I first lived in Kiev for a few months in 2010, then from mid-2011 through to the start of 2013. Starting late 2011, for the best part of a year I worked at What’s On magazine. The magazine had been founded in 1999, rising to prominence in the 2000s, becoming a Kiev institution under then editor, Peter Dickinson (pictured).
The financial crisis in Ukraine of 2008/9 hit the magazine hard, and with advertising revenue having slumped, it stopped publication for a while, before being sold for a smallish fee, around £30,000, to Paul Niland and Neil Campbell in 2011.
I won’t say too much about either of them now – we had a reasonable working relationship, and sometimes enjoyed a few beers together. I appreciated being given the opportunity to go in there, as the only native English speaking staff journalist, and given a great say in the shape of the magazine. In my time there, I pitched many of the cover stories, came up with new features, refined old ones, wrote a weekly column, did reviews, interviews, articles on history, politics, travel, nightlife, specials, proofread the whole magazine every week before print.
I remember being full of enthusiasm, wanting to make the magazine the best it could be. Knocking my pan out every week, then the excitement of coming into the office on Thursday morning to find a fresh new copy. Taking a few moments to look through, see how everything had come out, pleasure if it had turned out well, then attention immediately turning to the new edition.
Of course, it was a fight. A fight against the dying of the light, the decline of print media. And, to some extent a fight against the owners. The website was something from the mid-90s, essentially an online word document, yet they didn’t respond to my suggestions to invest, upgrade. The magazine hadn’t even been on Twitter until I’d suggested that. And in a country which ran on discounts, with advertising in the magazine way outnumbered by adverts to take out adverts, I found the blunt refusal to offer even a 5% discount to potential new advertisers bewildering, perverse. Similarly then, the strategy cooked up by one to only distribute the magazine in places which advertised with the magazine. Decreasing circles.
There were other issues too, but in my time there I kept positive, put my heart and soul into each issue of the magazine. By the time I left, in late 2012, my relationship with the owners had gone from strained to untenable. There was a fall-out after my departure, when they came at me for re-using my material we’d earlier agreed I could, an ’email war’ ensued. However, I kept in touch with my colleagues there, kept up to date with the magazine.
Then, Euromaidan, the magazine went all-out for Maidan, portraying the ‘glorious’ heroes of the ‘revolution’ week after week, giving blanket positive coverage. But they were well off the mark, editorially, and technically.
While the Kyiv Post, who also went all-out for Maidan, gave live-updated feeds of fast-moving events in central Kiev, What’s On stuck with the weekly-updated website, until eventually attempting to introduce a kind of ‘live photo feed’, which looked primitive from inception, and in any case at the height of action, almost immediately petered out.
Euromaidan ‘concluded’ with the government overthrow on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. On the 24th, the first Monday back at work, a meeting was convened and the staff, some 20, were told that the Euromaidan their publication had so enthusiastically supported had ‘won’, and that What’s On was now ceasing publication.
So it was, the 16-year-old magazine, which had once generated sufficient revenue to grant its previous owners not insubstantial wealth, the title which was still known across Kiev and beyond, put out an announcement that they were going ‘on a break’.
From my former colleagues there, I understood from the start this ‘break’ was the end. I felt sad for them, most now without jobs at a time of economic collapse in Ukraine, a few kept on for sister publication Panorama. There was the perhaps inevitable struggle for what they were owed, with most eventually just accepting not all, but part of what was due to them. I felt sad for the magazine, which could have absolutely been saved, with some foresight, some investment, even in a post-Euromaidan Ukraine where, as the owners explained in the mass lay-off meeting ‘no one’s got any money for adverts anymore’.
(One of my articles, to the right)
I don’t want to say anything against either of the owners, Campbell I’ve had no contact with for a long time, Niland both blocked me, and fairly regularly trolls me on Twitter, having seemingly turned into a pro-Maidan activist. Actually, I was informed that the man I knew as a magazine owner had set up a new business – the online selling of bracelets saying ‘Fuck Putin‘. Seriously.
So, the going down of the What’s On website, seemingly permanently, may be to get at me. Or it may be more prosaic, the domain simply expiring. There were initial attempts to keep the Facebook page alive, but that went down to Niland trying to sell his car on it.
In any case, it’s a shame to see the site go down, taking with it all my work there. I feel a mixture of nostalgia, but that it removes important information. I frequently find myself attacked by ‘pro-Ukraine’ supporters on Twitter, and so, accused of ‘hating’ Ukraine. The truth is that, as my writing for What’s On showed, before Euromaidan, you could hardly have found a correspondent who wrote more consistently, and more positively about Ukraine.
Of course, my columns are all available by access to Way Back Machine. But you really have to dig to find them there, which few will do. I’ll have a look through and republish certain of them on here, but whatever way I look at it, it’s a shame. A year of my work, gone either from malice, or because someone didn’t want to pay a few dollars a year to renew a site which actually contained thousands of fascinating articles by many authors. It’s not on, What’s On…