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The Value and Costs of Good Journalism

2011 April 17
by Greg Satell

With all  the endless babble about paywalls, “free” content, social media and other things, it’s easy to lose sight of the true values and cost of journalism.  It is a profession with character, a soul and a purpose that is essential to a well functioning society.

Running a media business can be a lot of fun.  You get to work with talented people.  It can be exciting and glamorous, interesting and cerebral.  It also has its downsides.  Inevitably, someone – an advertiser, government official or even an everyday consumer –  doesn’t like what you publish and calls you screaming for blood

When that happens, it’s your job to protect the product.  Unfortunately, as this story will show, some people take that responsibility more seriously than others.

Old Boring Journalism

The story doesn’t start with a tweet.  It won’t go viral on YouTube.  Malcolm Gladwell won’t be asked about social media’s role in it.  Nobody was killed or maimed.  It started, strangely enough, with a fairly routine interview with the Agriculture Minister of Ukraine given to two journalists at the Kyiv Post.

I know the two journalists who took the interview.  I’ve worked with them.  They are capable and diligent and, in the past, have come up with some real investigative coups.  They both have developed a wide array of sources, understand the minutiae of Ukrainian economics and government policy and know how to dig into a story to uncover the facts.

However, in this instance it was just a simple interview, with a relatively obscure minister who was asked some fairly basic questions about a seemingly straightforward government policy.

A Scheme Laid Bare

Last year, purportedly in response to a weak harvest, the Ukrainian government instituted export controls on grain.  An agrarian fund was also created to purchase crops from Ukrainian farmers in order to build up a strategic reserve.

Seems reasonable enough so far, right?  Enter Khlib Investbud Ltd.  Last August, this mysterious entity won a tender to supply 5 million tons of grain to the agrarian fund.   This past January, they were awarded nearly half of all the export licenses.  Definitely shady, but pretty boring stuff.

The trouble started when the two Kyiv Post journalists asked the Minister, obviously not a man of formidable intellectual talent, a question: Who owns Khlib Investbud?  A simple query, apparently with many answers.  First he said he didn’t know, then that he did know and finally that, in fact, everybody knows because the issue is “transparent.”

It was, in truth, a scheme so simple that Tony Soprano would entrust his dullard son AJ to run it.  The government introduces controls and quotas.  Key officials then create a shell company to monopolize the rights to trade in the regulated commodity, earning millions for themselves in the process.  Big money, little artifice.

A Proud Heritage

The Kyiv Post has a long and celebrated history in Ukraine.  It was founded in 1995 by an American native from Brooklyn, Jed Sunden, who at the time was a young man in his twenties with $9000 to his name.  He was the proverbial “boy with a dollar and a dream.”

(Disclosure:  I was formerly the Co-CEO of KP Media, Kyiv Post’s parent corporation).

It quickly built a reputation for independence and trained a new generation of Ukrainian journalists.  The publication gained notoriety for publicizing taboo stories such as the still unsolved murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze and, along with its Russian language sister publication Korrespondent, the Orange Revolution.

There was, however, a price to be paid.  The  company was occasionally subject to intimidation and threats.  At one point Sunden was even declared persona non grata and refused entry into the country.  Still, they persevered and KP Media grew into a major media conglomerate, with products ranging from fashion and lifestyle magazines to Ukraine’s biggest Internet portal.

In 2006, an IPO made KP Media Ukraine’s first public media corporation .  At one point, its total market value reached $100 million.

The New Publisher

In 2009 (coincidentally, on the same day I officially left KP Media), the Kyiv Post was sold to Mohammad Zahoor, a Pakistani steel tycoon with wide ranging business interests in Ukraine.  He pledged to uphold the founding principles of the newspaper, at the time saying:

We are committed to upholding the Kyiv Post’s high standards of independent journalism, and will continue to allow the editors the freedom that they previously enjoyed. We recognize that the Kyiv Post was one of the few truly independent voices in Ukrainian media since its inception, which is why it enjoys almost unparalleled trust among its readership

Such platitudes are commonplace in transactions, living up to them is another matter altogether.  I had attended one of the initial meetings with Mr. Zahoor’s representative in the transaction and it was far from clear to me that they knew what they were getting into.

It seemed to me at the time, as it does now, that Mr. Zahoor’s motivations were cosmetic rather than financial.  He simply thought it would be glamorous to run a newspaper with a strong heritage, much as a well-to-do optometrist might invest in a trendy restaurant in Tribeca.

The Aftermath

Not all of what happened after the interview is exactly clear, but some of it is now public record and I have a pretty good idea about what most probably occurred behind closed doors.

Someone on the Minister’s press staff duly informed him that he had been unmasked as an idiot of the first order.  The political machine then went to representatives of Mr. Zahoor’s business interests and threatened dire consequences.  Mr. Zahoor suddenly realized that he was not, in fact, the proud owner of a restaurant in Tribeca.

This realization resulted in a flurry of calls from  Zahoor to Kyiv Post’s Editor-in-Chief, Brian Bonner, demanding that he pull the interview from the next edition.  Mr. Bonner courageously held his ground and refused, the paper was published with the interview and Mr. Bonner was summarily dismissed.

Mr. Zahoor has now threatened to liquidate the restaurant (sorry, newspaper).  The staff of the Kyiv Post has gone on strike and posted their account, along with the demand that Mr. Bonner be reinstated, on Facebook.

This could very well be end of a journalistic icon that for years shed light in extraordinarily dark places and endured through very tough times through sheer force of will.

Everyday Acts of Courage and Cowardice

This is not, of course, the story of the century.  Just a fairly routine interview in an English language newspaper in a quasi-failed state with a corrupt regime.  No bombs will explode, Barack Obama will not speak from the Oval Office about it, the politics involved are of grain, not oil.

Yet, there can be both nobility and tragedy in the mundane act of doing one’s job as it should be done.  I’ve witnessed first hand the passion and energy that the journalists involved put forth on routine stories.  Their efforts, as well as the similar ones performed everyday by thousands of dedicated men and women around the globe, are what make free societies work.

A newspaper is not a rich man’s toy, it is a business and, like every good business, it needs to have a mission and a purpose to be run well.  The real work doesn’t happen in the limelight, but in making tough calls on late nights.  The defining attribute of a media enterprise is not glamour or pizazz or even its business model, but its integrity and that integrity is sacred.

If you’re not willing to take that responsibility seriously, you might as well spend your life peddling hunks of metal.

– Greg

Update: After an intense outpouring, including protests from three US Senators (not to mention the coverage on Digital Tonto!) the editor of the Kyiv Post has been asked back as part of a four person editorial board and the staff has gone back to work.   However, future of the paper still remains in doubt.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011

    This pathetic story of the KP is like a key chapter from a book about the travails of the private media in Cameroon. The big difference here is that though bombs may not explode and Obama may not talk from the Oval Office about it, concerned media men and women around the world are raising their voices (as you have done) against treating media practitioners with such levity. In the case of Cameroon, private media outlets with genuine bents on going the extra mile to serve the people by digging deep into the misdeeds of officialdom and exposing them to the benefit of the man-in-the-street, are squeezed to death in silence and despair. There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel though: recently my newspaper was refused the annual business licence which meant we could no longer operate as a business, though having the authorisation to publish a newspaper. Loud noise made by colleagues in FAIR (thank you Evelyn) reversed the situation for our newspaper the WEEKLY POST. Had there not been that loud noise by foreign colleagues, the WEEKLY POST like most other newspapers of its kind in the country before it, should have died in silence and despair.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Glad to hear it worked out. Good luck with weeklypost1.tripod.com !

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. Philip Larmett permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Nicely written article, Greg.
    Obviously, you are very close to the journalists and the editor involved in the story, given that you were part of the story of KP Media with Jed Sunden.

    My own comment is that the Kyiv Post was getting more anti-government in the last two years and has been almost entirely critical of the Ukrainian government under Yanukovich.
    There is a question of editorial balance, and, though I note Brian Bonner occasionally published pro-Yanukovich articles when he could find them, maybe this balance had disappeared.
    There is a fine line between discretion and bravado. Brian chose the “publish or be damned” scenario.
    I can quite imagine that the Ukrainian authorities finally got to Mr Zahoor; maybe it was a case of one article too far.
    There was always the danger of pressure from the government as soon as Jed sold the flagship KP publication to Mr Zahoor.
    And maybe the danger became greater when the Kyiv Post started publishing on its web-site in the local languages, Russian and Ukrainian.
    As long as the critical coverage was restricted to the English-speaking and reading community in Kyiv, the government probably didn’t care too much. But exposing the government’s corrupt schemes in the local language so that young, connected Ukrainians could read what was actually going on…. That might be one of the seeds of a new Orange revolution.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Phillip,

    I hear what you’re saying. We certainly struggled with similar issues at the Kyiv Post and its Russian language sister publication, Korrespondent. However, I can tell you from first hand experience, that it is not a publishers role to decide what does and does not get printed unless the circumstances are truly exceptional, which they clearly were not in this case.

    This is especially true given that an interview was consented to and there was never any issue of accuracy.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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