Why Kyiv Post doesn’t send stories before publication
The other week, a Kyiv Post reporter interviewed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Representative for Freedom of Media. After the interview, two of the representative’s advisers asked the reporter to send them the text before publication.
Our reporter refused, citing our longstanding editorial policy.
A couple of days later, another Kyiv Post reporter had a scheduled interview cancelled with the International Monetary Fund country director after telling a spokesperson he wouldn’t send the text before publication. It was the first time the IMF had made such a request to the Kyiv Post, and the newspaper and IMF have agreed to meet and resolve the issue.
The problem isn’t so much the hypocrisy of two international organizations — one that condemns censorship, the other that lends billions of dollars to build accountable governments — attempting to influence Ukraine's embattled free media.
It’s that Ukrainian new media, mostly unprofitable outlets used as political weapons by their oligarch owners, participate in these independence-destroying procedures. Editorial independence among Ukrainian media is rare. So, sadly, approval of texts by a source before publication (or “uzhodzhennia” in Ukrainian) is still a common practice. We hear this demand for “approval before publication” all the time — from international organizations, private companies, embassies and government agencies.
Journalism vs. PR
A journalist interviews a source, writes a story and sends the draft to the source for approval. The source checks the text and adds corrections. At first sight, it seems like a good way to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes, but in reality it hands over editorial powers to the source. This is not journalism.
Experience has shown that once journalists hand over news stories, they lose control. The work could end up far from the source interviewed. It could land in a distant corporate headquarters or with a team of PR officials who don't merely want to correct factual mistakes, they want to rewrite or censor the piece.
On a practical level, journalism would grind to a halt if all interviews were held up, awaiting the approval of sources. But that's not the main reason why we refuse -- and we always say no, or at least so far have found no reason to make an exception.
Most sources understand and relent after we explain. We don't even blame them for asking.
But our readers, subscribers and advertisers tell us that they want the Kyiv Post to be commercially and editorially independent — and to tell the truth.
Our policy subjects us to criticism and pressure sometimes. We are refused interviews and information requests. Sometimes, we are even threatened with lawsuits. “This is a very sensitive subject.” “All journalists send us texts. We have never heard of such editorial policy as yours.”
“Your interviewee is a very important person whose words and ideas have to be conveyed correctly.”
“We have had negative experience with media in the past.”
“We just want to make sure the numbers are correct.” "It's the law." (No it is not.) Perhaps we’d be a richer newspaper if we agreed to such requests. If advertisers could buy advertorials disguised as news stories, if politicians could pay to place positive stories, or "jeansa," maybe our finances would be stronger. But we don't think so. We want to believe that advertisers and subscribers have supported us all these years because of our fierce independence and quality journalism.
To ensure accuracy, we suggest — as many of our sources do — recording the entire conversation along with us. In the age of the internet, mistakes are quickly and easily corrected. As for fairness, the Kyiv Post was one of the first outlets in Ukraine to get the other side of the story — and this remains our policy. We started this even before the explosion of PR professionals, who sometimes serve as obstacles to the source rather than helpful conduits.
Kyiv Post readers will get honest journal- ism. They won't get perfect journalism. We make mistakes, but apologize for them and correct them. We've never been successfully sued for libel in 22 years. This is quite an accomplishment, given our investigations and the scale of Ukraine's corruption and the opaqueness with which public officials have operated for much of Ukraine's history as an independent nation.
Business model broken
The business model of journalism is broken, endangering the survival of this vital profession. Facebook, Twitter and Google first took the industry's content and distributed it freely. Then they sold targeted advertising around that content. And, as the scandal over how Russia used Facebook to spread lies and misinformation shows, Facebook, Twitter and Google don't check their facts. We do.
Journalism is trying to regain its financial strength with paywalls and other innovative efforts. Besides the weekly print edition, which sells paid advertising, the Kyiv Post is also in the business of organizing events as a source of much-needed revenue, including employment fairs, conferences, CEO breakfasts and dinners. We also edit materials for clients.
This model makes us dependent on the community, which is better than being beholden entirely to oligarchs and government grants.
The more high-quality stories we publish, the more reason people and companies will have to subscribe or buy advertisements in the Kyiv Post, which — at 40 people — is still a small operation.
We have regular conversations with our sources and develop trust. We openly send interview requests with outlines of the topics we want to discuss. Routine informational requests, such as those seeking statistics, history or clarifications, are handled quite efficiently by email or by phone. We want our sources to be prepared. In most cases, this is not a problem — we're interviewing a person because of his or her expertise, because they have knowledge beneficial to the public.
Those with something to hide, duck us. Those with nothing to hide, welcome us. President Petro Poroshenko is the top example of politicians in Ukraine who give interviews mainly to loyal journalists or, in the case of foreign journalists, uninformed ones. The best and most confident sources relish the verbal sparring that takes place during tough and enlightening interviews.
Another silly request is for a list of questions to be asked during an interview. A list of topics is fine. But the purpose of an interview is a live exchange, a face-to-face conversation, so often the next question depends on the last answer.
When it comes to highly sensitive subjects and insider information, we have a longstanding practice of discussing with the source what goes on the record and what stays off the record.
The Kyiv Post is a multilingual place. We can communicate with people in the language in which they are most comfortable — Ukrainian, English or Russian. All of these principles underpin our commercial and editorial independence. A free press is vital to the future of a democratic Ukraine. Today, unfortunately, many media outlets that aren't political tools of billionaire oligarchs have no business plan at all other than to apply for the next government grant.
The Kyiv Post's success depends on support from a community that wants better — that wants independent, fair and honest — not perfect, but honest — journalism.
Journalists from Ukrainian outlets wait to be called on at a press conference by President Petro Poroshenko in March 2016. Many Ukrainian outlets are willing to sacrifice editorial independence to their sources by allowing them to approve what is written before publication. (Volodymyr Petrov)