Independent regional media in Ukraine:
how to go ahead and plan

The Media Development Foundation runs an annual survey of independent regional media that covers management, finance, content creation and distribution. This report is based on a survey of 26 media held in January-February and updated in May-early June 2020. See the link to our research methodology and sample selection for further details (at the end of this document).


Reports from surveys from previous years can be found here
SUMMARY
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown have hit independent media hard, forcing them to cut costs, lay off employees, and adapt their content strategies. At the same time, media have improved their management capabilities, organizational structure and financial planning. In particular more media are now splitting the roles of CEO and chief editor, which both resolves conflicts of interest and improves effectiveness.
The COVID-19 roller-coaster:
аudience up, ads down
While many media doubled their audience in March-April, by June traffic returned to pre-quarantine levels. However, media mostly failed to seize this opportunity to boost revenues or build subscriber bases. Instead, regional media simply fed their audience with "fast content."
The pandemic temporarily increased audiences, %
Half of the surveyed media outlets indicate that their audience grew by 25-65%. They also note that by the end of May, excitement over coronavirus-related content began to subside and, accordingly, website traffic also began to return to normal.

But most media did not have a strategy to retain new audiences and turn them into loyal regular readers or viewers. Only a small proportion of respondents noted that increased readership (mostly from new audiences) was converted into Facebook, Telegram or other social network subscribers.

This is similar to previous crises. For example, the Euromaidan revolution or the annexation of Crimea served as catalysts for the growth or launch of regional media. Audiences were hungry for media projects that were independent of oligarchs and ready to support them. At present, however, there are no such tectonic shifts.

While the number of readers on sites grew significantly, the price per impression decreased. In other words, traffic became cheaper and did not bring in the expected level of income.
Most media have seen revenues collapse, %
Special projects or native advertising have also taken a hit, with businesses asking for discounts, deferred payments, or delaying planned projects. As a result, editors have offered easier and cheaper formats of native advertising, including ones targeting small and medium-sized businesses (thereby expanding their customer base).
We had to cancel the pre-ordered videography for new video projects, salary bonuses, costs
for freelancers, reduced the cost of promoting content, administrative costs," said one of the surveyed editors. "Some advertisers have stopped cooperation with us, others are delaying payments.
The lockdown accelerated media workflow digitization, with a process that would typically take two years being implemented over a period of two months. The transition to remote work was relatively straightforward, as media set up algorithms for online planning and workflow management.

Zoom conferences, planning in Slack and Trello are already business as usual for most newsrooms, although the efficiency and coherence of their work remain a big challenge. Moveover, mental health support and employee motivation are a challenge.
To a large extent, there is no longer a major need for all team members to gather in the office space, including for meetings. This can be said in regards to production processes, although there remains a real need on an emotional level," said another survey participant.
Remote work helped media managers review their organization structures from a helicopter view and determine what they lack, which new departments they need to create, and which departments to optimize. For example a TV company from northern Ukraine redesigned its makeup department to SMM and cut freelance expenses.
23% of the media had to lay off some employees
Many media abandoned complex multimedia products and the professionals who created them, trying to preserve the "core of the team." They left only their main products (such as text news and articles, or main program blocks). Also retained were employees involved in monetization models, with a portion of the budget to create a high-quality visual component for partnership projects and native advertising.
Media management
Planning ahead
The pandemic has caused media to shift their planning to the short-term. In most cases, planning is done from one month to another. Moreover, any prospects of media managers looking further ahead are held back by prospects of a second wave, which is expected this fall.
The media market collapsed with the beginning of quarantine, but at the time of preparation of this study it began to show signs of recovery. This improvement in the market directly affected the long-term planning in those media outlets where it was implemented (a little more than half).


Although media are more likely than in previous years to have a financial and strategic plan, this year such documents have had to be fundamentally overhauled. Advertisers have canceled or put projects on hold; meanwhile, content strategies had to be adapted around the spike in interest in coronavirus related news while other topics received very little or no attention.
Structuring a media organization
Media are now better aware of the need to separate the functions of CEO and editor-in-chief than in previous years (many, especially regional, media conflated the two roles). However, this is only the beginning of building an effective model for managing media organizations.
Employees and structure, %
The lack of a separate commercial department and a separate person focused on business processes is perhaps the biggest blunder of regional media. Only half of the media have commercial departments, which is 2% more than last year. The absence of a commercial director and a "glass wall" between the editorial office and the sales department is the back door through which "jeansa" or hidden advertising usually comes to the editorial office, especially on the eve of local elections.

Only 8% of the media said they had a full team with all the necessary employees. At the same time, media managers who point out the lack of human resources indicate that they would like to hire an SMM specialist, designer, operator, i.e. specialists who are in the cost chain, and not specialists who help to earn. This in turn leads to a negative budget balance and dependence on investment.

The study revealed a significant improvement in the separation of the roles of CEO and editor-in-chief. According to the survey, 54% of the media now hire two separate specialists to share responsibility for business processes and the product. This immediately had a "cumulative effect" on the work of the commercial department and the editorial office - 50% of the surveyed media implemented KPIs for commercial department employees, which is 17% higher than last year.

Developing commercial departments is a complex process that is never fast, and the implementation of commercial KPIs , i.e. conscious decision-making based on collected data, is an important stage in the development of media organizations.

Striking changes took place regarding introduction of KPIs in newsrooms - 80% of surveyed media managers confirmed the use of metrics related to the work of journalists. Journalists' understanding of the goals of media organizations and the ratio of their indicators to organizational ones is the same "Chinese wall" on which many media managers who tried to introduce KPIs crashed. Thus, the regional Ukrainian media almost passed the stage when they worked blindly or trusting only the "journalistic instincts".
The introduction of KPIs is a consequence of a more developed organizational structure, the separation of the roles of editor-in-chief and CEO in the media. When assigning these roles, each of the department heads pays more attention to the work of his or her department and monitors the effectiveness of the team, without spraying their efforts and attention on other, side responsibilities and functions.
Distribution, content formats and work with the audience
The survey showed that newsrooms began to use less Twitter, Viber, VK
(social network is banned in Ukraine by Presidential Decree of May 15, 2017 - ed.),
and Telegram. At the same time, the media began to use the Instagram network more.
Content distribution channels,
(2019 vs 2020) %
According to Kantar Ukraine marketing research, as of April 2020, YouTube and Facebook were among the three most popular sites in Ukraine - their coverage is 72.4% and 68.8% of Internet users, respectively. Instagram takes 11th position in the ranking and covers 31.4% of users. Telegram Messenger did not enter the top 25 sites in terms of coverage, although in 2018 it showed a significant increase in users number from Ukraine.


The newsrooms strive to attract more young audiences under the age of 25. At the same time, they do not work with those formats that resonate with this segment of the audience and do not distribute their content on those platforms where users of this age group consume content. For example, only 12% of media use infographics as a format for presenting content. This is a very low figure given that this format, according to the observations of the regional editors themselves, increases the coverage and viewing time for content.


On the other hand, platforms that are popular with audiences under the age of 25 are not targeted to bring traffic to the media's website. Instagram, Telegram, TikTok, for example, do not allow to generate significant traffic or have too high an entry threshold. Given that native advertising content on platforms (video, photos or pages) in Ukraine is still very poorly monetized. And the reluctance of publishers to spend already limited resources on this activity is understandable. While foreign media are experimenting with podcasts or video platforms, media that do not have capacity for it cannot develop in new directions.
Interactive content formats,%
Development priorities pointed
out by the media:
58%
Strategic planning and assistance in developing a strategic plan is needed for 58% of surveyed media.
92%
Training in financial planning, development of the organization's budget (P&L) is required by 92% of surveyed regional media outlets.
92%
Training on new forms of monetization and diversification of funding sources is required by 92% of regional media.
50%
Consulting on content distribution and developing a strategy to promote content is required by 50% of surveyed media. These media seek to study the successful cases of colleagues in social media promotion, SEO optimization and targeting.

In addition 50% of the media stated that they needed help in developing a strategy to promote content and learn practical cases from other media.

Training in new formats of coverage of local elections and engaging the audience in analytical content about candidates is required by media.
58%
of media organizations need to raise venture funds to create pilot projects for new products etc.
Methodology
MDF annually examines the dynamics of development and needs of independent regional media outlets in Ukraine. This report is based on interviews conducted in January-February 2020 and an additional online survey in in May-early June 2020, during quarantine. 26 media were selected to participate in the study according to the following criteria:
geographical
media from all regions of Ukraine
content
modern, meets journalistic standards, diverse in genres
the role that the media play in their community
leading media in their regions, although different in number of audiences
types
online, TV, print, radio and convergent
The questionnaire had 110 questions in sections: Management and Finance; Targeting and Interaction with Audience; Content Production and Distribution; Investigative Journalism and Coverage of Elections.
Team
Jakub Parusinski
Board Chair of MDF, Managing partner of Jnomics, Lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics
in Riga
Ievgeniia Oliinyk
PhD, Media Expert, Head of Research at Media Development Foundation
Eugene Zaslavsky
Executive Director,
Media Development Foundation
Tetiana Gordiienko
Editor-in-Chief of The Lede,
Lecturer at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv
Bogdan Basiy
Research Assistant at Media Development Foundation,
Master of Journalism at The Mohyla School of Journalism
Made on
Tilda