Desert Sun’s Ukrainian sister newspaper in trouble, but reports news

For many Americans, the war in Ukraine seems distant. But The Desert Sun newsroom has a very personal connection to a small group of Ukrainian journalists who, over the past month, have worked valiantly to keep their newsroom running – and themselves alive. .

We in the desert try to do our small part to support them.

Roots of a partnership

In July 2019, The Desert Sun hosted three journalists from a Ukrainian newspaper called Slobidskiy Kray in the Coachella Valley as part of a professional exchange program.

A few months later, one of our reporters and one of our photographers had the opportunity to travel to Kharkiv, the city of 1.4 million people where Slobidskiy Kray is based. Our reporters learned more about how our sister paper covered its city and eastern Ukraine – where, even then, Russian incursions had upended the lives of many Ukrainians.

The exchange was facilitated by the Ukrainian Media Partnership Program. Launched in 2002, the project’s goal was to create and foster long-term relationships between American and Ukrainian newsrooms to help develop and professionalize Ukrainian media in the newly democratized country.

Over the past 20 years, more than 50 partnerships have been launched, involving more than 30 American newsrooms. Our exchange was underwritten by IREX, a non-profit organization funded by foundations, tech companies, and government agencies like USAID.

In 2018, Slobidskiy Kray transitioned from a state-run media outlet to an employee-owned publication. In this brave new world, they were trying to figure out everything from whether posting on Facebook was a good idea to how to find advertisers to support their post.

For the three Ukrainian journalists, Anna, Sasha and Larissa, it was their first time in the United States. For one thing, it was her first time traveling by plane! So you can imagine some of the culture shock.

While in the valley, Slobidskiy Kray’s team marveled at things like legal marijuana stores and 120-degree heat. They visited on Independence Day so they were able to catch a Palm Springs Power baseball game and watch the 4th of July fireworks.

Mother Nature even cooperated and gave them a few earthquakes while they were there. They visited Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and DAP Health. They even saw a drag show at Toucan’s.

Because Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, close to the breakaway territories of Lugansk and Donetsk, Slobidskiy Kray’s team was curious to find out how the local media here in the valley covered border issues and issues such as human trafficking, drug trafficking and environmental issues that do not obey national borders.

What we learned in Ukraine

In Ukraine, our journalists were able to attend a Flag Day rally — commemorating Ukraine’s independence in 1991 — and report on the difficulties residents of the border region face in accessing care for HIV and AIDS.

In Ukraine, as our journalist Sam Metz wrote at the time: “We talked about the interactive graphics we include in our stories and our experiences with virtual reality, audio and video reporting, but our most productive conversations and the most outspoken were about maintaining the old, shoe leather reporting techniques amid industry-wide changes and pressure to adopt new reporting tools. We compared our notes on how we structure breaking news, the type of visuals we use in our stories, and the steps we take to stay objective.

He added: “As clear as our contexts differed, it was also clear that journalists in the California desert and eastern Ukraine are striving to tell stories that matter in their communities and to remain economically viable. We try to ask harder questions, start stories with more engaging language, balance breaking news with longer-term investigations, reduce our stress levels on deadlines, and respond to changing consumer demand.

“Contexts differ,” he continued, “but our two newsrooms report on the border regions the world is watching. In eastern Ukraine and southern California, the intimate nature of local news and beat reporting offers some of the most compelling opportunities to understand the trends shaping the world along the eastern fault lines. -west and north-south.

Like the vast majority of people in eastern Ukraine, Slobidskiy Kray staff speak mostly Russian in their daily lives, although the newspaper publishes in Ukrainian. Many Kharkiv newspapers historically published in Russian, but editor-in-chief Larissa Gnatchenko is a firm believer in Ukrainian-language media.

Since 2014, Ukraine has amended its language laws to limit the use of Russian in politics, school, television and print media and instituted a “decommunization” law mandating the re-naming of cities and towns. streets named after Soviet icons and the removal of Soviet-era statues.

In California, we took our visitors from Slobidskiy Kray to visit NBC Palm Springs and its newsroom partner Univision, which broadcasts in Spanish. Gnatchenko found the easy coexistence remarkable.

“When we visited the local TV station, they were broadcasting in English and Spanish without any problem. I don’t know why the language has to divide,” Gnatchenko said then.

In the midst of war, keeping journalism alive

This month, about 10 days after the start of the war, our fellow journalists from Slobidskiy Kray contacted me on Facebook. Their town was under attack. Their website was down. Revenues had dried up. Could we help in any way?

In less than a week, The Desert Sun’s newsroom – along with friends, family and alumni of the paper – answered the call. We raised nearly $3,000 and sent it to Ukraine to help cover basic living expenses for Slobidskiy Kray journalists. The typical monthly salary for a journalist is between $350 and $500 per month.

We want to help them – and their publication – survive to see a better day. Independent and strong media are an essential part of any democracy.

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine. Thousands of people have taken refuge in the metro for weeks. The Washington Post reported this week that at least half of its residents – more than 700,000 people – have fled.

On Thursday, we were able to speak with journalists from Slobidskiy Kray via Zoom. We have learned that most fled their homes in Kharkiv after shelling shattered their windows and damaged the power supply. Some have traveled only a few kilometers and can still hear shelling. Some have moved to other parts of Ukraine. At least one went to Poland.

Gnatchenko, the editor, used a Desert Sun backpack we gave him as a gift to store supplies during his escape.

In Kharkiv, food and water supplies are holding up, but a shelling of a milk factory means dairy products are in short supply, they said. Medicines are rare.

Our friends described weighing tough choices like whether to wait in line for gas for six hours to evacuate, but risk being bombed while waiting in line, or give up refueling the car and resign themselves to staying in the city as the shelling continues.

They have managed to restore their website and continue to publish, although print deliveries have been suspended as the post office, which handles delivery, is no longer functioning.

As Metz said in one of his 2019 dispatches from Kharkiv: We may live on the other side of the world, work in different languages ​​and face different daily struggles, but the journalists of The Desert Sun and of Slobidskiy Kray share the same goal and the same motivation. to tell stories about our communities, to make them more connected, better informed and safer.

May the bloodshed in Ukraine stop as soon as possible and may Slobidskiy Kray’s ink continue to flow freely for years to come.


You can visit Slobidskiy Kray’s website at (Most web browsers have a built-in translation that can display the page in English, although it is published in Ukrainian.)

Julie Makinen is editor-in-chief of The Desert Sun. Email her at [email protected]

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