Amongst other Ukrainian community entanglements, I am a member of an organization known as the Ukrainian Journalists of North America. It is a largely informal body of diasporan Ukrainians on this continent who are involved in the sphere of journalism. In decades past, it used to be primarily a forum for those involved with Ukrainian newspapers, or the “press”, but as technology has evolved, this has expanded greatly to include all the primary media channels, including not only print, but also radio, television and the Internet. On an annual basis we gather together at the Soyuzivka resort in the Catskill mountains of New York state to exchange ideas, to add to our knowledge base from invited experts, to lament about the sorry state of things in the world, to drink copious quantities of wine, and to re-establish personal relations with our peers.
In recent years, discussions have focused mostly on two main areas of interest, namely the turbulent state of politics in Ukraine, and secondly, the serious existential challenges that Ukrainian journalists face in fulfilling their important mission of keeping the Ukrainian communities in Canada and the U.S. well informed on matters of significance and importance to the continuing existence as a distinct entity and culture. A healthy “press” within all current significant media channels, is an indispensable prerequisite towards maintaining a healthy, engaged and democratic society.
Ukrainian newspapers in particular have had a very rough time in recent decades. During the golden era of Ukrainian activism following World War II, there were dozens of Ukrainian newspapers in both Canada and the U.S. The largest of these had subscriber bases numbering in the tens of thousands.
Regrettably, as the older immigrant generations aged and died off, and the forces of assimilation wooed their descendants away from their ethnic roots, most of these papers withered away and ceased publication. We now have less than half a dozen Ukrainian newspapers in total left in either Canada or the U.S., and all are struggling to maintain their subscriber base at a profitable level. Without direct or indirect subsidies from Ukrainian community organizations and Ukrainian credit unions, most would not be able to break even and continue publishing.
The two largest papers, the New Pathway Ukrainian News in Canada, and the Ukrainian Weekly/Svoboda in the U.S., have managed to stay viable by being flexible and making those changes that were necessary to stay relevant in the face of current demographics and the changing nature of the Ukrainian communities that they serve. This has included adding English content or English versions of their papers, creating a presence and putting content on the Internet, adopting new publishing technologies, and putting more emphasis on making advertising their prime source of revenue rather than shrinking subscription, direct sales and donations, or subsidies.
Of course, the decline in print journalism is not just a characteristic of the Ukrainian press. The overwhelming majority of newspapers in Canada and the U.S. have faced the same pressures. In Canada, virtually all the major city newspapers, with the exception of Toronto’s Globe and Mail, have seen declines in readership in the past decade in the order of 20% to 30%. Local newspapers in smaller communities are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The indisputable cause of all this has been the fact that most people, and especially those of the younger generations, have turned to the Internet as their primary source of entertainment, information and news. Understandably, the advertising dollars that used to flow to hard print publications, radio and TV, have shifted significantly to the Internet. Recent surveys have shown that over 54% of all advertising spending in the U.S. in 2018 went to Internet media companies such as Facebook, Google, Youtube and others. On the global level, this number is 40%.
The remaining major newspapers that have survived and prospered have done so by embracing the Internet. The New York Times currently has 2.8 Million digital subscribers, far more than the number still reading their hard print edition. The Wall Street Journal has 1.4 Million digital subscribers and the Washington Post 1.0 Million.
The blueprint for survival for a newspaper in our day and age is clear. Transform to an on-line format or perish. Ukrainian newspapers are no exception. We need to become virtual or we will only exist as part of history. Both the Ukrainian Weekly and New Pathway – Ukrainian News have taken the first steps of that transformation. In the coming years that transformation needs to pick up the pace and accelerate if we are to continue to live up to the distinguished contributions that these two papers have made to the Ukrainian community over the past century.