In the early days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the online magazine Cukr helped keep Sumy’s residents informed. Now, with the help of DW Akademie’s MediaFit, locals are keeping Cukr’s doors open.
Once a quiet city near Ukraine’s border to Russia, Sumy drew international attention on February 24, 2022, when a column of Russian tanks entered the city.
Local authorities alerted the Ukrainian military but, with the entire country under attack, no help arrived.
Many fled westward, but Cukr's team dug in and got to work.
"The first few days of the war, it was like gonzo journalism," said Cukr founder Dmytro Tishchenko.
It was a sharp pivot for the community reporters and editors who had no training in war journalism. But soon enough, they were following volunteers and the few military personnel around town who were using whatever weapons they had available.
Using Telegram, Cukr reported in real-time what they were witnessing and where citizens could go for safety.
After four days of fighting street-to-street, the Russian army retreated entirely from Sumy.
The battle became one of the first Ukrainian victories and a rallying point for many Ukrainians looking for glimmers of hope in those early days of war.
The city was far from safe, yet life continued. For those who remained, including Cukr's journalists, Sumy had been changed, and covering the town suddenly required new reporting skills. These skills, in turn, required resources.
Until then, Sumy had relied on Russia for its commerce, so clearly, new revenue was needed. Likewise, Cukr's team wanted to support Sumy's local military and volunteers.
For Alona Serhiienko, Cukr's executive director, this commitment to Sumy's defense and its future became the backbone of their work. In return, Cukr had the support of their city.
"We had the trust of the people of Sumy," she said.
Yet Cukr also had to keep their own doors open. A funding project, known as Cukr Club, developed with the support of MediaFit, a DW Akademie program which supports independent media in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
MediaFit helped Cukr structure Cukr Club, which accepts direct donations and in turn, invites donors to Cukr events throughout the city, from stand-up comedy to concerts.
"It was important for us to realize we had to ask people for help," said Tishchenko. "We shouldn't feel shame about it. We need to pay people and of course we need resources. When we realized people needed us, we set up the club."
With the new organization, they did not just have to keep asking for one-time donations, but people could instead support Cukr monthly, like a subscription, allowing Cukr to keep reporting and remain accessible to everyone.
"We are creating an ecosystem," Tishchenko said. "Many imagined Sumy as a small, backward city, but now they know that there is plenty going on here. Many people say they are proud of their city now that they hear of everything that is happening here."
MediaFit mentor Anna Avramenko admires the Cukr’s team's courage and ability, from solving connectivity issues, to defending against hackers, to overcoming funding challenges.
"They are both ambitious and goal-oriented," she said.
These talents were recognized again at a MediaFit event in November, where the outlet was awarded 1 million UAH (€25,000). Competing against 13 other media outlets who pitched their projects to an international team of judges, Cukr secured first prize.
Representatives of donor and business communities active in Ukraine were also invited to the pitching event.
Cukr's work is much more than just keeping the city well-informed. The media organization is helping build a city with a new vision. When Russia invaded, many Russia-dependent industries had to be dismantled overnight. This means that the city, while still standing, has been significantly hindered economically.
But, for Cukr, this is also an opportunity.
"Now we have the chance to build a new vision," Tishchenko explained. "It’s starting from zero, but when you are at this level, it is a chance to begin all over again."
Whether Sumy will become a start-up hub, IT magnet or something altogether new, is unclear. Yet Cukr plans to be there to support the city as their community supports them.
MediaFit is funded by the EU and co-financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The program originally focused on economic aspects of media and media innovation in southern and eastern Ukraine. Now it focuses on rapid survival assistance in times of war for 14 independent regional media.