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21 February 2023

A community-oriented media in Northern Ukraine on a mission of social change

A youth-led team is promoting a crowdfunding culture and serving the needs of the local community in times of war.

“In the early morning of 24 February, we wrote to our community saying that we remain in the city, and we continue working,” says Dmytro in an interview to EED, “It was very important for people hear that back then.”

Dmytro Tishchenko is a co-founder of Cukr, a media platform from Sumy focusing on the life in this Northern Ukrainian city. The newsroom is powered by ten full-time journalists and ten freelancers, who all cover the realities of war, urban life, and different social movements in a regional capital less than one hour away from the Russian border.

Cukr grew out of the NGO Misto Rozymnykh, or “The City of Smart People” in Ukrainian. Launched in 2019, the media aims to inform about local events and to form a community of active residents, to promote social movements and a crowdfunding culture, and contribute to people’s happiness and connectedness. EED provided start-up support to the group.

Dmytro and his team started gaining momentum during the pandemic when they were explaining complexities of the covid-reality. As the number of readers and supporters started to grow, journalists wanted to expand their informative and community-building role. The full-scale Russian war made the media even more important to their readers.

“We stayed in Sumy throughout the entire invasion despite knowing all the risks,” Dmytro says, “We understood that our mission remained the same, with or without war: we wanted to improve our city and to help people realise their potential.”

According to Dmytro, the war made a lot of locals more active and engaged in the city life.

“This participatory culture developed very strongly over the last year,” the journalist says, “People donated a lot, also to projects that were not war related.”


Filling the gaps

Cukr can be described as a continuous experiment, starting when when Dmytro and a group of fellow activists from Sumy got together after the Revolution of Dignity with a plan to create media content and explain the many reforms that were taking place in Ukraine at that time.

“Lots of complex changes were taking place and we explained them to people using simple language,” Dmytro recalls. This is also a region where youth are particularly vulnerable to intense information manipulation, and the EED grant has allowed Cukr to help build locals’ resilience to disinformation.

In 2018, the group launched a journalism school to pass on the skills they learned through this work.

“We got lots of young participants who learned a lot of great tools,” Dmytro continues, “We managed to invite many great speakers, too. But then, we realised we had a problem: we’ve got lots of people who learned important skills through our school, but they had nowhere to go to work as media makers. So, we decided to create Cukr.”

In 2019, the team launched a Patreon campaign to help further development, gathering twenty supporters.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Cukr were one of the few the few organisations that explained to the locals what was going on and they gained many more followers during this period. “We looked into the difficult legal language and simplified it so people could understand the new restrictions and innovations,” he says.

They were receiving many content views, as well as helpful comments with people thanking them for their work. The team looked at other cases of successful local media such as another EED-grantee, Zmist from the neighboring Poltava region, and realised that similarly to them, Cukr was also promoting a crowdfunding culture among its readers. The newsroom decided they wanted to continue doing that and to help support local-driven initiatives.


Becoming indispensable in the community

“All Ukrainian cities need an injection of alternative thinking and reflection,” Dmytro says, “We’d organise many educational events, lectures, and trainings. We love doing that, and we do a lot of other things like networking meetups and theatrical performances.”

The team also organises the ‘Cukr Awards’, where they celebrate changemakers in Sumy, with the aim of connecting active people in the city and creating new connections and meeting points. The events often take place at the Smart Hub, a 100-square-meter space, given to the newsroom by the authorities. The team also restored an open space - “Yard on Kuznecha street” – nearby, where they hold summer events.

These spaces became indispensable when Russian launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. On the second day of the invasion, Dmytro was approached by an acquaintance who asked if they could use the Smart Hub for turning it into a volunteer center. Within hours, the place became crowded: locals started bringing crucial aid.


“We as members of that volunteers center informed people and were mediators between different projects and groups such as civil society, the territorial defense, evacuees and volunteers,” Dmytro says, “We started to connect these groups and synchronise humanitarian centers. We worked outside the realm of the media and gave people advice and recommendations.”

Areas near Sumy were occupied by the Russian army and chaos ensuedduring the first three months of the invasion. Even after the Russians retreated in early April, people remained vulnerable and emotionally burnt-out. Dmytro and his team try to address these issues.

“After the Russian army retreated from the Sumy region, we started opening up our public spaces,” he says, “We know this is not a time when people can easily celebrate, but they still need to rest, learn, and connect. People don't have as much strength after twelve months of war as they had after two months. We organise what we call “smart rest” because we want people to recharge. To donate to the army and work toward victory, you have to find the strength for yourself first. In the last three months, we had more than 40 events ranging from first aid trainings to acoustic concerts.”


Expanding the community

Cukr had around 120 supporters before the start of the full-scale invasion. In less than a year, the number rose to 360 people, with an average support of $4 per month. Supporters come from all walks of life and today Cukr has a wide readership of up to 50,000 followers.

“Our plan is to increase our community because it is the safest, the most sustainable, and the most rewarding foundation for a media organisation now,” Dmytro says, “When people support you with their money, it means they trust you.”

Cukr remains loyal to its goal of promoting and crowdfunding for social causes. “In ten months, we collected more than €400,000 for soldiers and €10,000 for social projects,” he says.

The newsroom continues reporting on the Russian war, writes reportages from the liberated areas, and covers topics of interest to the community. The team also provides quick updates for readers via Telegram and is also experimenting with different content creating longer videos, podcasts, and other multimedia projects.

“Our biggest achievement is a well-deserved trust from the community,” Dmytro continues, “We want to serve the community, communicate, and deliver. Locals in Sumy know best what they need, and I want to work for them.”


This article reflects the views of the grantee featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Commission or any other European State or other contributors to EED.