Russia’s invasion flooded the Kyiv Independent with attention and funds. Now its CEO worries war fatigue could bring it—and Ukraine—down
Daryna Shevchenko journeyed from war-torn Ukraine—for personal security reasons, she declined to say from precisely where she’d come—to the Italian hilltop city of Perugia earlier this month to deliver a blunt message to a gathering of journalists.
“Keep talking about the war in Ukraine,” Shevchenko, the 32-year-old CEO of the Kyiv Independent, told attendees of the International Journalism Festival. “Because as soon as you go silent, the situation will get worse.”
If you’ve been closely following the war in Ukraine, you’ve no doubt come across the Kyiv Independent’s reporting. The English-language news operation, which formed in November 2021 after the sudden collapse of its predecessor, the Kyiv Post, has by so many measures—particularly, for an online media startup—had a stellar debut.
The Kyiv Independent’s small team of journalists, spread across Ukraine, have landed a number of big wartime news scoops, including obtaining images and audio reports of the Russian army’s aborted siege on Chernihiv. Those reports pushed traffic to new highs.
So far, the team has converted that reader interest into a vital lifeline. The Kyiv Independent has more than 2.1 million followers across its Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. It’s raised more than £1.5 million ($2 million) on its GoFundMe page, and nearly 7,000 patrons have signed up to pitch in, as of this week, more than $70,000 worth of contributions each month. Plus, it’s pulling in a trickle of advertiser and commercial revenue (about $20,000). To round things off, European Union grant funding helped it pay bills and salaries in the early days.
The paradox for the Kyiv Independent: The Kremlin’s blitz on Shevchenko’s homeland has made the site a must-read publication. At the same time, war in Ukraine could quite literally kill the very thing that she and a group of roughly 20 full- and part-time dedicated journalists have been working tirelessly to build.
And so Shevchenko’s mind quickly turns to strategy in her conversation with Fortune on the sidelines of the event. She takes a drag on an e-cigarette and continues: “We may be okay for now, but we need to think of how to make this sustainable. The Kyiv Independent won’t fundraise £1.5 million every month. We know that [reader indifference] will settle in, and people will just stop donating at some point. We’re already seeing a big trend of people unsubscribing.
“I understand that I need to invest this money wisely in a way that will create ongoing revenues for the future to make sure that the Kyiv Independent is there for years to come.”
To make that future sustainable, she says, she needs to find and recruit a bigger team, and to do all she can to retain a staff that’s already stretched and stressed, and scattered around the country. Burnout, recruitment headaches, the uncertainty of the remote-working future—these are challenges all startups face. But add war to the equation, and you can see what she’s up against. One reporter, she says, shut down his laptop and took up arms to join the war effort.
She also regrets not having the funds or time early on to invest in necessities like satellite phones, protective combat gear, and war insurance for a team that now finds itself not just reporting on a war zone, but living inside one.
“Our contingency plan wasn’t perfect to say the least,” she admits in an all-too-honest moment before lifting the e-cigarette to her lips again. “I wish I took care of all that months ago. We were a startup. I had to work on a lot of things” to get the operation off the ground.
But she gives herself a higher grade for developing a business plan out of the gates that features a diversified revenue stream—not just sponsorships and advertising, but reader-patronage options and crowdfunding. Setting up a legal entity inside and outside Ukraine to tap these funding opportunities was key, too.
“We were set up in a crisis,” she says, “and in that way we were prepared for the next crisis.”
“We fought tooth and nail”
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, generations of Ukrainians have increasingly pushed for pro-Western and pro-democracy reforms, pulling the country further and further away from Moscow’s influence. An independent media has been at the heart of this push, Shevchenko is quick to point out.
“We weren’t granted a free country. We fought for this free country tooth and nail, and we built all the democratic institutions in Ukraine,” Shevchenko said in one panel session at the journalism conference.
“Journalists in Ukraine,” she continued, “worked for 30 years to build a civil society, and they succeeded, while Russian journalists apparently failed, because their civil society is nonexistent. By the end of 2021 we approved so many progressive laws. This happened thanks to the press and the civil society. We managed to get to the point in which authorities were the servants of the people. We managed to ensure that we had the right to work freely. That’s why this war is so unfair.”
During her short visit to Perugia, Shevchenko said she got a lot of questions about what the world can do to help. Her message was a simple one: Don’t forget us.
“We need for you to keep talking about this,” she told Fortune. “To keep the information flow going, to make sure that our stories are heard in your communities because, you know, we will keep talking about it anyway. But we need your support. We need you to not forget what is going on in Ukraine, especially as this drags on, as you know, it becomes too long, and people get tired of all the horrible pictures coming from Ukraine.
“We need your support as colleagues.”
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