Kyiv Independent staff members meet in November 2021, shortly after the outlet's founding. (Photo: Volodymyr Petrov)

Ukraine editor Olga Rudenko on starting Kyiv Independent as Russia amasses troops on border

Olga Rudenko was half a world away from Ukraine on the day that Ukrainian construction tycoon Adnan Kivan abruptly fired the entire staff of the Kyiv Post, the 26-year-old English-language print-to-digital publication known for its tough-minded, corruption-exposing journalism.

Rudenko, then deputy chief editor of the Post and in the United States on a fellowship at the University of Chicago, recalls spending the rest of the day “on the phone constantly with people in Kyiv” as they packed their belongings and prepared to abandon the newsroom. In one conversation with a colleague that day, “I started to cry, and I think he started to cry, too,” said Rudenko. And then: “It was just something I blurted out, but I said, if you guys are gonna go, you know, decide to just start something on your own, then I’m going to be with you on that.”

Within days, about 30 of the 50 sacked journalists decided to do just that, and their unanimous choice to lead the effort was Rudenko (Brian Bonner, the Kyiv Post’s longtime chief editor, had announced his retirement when Kivan sacked him and the rest of the staff).

The plan for an independent startup sounded quixotic. Much of Ukraine’s media is owned or controlled by deep-pocketed oligarchs or politicians, who are not shy about dictating editorial content. Investigative sites and independent online newsrooms offer strong, fact-based alternatives but often struggle for financial equilibrium.

Yet within weeks, the fired Kyiv Post journalists had created a vibrant new news operation, the Kyiv Independent, using an emergency grant from the European Endowment for Democracy and donated office space and web services. Content is free, but a Patreon supporter base quickly grew to over 700 people (despite its outsized influence and a loyal following among diplomats, expats and others, the Kyiv Post, operating with a paywall, never had more than 3,000 subscribers, according to former employees).

Almost from its beginning, the Independent’s news feed has been dominated by comprehensive coverage of Russia’s troop buildup at Ukraine’s borders. Opinion columns analyze Vladimir Putin’s motives and the West’s responses, and politics and corruption remain content staples.

Staff work for salaries that are 30 to 50 percent less than what they earned at the Post, according to Rudenko. But there’s enough money “for the first year, for sure,” she told CPJ in a February 4 interview. “And then second year is going to depend on our efforts in year one.”

This interview with Rudenko has been edited for length and clarity.

Kyiv Independent editor Olga Rudenko works at the publication’s temporary office in December 2021. (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova)

Did you have any offers of support that you turned down because you felt they might compromise you editorially?

I’m not sure I can name the name publicly, but one of the top Ukrainian oligarchs, his people approached us within days after the Kyiv Post was shut down, immediately after we announced that we were starting a new publication, even before there was a name or anything. His people approached us and said that basically they can offer us a very generous subsidy, cover all of our expenses — to the same level, the same extent that Adnan Kivan was doing for the Kyiv Post.

It was a very generous offer. If they wanted to just make a donation – no strings attached, just a donation – we might have considered it. But they wanted to, well, basically be the owner of the news organization that we would create. They told us that they would not interfere at all, that we would have editorial independence. But first of all, I don’t believe that. And second, it would compromise us so much that we would lose all the support of our community.

How are relations with Volodymyr Zelensky’s government? Do you have the same kind of access that you had when everyone was working for the Kyiv Post?

We are being invited to things like off the record briefings in the government. So it means that we have the recognition as a legit media organization, important enough to be invited to things like that.

But the level of access in general for any media organization to Zelensky is not high. He almost never gives interviews. He gives a press conference once a year. So I can’t say that the access is very good for anyone.

Are you getting any sort of pressures or complaints from the government?

Not yet. Still waiting for them to come.  

How are you covering the Russia-Ukraine tensions right now? Do you have anyone at what could become a frontline in eastern Ukraine, or on the border of Belarus?

We are looking to dispatch a team as soon as possible. Money is a bit of an issue, yes, but this is a priority and we will find money to fund people’s travel to the frontline. We do enjoy the privilege of having an exceptionally good senior defense reporter on the team. His name is Illia Ponomarenko, and he’s probably one of the best known and most skilled defense reporters in Ukraine.

Members of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces, volunteer units of the army, train close to Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 5, 2022. Hundreds of civilians have joined Ukraine’s army reserves amid fears about a Russian invasion. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Where is he right now?

Today he went to the Chernobyl exclusion zone to cover military drills that were taking place there. There are these abandoned cities in the Chernobyl zone, and the (Ukrainian) military is using them to drill in an urban environment.

What’s the mood like for your staff as you’re trying to cover this story about great tension between Ukraine and Russia?

It is definitely affecting people, definitely taking a toll on people emotionally, because, I mean, we live here. We actually had this line in the editorial that we put out today, that this is not just a story that we cover, it’s a story that we live. And if there is an invasion, as some people believe there will be, if there’s an all-out invasion and the Russian military reaches Kyiv, then it means very big personal risk for every one of us.

But at the same time, I think everybody just realizes how exceptionally important our role and our mission is right now. I think it gives additional motivation to people. It’s a challenge and the timing is surreal that this would happen just immediately – basically at the same time that the Kyiv Post was shut down this [Russian build-up] started happening.  

What you have been able to do with creating the Kyiv Independent, does it have lessons that could be valuable for journalists in other countries that have these issues, like oligarch ownership?

In Ukraine a lot of media organizations are owned by people who have the newsroom under complete control. They influence what the newsroom does and says. Maybe our example, if we’re successful, and we will be successful, I hope it will inspire people to just revolt against the kind of ownership that interferes in editorial freedoms.

I’m also hoping that this situation is going to be a lesson to people who own the media and who might want to put some improper pressure on the newsroom. Maybe they will think twice before doing that. I’m sure that for Adnan Kivan, the owner of the Kyiv Post, the situation came as a surprise. I’m sure he did not expect this to backfire against him so badly. So I hope that Adnan Kivans in the future will think twice before doing something like that.

Is there specific advice that you would give to a journalist from another country facing a situation similar to what you all had at the Kyiv Post?

I would say: think ahead. Have a Plan B. Know that the team, the journalists and others on the staff of the organization, is its strongest, its main asset. Any news organization is first and foremost the people who work for it. The owner may tell you that he’s paying for everything, so he is the boss, and you cover that this way, you don’t cover that. You write this, you don’t write that. Giving you orders like that. But you don’t have to do it. You’re worth something. Your team is worth something. And you have other options.

I know that a lot of people think that journalism can’t pay for itself, so you need to make compromises and you need to just always have a rich owner. I hope that our example will prove that it is not true. Maybe I am naïve. But the way I see our little venture here is: either we’re successful and it sets up a very important precedent for the country, and for this region, or we fail. And then in that case, at least we were on the right side of history. At least we tried.