The role of local news in the reconstruction of Bucha

BUCHA, Ukraine — The massacre that took place here in early March one year ago shocked the world and made this town synonymous with the barbarity of Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

Battered but slowly rebuilding, Bucha stands as a crime scene at the center of the international war crimes tribunal that Ukraine is seeking against Putin’s regime.

But to Alexsandr Bortsov, Bucha is his hometown, the place where his family still lives and where he has served as the editor-in-chief of the local news organization, TheBuchaCity, since 2018.

“This is a place that was not broken, where people stood up against occupation and who paid a price but are now rebuilding. This is our community, a place of heroes and heroines. This is a place of the unbroken,” said Bortsov, explaining that his news organization has been undertaking a social media project that intends to tell the stories of the people committed to rebuilding and returning to their hometown.

Today, some 200 local journalists from cities and towns across Ukraine as well as international human rights advocates and government officials gathered here along with scores of international journalists who have covered the conflict to talk about the role of journalism in documenting war crimes and in telling the narratives of a country still at war but already focusing on rebuilding. The Bucha Journalism Conference, titled “Journalism’s Role in War and Crisis,” was hosted by the Media Development Fund and Ukrainska Pravda, a pioneering and leading daily news organization here and our partner in Ukraine through our program Report for the World.

Alexsandr Bortsov, editor-in-chief of TheBuchaCity, a local news organization in Bucha. (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

Ukraine’s local news organizations have been a focus of the work of the Media Development Foundation and this conference pulls them all together for the first time since the war began. These local journalists describe a crisis in local news in Ukraine brought on by the realities of war but also a process years in the making where collapsing business models and a concerted effort by Russia and its oligarchs to undercut independent media have taken its toll. The result is a crisis that sounds very familiar to those of us who are working to restore local news in the United States. Being here in Bucha is a stark reminder that the crisis in local news is indeed a global crisis. Everywhere we see local news struggling, we see democracy eroding and authoritarianism on the rise.

Eugene Zaslavski, executive director of the Media Development Foundation, said that the local reporters and editors of Ukraine who gathered for this conference offer an unusual glimpse into corners of the country where mainstream international media are not paying attention or unable to gain access. The local reporters will be writing the first draft of how the country will get through this war, documenting the atrocities that Russia is carrying out and holding officials accountable for how the country will manage the largest reconstruction effort in history since the Marshall Plan after World War II.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have already begun pouring into Ukraine to rebuild the road and bridges and energy infrastructure that Russia has set out to systematically destroy. The country needs reporters making sure that those resources are invested in the communities.

Serhii Nikitenko, the founder and editor of The Bridge, a local news organization in Kherson, one of the most intense frontlines of the war, said, “Local news is vital for our country right now.

We will be the ones who will have to hold officials to account especially with the enormous infusion of funding that will come with reconstruction. The hard part is that just as the importance of our local news rooms rise, the business models that have sustained them are straining and in many places collapsing.”

As these local Ukrainian journalists convene with prominent international reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, they want their colleagues to remember that they can help the recovery effort by supporting their work, keeping pressure on Russia to answer for its crimes and maintaining a focus on the country after the war ends.

As Bortsov, who has a staff of eight reporters, said, “What we want international journalists to remember and the whole world to know about Bucha is that we are a community not just a dateline of the war, and we are a place of people with our own stories to tell.”