Biathlon World Cup, the European U-21 Championship; and Eurovision. However, due to the infrequent nature of these events it remains to be seen if the audience increase is temporary or permanent. Daily COVID-19 lockdown coverage in March and April 2020 also increased its ratings anywhere between 25 per cent and over 100 per cent for different groups of the audience.
However, the national broadcaster has struggled to expand its audience across its different channels and strengthen its brand. A 2017 survey mapping popular awareness and perception of the country’s TV channels found that 63 per cent of adult Ukrainians knew of UA:Pershyi and just 26 per cent were aware of UA:Kultura, the public broadcaster’s channel on culture and the arts. This was far behind the top privately owned TV channels 1+1, Inter and ICTV, which were recognized by 99 per cent, 98 per cent and 96 per cent of those questioned, respectively. The survey also showed that the level of trust in the public broadcaster was comparable to that placed in private broadcasters.
Suspilne has been underfunded since reforms began. The law states that 0.2 per cent of the country’s total budget expenditure in the previous year should be allocated to the public broadcaster in the following year. However, it received around half of that sum in 2018 and 2019. For now, funding depends on the political will of the government and parliament to draft and approve a budget. Parliament slashed the 2019 budget for Suspilne, despite harsh criticism from the media community, civil society and international organizations. The 2020 budget initially allocated the highest annual sum yet to Suspilne, but it was still around 15 per cent below the funding originally promised, and budget sequestration in response to the COVID-19 crisis led to further cuts.
To address this chronic funding problem, media experts have advocated reform of the budgeting approach. The proposed solution is to set up a secured fund for the public broadcaster based on certain taxes or rental fees for the use of radio frequencies. This would make the funding independent of political influence and provide much needed stability. If the broadcaster manages to increase its reach and popularity, it will be able to attract more advertisers. Yet, Ukraine’s advertising market remains relatively small and Suspilne’s team sees itself as an outlet that should work primarily in the public interest, not for commercial gain.
Ownership in the online sector is more diverse than in traditional media organizations. In September 2020, according to a ranking of the leading online media outlets by IMI, 10 individual entities owned the top 10 news websites. An earlier study by IMI and Reporters Without Borders showed that oligarch-controlled media groups account for three out of the four largest owners of online media outlets in Ukraine. However, many of the listed outlets are owned by individual entrepreneurs, journalists or companies that are not part of major holdings.
Online media outlets fall into different categories, the first of which is largely comprised of established and reputable organizations covering politics, society, business, economics and culture. Some of these are purely online news or analytical outlets, such as Ukrayinska Pravda, Liga.net or LB.ua. Others are online versions of print publications, such as Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden or Novoye Vremia. A handful are not privately owned: such as UkrInform, a state news agency, and multimedia platforms from international broadcasters, such as the BBC, DW and RFE/RL. Many of these outlets have joined Media for an Informed Choice, an initiative made up of nearly 70 outlets, journalists and NGOs focused on boosting compliance with high standards of political reporting during the 2019 election campaigns.
To further improve nationwide socio-political media coverage, quality niche and regional outlets in this category are experimenting with formats, storytelling and visual presentation, and innovative approaches to attract audiences. They combine niche content delivery, audience targeting, crowdfunding and cross-platform partnerships.
The second category of online media outlets is made up of popular websites that adhere to lower quality standards and opt for a tabloid-style approach, often with clickbait headlines and some dzhynsa or manipulative content. They produce their own news, exclusive content, and have editorial teams and reporters representing them.
Quasi-news websites that work exclusively as tools of political PR or agenda-setting make up the third category. It is difficult to identify their editors or reporters, and most of their content is directly copied from other sources without proper attribution under clickbait headlines. They engage in producing manipulative viral content, hidden political endorsements, smear campaigns and scandals. Some choose names that an inattentive reader might easily confuse with those of reputable outlets, or they replicate websites of established media. In one example, in 2019, Facebook removed 168 profile pages, 149 accounts and 79 groups, many of which were linked to Znaj Media, a rapidly growing network of clickbait news websites and social media accounts. A Facebook review described this as inauthentic coordinated activity and linked it to Pragmatico, a Ukrainian political PR firm that advertises its services as reputation protection on social media and promotion of personal brands. Media watchdog IMI found that just 16 per cent of news on Znaj, one of the network’s flagship websites, met the standards of professional journalism, such as separating facts from comments, credibility and a balance of opinions.
Although an informed or critical reader will not use these websites as a source of information, they still account for roughly half of the Ukrainian Internet Association’s top 100 news outlets, ranking alongside – or sometimes higher than – established media. Their main approaches for reaching an audience are social media, clickbait content and promotional tools based on algorithms and purchased referral traffic.
Aggregators from platforms such as ukr.net or i.ua play an important role in the visibility of online news media, especially as internet usage rises in Ukraine. A major flaw of such aggregators is that they treat low-quality or quasi-news websites in the same way that they treat reputable outlets, which results in them being perceived as equivalents on newsfeeds. This situation is not unique to Ukraine. The Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019 report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism explores this problem in aggregator apps. It says that, like social media platforms, they ‘will need to start facing up to their wider responsibilities and that will increasingly mean putting in some kind of editorial oversight’.
Aggregators from platforms such as ukr.net or I.ua play an important role in the visibility of online news media.
Online outlets are currently not required to register as mass media organizations under Ukrainian legislation, although many choose to register as information agencies, media companies or advertising agencies. Online versions of TV, radio or print outlets automatically qualify as media and are regulated as such. It is more difficult, albeit possible, to hold unregistered online outlets accountable for manipulative or inaccurate information they publish. Unless employees of these organizations hold a press card from the National Union of Journalists in Ukraine or another registered media organization, they lack journalist credentials and the accompanying rights and protection mechanisms that this provides.
Opaque ownership and funding is a big problem in online media. In 2017, IMI and Reporters Without Borders found that only 14 per cent of the 50 most popular news websites in Ukraine were transparent about their ownership structure. Transparent organizations disclosed their contacts, as well as information about their editor-in-chief and the owner or ultimate beneficiary; 62 per cent were semi-transparent, providing incomplete information. Some of the missing data is available but it is spread across different public records and thus difficult to uncover.
The proposed draft media law introduces regulation for online media. It stipulates that online outlets, as well as content-sharing platforms, can choose to register voluntarily. This could give them the same level of protection and access to accreditation that registered or licensed outlets have. It would also give them access to state support and opportunities to engage in co-regulation. Both registered and non-registered online outlets will have to comply with the restrictions of content prohibited by Ukrainian legislation – such as hate speech or content that is harmful for children – and protect intellectual property. In addition, the proposed draft law establishes transparency requirements for all online media outlets, including the disclosure of owners.
Radio and print
The number of Ukrainians using radio as a source of news is in decline. According to the 2020 Media Consumption Survey by InMind, 13 per cent of Ukrainians listened to the radio for news, down from 18 per cent in 2019, 26 per cent in 2018 and 35 per cent in 2015. However, the country’s entertainment or infotainment radio stations enjoy stability in terms of popularity and advertising revenues.
In 2018 and 2019, the top 10 FM radio stations in Ukraine all broadcast infotainment, mostly offering music with brief regular news updates. Four private media groups own all top 10 radio stations. Two of the owners focus on radio as their core business, while the other two also have television and print outlets in their portfolios. In recent years, new players have entered Ukraine’s radio landscape including quality talk radio stations and niche online radio stations with more intellectual content and music. Overall, radio broadcasters are growing an online presence and expanding their use of multimedia, in order to keep up with changing consumption habits.
As has been the case throughout the world, Ukraine’s print media is struggling and going digital. In 2017, Ukraine had 1,666 print newspapers, down from 2,285 in 2010. Around 17 per cent of these covered national politics and nearly 5 per cent wrote about business and the economy. There were 2,156 print magazines in 2017, and only nine of these were socio-political. Around a dozen of these magazines are established outlets with a recognizable brand, and just a handful offer high-quality content and have a good reputation.
The dynamics of advertising have exacerbated the downward trend in the print sector, which has seen advertising revenues lag behind all other sectors of the media, while digital outlets account for the majority of advertising revenues. This is driving print media to develop online platforms, embrace a digital-first strategy and experiment with formats. However, many print outlets cannot afford to seriously invest in competitive digital platforms, and subsequently lose subscription revenues as they transition online. Yulia Mostova, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, a reputable weekly in Ukraine, noted in a 2018 interview that there were many occasions when her newspaper had no money to survive another day, and that it was only propped up by individual donations from its supporters. In late 2019, the paper ceased publishing a print version and refocused its efforts on digital outputs. Meanwhile, reform of the Ukrainian post office (see following section for more details) and the poor performance of retail distributors triggered a rise in delivery costs. In addition, the soaring cost of paper has also been a blow to the sector.
It is difficult to rank print publications by popularity, audience or print run. Most of them report inflated numbers to attract advertisers. Print media must register with the Ministry of Justice, which helps to establish information about their ownership. But that information was not readily accessible to average readers until recently as the previous law did not require print media to disclose it. Improved transparency is one of the key goals of the new draft media law.
The balance of local media is also shifting, according to KIIS and Detector Media polls. In 2018, local print media was a source of information for 4.8 per cent of Ukrainians, while 2.5 per cent used local online media. A year later, 1.7 per cent used local print media as a source of information and 4.1 per cent used local online media. The popularity of local television also dropped, with only 4.3 per cent of respondents saying they used it as a source of information in February 2019, down from 6.4 per cent a year earlier. There was a slight increase in the use of local media as sources of news in 2020. It is unclear though whether this is a trend resulting from more interest in local themes and access to more local outlets, especially online, or a short-lived change due to the COVID-19 pandemic or the local elections that took place in October 2020.
Most local media companies are privately owned, ranging from the popular outlets that influence the local political agenda to the countless smaller operations that are used by their owners for political or commercial publicity. The media environment in Odesa oblast is representative of this situation. According to an analysis by IMI, in 2015 there were around 550 registered print media outlets (with only one-third publishing regularly) in Odesa oblast, and numerous websites (of which only 5–10 are well known), as well as nearly 40 regional TV and radio companies (not all of them active) in Odesa city alone. While the media in Odesa is not transparent about ownership, IMI’s analysis found that most were controlled by people in politics and their inner circles, including the city mayor and MPs.
A handful of local media organizations offer a quality alternative, operating either as businesses or as independent outlets financed through grants, crowdfunding and other means. Lviv-based Tvoe Misto offers one example: presenting itself as an independent hub, it delivers multimedia content about Lviv in an appealing format. As well as being a media outlet, it is establishing itself as a debate club and a production studio for the city, offering services such as production or hosting events to diversify its sources of revenue. Tvoe Misto’s funding mainly comes from local business investors, who have pooled resources in an NGO to support an independent media outlet in their city, as well as from advertising and grants. In June 2020, it launched a membership option that offers a number of media and non-media products, including access to invitation-only events and discounts in its partner businesses. Nakipelo, a Kharkiv-based multimedia platform, follows a similar approach. While mostly funded by international grants, it is developing extra services, including production, a press centre and event hosting, to diversify its revenue structure.
A handful of local media organizations offer a quality alternative, operating either as businesses or as independent outlets financed through grants, crowdfunding and other means.
A 2015 review of regional print and online media found that outlets in Odesa, Dnipro, Zhytomyr, Donetsk and Kharkiv published the highest proportions of content with elements of hidden political or commercial endorsements – up to 40 per cent in some cases. Lviv had the least amount of this content in its local media output. More recent monitoring projects from the 2020 local elections found slightly lower proportions of hidden endorsements and more properly marked advertising in former state or community-owned local media that have been privatized. More generally, however, hidden endorsements for political candidates and election agitation, combined with low quality information about election procedures or candidates’ proposals, remain a prominent problem in the coverage of politics by local media. A lot of such content has moved to social networks that tend to mimic imprudent practices of traditional outlets.
Several factors contribute to this situation in Ukraine. Natalia Steblyna, an Odesa-based media expert, points to the high tolerance of hidden advertising among local journalists and editors. In interviews for this paper, Philip Dykan from Kharkiv Today and Natalia Kurdiukova from Nakipelo.ua in Kharkiv suggested that in a poor market, political PR is the main source of income for local media. Another problem is that social media offers advertisers a more attractive advertising platform than traditional local media outlets. Kurdiukova advocates the improvement of media management skills and clear rules, especially for political advertising, as a potential solution.
Media experts from other regions echo these concerns. Liubov Vasylyk, dean of the Journalism Department at the Chernivtsi National University, notes that the local media in Chernivtsi oblast, Western Ukraine, cannot afford to send staff to different locations. As a result, local outlets can only cover developments in Chernivtsi and offer little information for those looking to find out what is happening elsewhere. This ultimately impacts their readership and potential revenue streams.
Local print media, like national outlets, have been hit by shortages of affordable paper and the reform of the postal service – especially its higher delivery costs, village post office closures, redundancies, and the unilateral review of delivery routes and timetables. In a joint motion in early 2020, the National Union of Journalists and editors of more than 120 local newspapers requested the dismissal of the director of the Ukrainian Post Office and state support for the local press.
State or community-owned local media have undergone the biggest reform. Previously dependent on state funding or subsidies, these media outlets served primarily as the voice of the authorities. In December 2015, parliament passed the Law on the Reform of State and Communal Mass Media. By mid-December 2018, 343 of more than 700 local print media outlets that were due for reform had been privatized. The purpose of this approach was to transform them into private companies or outlets owned collectively by editorial teams, in an attempt to eliminate the influence of government bodies.
On the one hand, the reforms killed off many unviable local outlets that failed to adjust to the new reality. On the other hand, this approach has pushed others to improve economic sustainability, even if it does not guarantee their full independence from local authorities from day one. Some have already been successful, such as Susidy.City, which is a news website for Mena and Koriukivka, two towns in Chernihiv oblast with a combined population of around 20,000 people. Susidy.City is a joint project between the editorial teams of two local newspapers that offers a combination of local news, guidance for accessing public services online, and a platform for local activism. This is a good demonstration of a model for local media that can combine the functions of reporting and service provision. For better outreach, it also produces viral-style educational content, such as tests of how well readers know the history of their region.
The project was assisted by the Agency for Media Growth (ABO), a local media mentorship initiative, which offered advice on media management, formats and design solutions. According to Oleksandr Bilinskiy, co-founder of ABO and Svoi.City, a news platform for towns in eastern Ukraine, the agency helped to reform 25 local online media outlets by late 2018, including 22 former state-run outlets in different regions across Ukraine. By late 2019, just two of the websites it mentored had closed down. In an interview for this paper, Bilinskiy said that it is the initiative of editorial teams that drives this development. The agency is working to develop into a self-funded regional media consultancy with the expertise to offer technical and digital solutions more widely in Ukraine.