All you need to know about MezhyhiryaFest 2019 in ten minutes

This year MezhyhiryaFest gathered around 750 guests and 70 speakers. It kicked off on June 7 with a film screening and interactive journalism show in Kyiv and continued for the next two days in the Mezhyhirya residence. The main theme of this year’s festival was “Journalism vs Activism.” Nevertheless, there were many panels and discussions devoted to monetization and digital innovations, without which it’s difficult to imagine the work of journalists nowadays.

The festival is important not only as a platform for the exchange of experience and networking. It is also presents the top investigations from the last year in one place and tracks key trends in this field of journalism. During the festival organizers also announce the winner of the National Award for Investigative Journalism, which celebrates the best works produced by Ukrainian journalists.

Below are the highlights and top quotes from MezhyhiryaFest 2019.

Storytelling in a new way

Even the best story won’t get the attention it deserves if you don’t tell it in an engaging way. On the first day of MezhyhiryaFest 2019 Jakub Górnicki showed how Polish media start-up Outriders deals with this challenge. As he explained, being a rather small and new media, Outriders has to compete for readers attention with larger and more established outlets.

The trick is to make readers part of the story through an interactive and emtionally engaging approach, which is often built around details others miss. For example, even the smallest audio clip may be used to make people feel what is actually happening on the front lines of an armed conflict. Here are some tips for interactive storytelling from Outriders:

  • Think non-linearly. We are taught to write stories from top to bottom, from left to right. It doesn’t work that way in interactive storytelling, which needs to give readers freedom to explore, turning them into active (vs. passive) consumers.
  • There are many more tools beyond inserting photographs in stories. Your task is to combine them the right way.
  • If there is a piece of story that is better to be told by written text — do it that way. If it’s better to be shown with a video clip — create a video. It is harder and it requires more resources, but it is a more effective way to tell a story.
  • If you can not make a photo or video — create an illustration instead. This is a very interesting tool through which you can show things that can not be depicted differently. Illustration is very flexible and you can put in it anything.
  • Audio is very powerful tool! If the narrator tells you something, your imagination connects it to the story. This is the best way to turn passive content consumers into active ones. And it increases the depth and duration your audiences spends with your stories.
  • Film vertical video. This format gives you plenty of space to add text on it.
  • Give people the opportunity to go through your story the way they want to. Personalize your stories. It may not always be clear to viewers, but it will encourage them to look for answers on their own. This trick increases the depth and duration of viewing of your stories as well.

You can learn more about this panel here.

Working with chaotic data

Axel Gorgh Humlesjö and his colleague Linda Larsson from Sweden presented a story about money laundering at Swedbank, the largest bank in the Baltics. The spoke about how Swedish journalists found a company associated with former president Victor Yanukovych among the bank’s biggest customers, by going through huge amounts of leaked and unstructured bank transaction data. They have some tips on how to work with such chaotic data:

  • Organize data early. You can even write an address in ten different ways. It is better to have a single system for data organization from the beginning.
  • Prioritize and sort the data. E.g., find the clients with the biggest transactions. In the case of Swedbank, the names of Yanukovych and his assistants began to appear in documents more often after this procedure.
  • Compare your findings with previous investigations, for example, the famous Paradise Papers. It turned out that the same people from the Paradise Papers had accounts in Swedbank!
  • Collaborate with other journalists. The Swedish journalists shared their findings with Ukrainian journalists, who in turn found in Ukrainian documents the same account numbers. The investigation led them to Paul Manaforth, who transferred $25 billion through the London-based Inlord sales LLC, which transferred that money to an account in a bank in Cyprus.

This investigation is not over yet, but it shows how important it is to share information with colleagues from other countries and not be afraid of chaotic data with lots of numbers.

How it’s like to investigate the health minister in Serbia? Case of KRIK

The Serbian Minister of Health Zlatibor Lončar got the nickname Doctor Death not for failing healthcare reforms, but for his connection to the mafia and involvement in a murder. Stevan Dojčinović, a journalist and chief editor at KRIK portal, started investigating rumours about Lončar in 2016, after his appointment as minister. One of these claimed that in the 90s Lončar received an apartment from a criminal boss for giving his rival a lethal combination of drugs when he was taken to a hospital after being shot.

Dojčinović managed to find and interviews gang members, and discovered copies of documents mentioning the apartment donation to Lončar.

Despite the investigation published by KRIK Lončar remained at his position of Minister of Health.

Tips for spy-style journalism from Patrick Szczepaniak

In 2017 statistics indicated Polish slaughterhouses processed about two million cows of which only 48 were found unfit for meat production. Patrick Szczepaniak from the Polish television channel TVN did not believe this data. He decided to check it and started working as a butcher at one of the firms involved in slaughtering animals. He used three hidden cameras and microphones to record evidence of violations at slaughterhouse.

As he discovered, all violations happened during night shifts when only certain workers were staffed. Soon the journalist was exposed, but he collected enough materials to publish his story. Patrick shared some advice for journalists on what to do before starting to work undercover:

  • Think carefully about the details of your biography, why you chose to work here, where you worked before. You’ll have to lie a lot. Be careful so all your stories add up.
  • Remove everything from social networks! You will be asking a lot of questions while investigating, so your new bosses will get suspicious. Do not leave traces online.
  • Change the way you look. You should not look like a journalist who drinks coffee and works in an office somewhere downtown. You should look like your profession. Patrick pretended to be a butcher, so he had to look the part. There where surveillance cameras at the slaughterhouse, so he had to act like a butcher as well. Thoroughly explore the topic you are investigating and the profession you are pretending to work in.
  • Get ready for the worst scenario. Do not be optimistic, you are in enemy territory, so never overestimate yourself.

Patrick believes a covert investigation is the best way to prove the systematic nature of crimes and to prosecute in court. The impact can be huge — his investigation cost meat producers 140 million euros!

How to reveal Russian intelligence agents — case of The Insider

The Insider together with Bellingcat published a series of investigative materials about an assassination attempt on a former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Julia in the British city of Salisbury. British intelligence services published a photo of persons involved in the poisoning and their names — Oleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Journalists from The Insider and Bellingcat found their true personalities and biographies.

They used passport databases and other government resources to find the information, says Roman Dobrokhotov from The Insider. They also benefited from the mess in Russian state institutions to get information. He also spoke about the most interesting methods by which journalists were able to find the necessary information:

  • Usually spies’ new biographies don’t have big changes. The idea is to make it easier for agents to maintain their new identity. The Insider used this during the investigation to filter available databases. For example, they found Oleksandr Petrov was from the St. Petersburg region, because this area was also mentioned in his fake biography.
  • Often Russian intelligence services change only a few identification numbers in fake passports. It helped the journalists to find the third participant of the operation — his passport differed only by one digit.
  • Search for information on Facebook and other social networks. After the whole investigation process was completed journalists found out that there is a photo of Ruslan Boshirov on Facebook. It was openly accessible and signed with his real last name.

Case study: exploitation of migrants and supply of fruit to the EU

German journalist Pascal Muller can not eat store bought fruit with an easy heart. Most fruits and vegetables in European stores involve the exploitation of migrants. For this investigation Muller and her colleague Stefania Prandi interviewed about 100 workers, mostly from Morocco, Bulgaria and Romania.

Working conditions for most migrants are far from European standards: they face beatings, rape, restrictions on communication and travel. They are also often underpaid. Workers live in private gardens and are not even allowed to make a phone call to anyone. The only means of communication for those migrant workers are old Nokia phones. This is how journalists could get in touch with them and arrange meetings and interviews (mostly at night). Sometimes Pascal and her colleagues could be beaten up, persecuted or driven out of the territory. In other cases journalists had to grab all their belongings and flee the city in which they interviewed migrants.

However, this investigation gave a positive impact. Most companies and supermarkets have checked their suppliers of fruits and vegetables and the European Commission has conducted an investigation and initiated legal cases against perpetrators.

More about the cases that journalists presented at MezhyhiryaFest 2019 can be found in coverage by our friends at MediaSapiens.

How Important is Data Analysis for Media?

The data of your website’s performance and audience behaviour is key for your commercial success. One of the speakers, Kateryna Vlasenko, works with IO Technologies, a company that helps media with data analysis and processing.

Her top tips are:

  • Don’t consider just one metric as the criterion of your media’s success (for example, number of views or number of unique visitors). Katerina believes analysing links between metrics is the most effective approach. For example, the ratio of views and readability can indicate how effective a given headline was.
  • Analytics is an effective and practical tool. Often, media managers rely on their inner sense and do not analyze data. This can be dangerous. According to Katerina, the best option would be an inner feeling supported by the facts.

“Army! Friends! Money!” wins the National Award for Investigative Journalism

Journalist Lesya Ivanova from Bihus.Info won the National Award for Investigative Journalism with the story “Army! Friends! Money!” about corruption in the Ukrainian defense industry. Anastasia Stanko from “Hromadske” received a special award for the story “Secret Insulator of the SBU.”

Altogether 57 materials were submitted for the competition and 4 of them got to the list of finalists.

You can watch all panels from the second day of the festival here.

Fact-checking: How to work with your colleagues’ stories

Bojana Pavlović from the KRIK network, among other places, is an OCCRP fact-checked. She reviews materials from other journalists as a final stage before the story is published.

“We call it a comparison of facts with their original source. It usually takes 2–3 days for such a job, if there is nothing that we ’get stuck’ on,” says Pavlović. There are some typical mistakes made by journalists that require special attention:

  • Check all the numbers in the material. Journalists tend to be bad with numbers and this is the most common mistake.
  • It’s best to avoid communicating with the author before you read their work. The author may have a formed opinion or position on the topic, so they might bias the fact-checker. Review the material, compile your list of questions and comments, and only then begin to communicate with the author.
  • Treat journalistic investigations the same way you treat all the other stories that get published on your media. Investigations should undergo the same checking and editing process as any other story.
  • Be ready that journalists may challenge your comments and clarifications. Pavlović says that later journalists usually see how their materials become better after fact-checking and change their attitudes to the process. But this can take time and patience.

How to run an investigative agency?

During MezhyhiryaFest Tamás Bodoki from the Hungarian investigative media described how he organized all the processes at the agency’s office. Only 50% of his work is editorial — the rest of the time he spends on fundraising and reporting on grant programs.

Here are some tips and tricks on how to run a (relatively) small investigative agency:

  • Even if you have 8 journalists, like in Atlatszo, you cannot only make texts. The team makes an effort to visualize materials in a way that makes them more attractive to potential audiences — they create “photo reports” and videos. Currently drones are the big new thing for Atlatszo.
  • SMM and audience engagement through social media are key tasks for Atlatszo. Bodoki does the final proofreading for all posts and then publishes them online himself.
  • Small newsrooms are dependent on large media, especially in Hungary, where major media mostly belong to or co-operate with the government. It is difficult to engage a large number of viewers even if you have good, high-quality investigations. To really influence the discourse in a country, a small media like Atlatszo has to offer its products to large channels, although most of them have already been bought by the government.
  • The main metrics are impact and audience reach. The easiest way for independent media in Hungary to promote their content is through the social networks, but it is also important to reach out to the elderly or people in the regions. To do this, the Atlatszo team has launched a section on its website that encourages local communities to promote their problems and small investigations.

Bodoki pointed out that when you show people corrupt schemes they are ready to make donations or support stand-alone projects to solve these problems.

Why paywalls don’t work as a “magic pill” for everyone

Tomáš Bella from the Slovak media Denník N uses a paywall to fund the media’s operations. One of the first conclusions he made is that media cannot be run by only journalists. Denník N faced it’s first crisis for precisely this reason. At the beginning there was a team of journalists who only knew how to create content.

Now the team is focused on developing its staff’s management skills and plans its investigations for a week and a month ahead. “Large projects can not be done without planning,” says Bella.

He points out that it’s also important to do optimisation of content for Facebook. At first Denník N had no production specialists and it took some time to understand audiences need something more than text and photos. Now Denník N puts a lot of effort into how stories appear on social media.

Some 90% of their audience will only see the headline and the main picture, so Denník N started to collaborate with an artist to create attractive images for stories. They also started to сut stories at the beginning, so readers would get interested and head over to the website. This is critical when you work with a paywall model.

Another trick from Denník N is to promote their journalists as a brand. It makes them more humane and encourages the audience to be more loyal to journalists and the media outlet itself.

MezhyhiryaFest is held every year in June since 2014 in the former residence of president Viktor Yanukovych after he fled from the country. Now this residence serves as an example of how journalists can expose corruption on the highest level and make a difference. Don’t forget about it and get ready for MezhyhiryaFest 2020.

You can read about best stories from MezhyhiryaFest 2018 here.

Author: Tanya Gordiienko

Media Development Foundation

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The Media Development Foundation (MDF) is a Center of Excellence and a Media Expertise hub focused on empowering journalists and media organizations.

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