Tim Mak, a former investigative correspondent for NPR, was among the 10 percent of the organization’s staff who were laid off in March following budget shortfalls. He had been covering the war in Ukraine, beginning with a report on the ground during the first night of the Russian invasion in which he described a calm evening that suddenly turned into chaos.
After the decision came down at NPR, Mak decided he wasn’t done—he will return to Ukraine as an independent journalist with his newsletter the Counteroffensive. He plans a more intimate kind of reporting, with investigative stories that focus on the kind of human (and canine) experiences of the last 14 months that are often lost in the rush to cover the daily churn of the war. In turn, he hopes fees from the newsletter will cover his expenses, including body armor, medical kits, car rentals, recording equipment, and more.
I called Mak, whose work at NPR also included investigations of the National Rifle Association, to talk about how he ended up covering the war in the first place, how he processes what he’s seen on the ground, and why he wanted to go back. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: How was it decided that you’d cover the war in Ukraine for NPR?
Tim Mak: When the conflict began brewing in Ukraine, I was in the process of moving from D.C. to Los Angeles. I had put everything in storage, given up my apartment in D.C. But NPR needed some help covering what was possibly going to be a very, very big story. I have a military background. I’m a former U.S. Army combat medic. So they asked me to go to Ukraine for two weeks.
I landed the night the invasion began. I got in at like 9 p.m., and the war began that night. I had a drink at a bar with a legendary war correspondent and friend who had covered 15 different wars in the past. And he tells me there’s no way this is going to happen: “Don’t worry. Go back to your hotel. Rest well. See you soon.” And that morning, at 3:00 in the morning, one of my editors calls up and says, “Hey, I think you better go downstairs. Something’s happening outside.” I remember just being so shocked and trying to process it. I hadn’t even unpacked. And so I went to the bathroom and I was just brushing my teeth as the war began. After that, I’ve spent much of the last year covering this war on the ground, and learning a ton about the country, the culture, the language, the cuisine, in ways that really made me want to write about it more.
What was your approach in those early days?
Your No. 1 priority when you’re in a situation like that is to make sure you and your team are safe. My decisions were colored by a lot of the American government predictions about what would happen next. If you remember, in the first 72 hours, the Russian military was expected to, if not take Kyiv, to surround it and then begin the very painful process of taking Kyiv. We worried Kyiv would quickly become a very dangerous place, so that led us on the road. We started driving, and we’ve spent much of the last year driving around the country.
Can you talk at all about the NPR shake-up? Did it disrupt your coverage in Ukraine?
No, it’s nothing so dramatic. I found out a few weeks ago while I was back in the U.S. for a time. It was not as if I was in a war zone when that happened.
I really do believe NPR has a powerful place in American society and has a really important role to play, especially in rural communities. I was in the West Virginia National Guard for years as part of my Army service. And I’d be driving out in rural West Virginia, and the only news you can hear out there is West Virginia Public Radio. I love the mission of NPR and everything they do. I suspect that will not make for great copy, but that is my genuine view.
How did you decide to try to work in Ukraine without NPR?
I really love the reader and listener feedback from Ukraine. That’s what kept me going, really. You’re out there working 18-, 20-hour days, and your gas tank is at zero. And then you start to read on Twitter and in your emails from the people who value your work. And that really does change the whole game for me. Being a reporter in Ukraine for NPR, I never felt underappreciated.
Reporting on a war is a painful process. There have been times I thought, leaving, that I would never go back. It’s a tough assignment. It’s a very stressful one. You go around the country talking to people, and many of them are having the very worst days of their lives. And you have a little cup and people pour some of their sadness into it, some of their grief, some of their anger into it. And what kind of empathetic human won’t slowly begin to be affected by it?
It’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s obviously a huge challenge to be both editor and writer at the same time. A doctor is their own worst patient, and a writer is their own worst editor. And so it will require a lot of self-discipline to make wise and safe and effective decisions about reporting in a war zone. I’m really aware that that’s going to be a thing I need to be thinking about, both for me and my reporting partner, Ross, who is a Ukrainian national and an interpreter—the need to be safe and aware and wise when it comes to difficult decisions.
How is the work going to change?
In terms of format, every medium you work on, whether it’s writing or it’s video or audio, you have a different relationship with whoever is consuming the product. And newsletters are really interesting because I think that it requires a more intimate relationship. It’s letter-writing. My concept of this is to do war correspondence in its historic form, writing letters back home. My writing will change in tone. It will be less formal, more personal, and I’ll be able to talk about the things that I’m seeing and feeling that wouldn’t be appropriate for an NPR kind of story. Like I’m writing and telling them what happened. And I hope that sort of thing will speak to people.
Is there one story that you’ve published that stands out as emblematic for that feeling?
One thing that I did that I found really spoke to people was the Dogs of War series. Everywhere I went, there were just so many dogs running around in Ukraine. I ran into stray dogs, dogs who lived inside, dogs who lived outside. I took photos of all the dogs that I could, and I tried to explain what the lives of these dogs are like, what their owners are doing to try to protect the ones in shelters. People really came to appreciate the type of war coverage that wasn’t all about the bombs and bangs.
At NPR, we wanted to do a big investigation into war crimes in Ukraine. And our first instinct was to go, What can we tell about this immense, massive number of war crimes that are alleged to have happened and are being investigated right now? More than 70,000, 80,000, probably at last count. But we decided instead to go slow and specific, and investigate one crime.
We had heard about this killing on the fourth day of the war in this tiny village two-and-a-half hours outside of Kyiv. We didn’t know the person’s name. We didn’t know how he was killed. We just knew that a car was blown up and there was a body on the side of the road. And so we brought listeners along as we figured it out. We went to the village and found the wreckage of the car, and we learned the body had been taken home by his family, and we learned that his name was Oleksandr Breus, as we learned he was in that town that day trying to pick up his fiancée and his sister. We learned he had the bad misfortune of entering the town at the same moment as the Russian column that was headed toward Kyiv.
We canvassed the entire village. We found two people who had heard the killing. And we found two others who had videotaped the aftermath of the killing, giving us crucial context and clues. And after a long time, we found a single person [who had been] on the scene, who told us that Oleksandr Breus had been shot in the back of the head, and afterward, an armored vehicle came by and blew up his car almost as a statement. We found a video taken by a woman down the street shortly after Oleksandr’s killing that showed the soldiers entering the village and shooting at her. But in that video we found a very specific kind of vehicle called BTR-82 that had letter-“O” markings on them that meant Central Military District. And only two units in the Russian military in the Central Military District have the BTR-82. We investigated further in order to track down the two units most likely responsible for Oleksandr Breus’ death, the commander and a small number of people who might have been the ones who actually pulled the trigger. And that was for a single war crime. That story makes the war-crime situation in Ukraine something personal, something you can imagine, narrative-wise, but it also shows how difficult it would be to get justice for the 70,000, 80,000 other war crimes.
That’s the sort of thing I’m hoping to do. I want to write deeply reported human interest stories that humanize events that I think that people do turn away quite easily from. Straight news copy—“this happened today, the battle line was there, this number of people died that night”—that sort of war reporting has its place. But I think what really brings it home is learning about people.
Do you think people have stopped paying attention?
There is a tendency, when a story goes on for a certain amount of time, to turn away from it. It was such a shock when the war broke out. And people reacted in a very short way. I don’t expect everyone to live in a constant state of fear and shock, but there is a tendency over time for us to turn away from things that might hurt us. But it’s necessary, as any good citizen, to be aware of it. And so I’m trying to ensure that people continue to look at this little corner of the world. And maybe I can show you a dog along the way.