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Home > Reading Room > Serbian/Albanian Journalism Training Experiences

SPJ Reading Room

Serbian/Albanian Journalism Training Experiences

By Stephani Shelton

I just finished a long, long e-mail to my friend Lola — who lives in Tokyo these days. With the 13 hour time difference we find it hard to Skype each other and I really miss hearing her Serbian-accented English. Yes — she’s from Serbia and I met her in her home city of Nis in 1998 — when I was one of three journalism trainers sent by USIA (a State Department agency which is now, sadly, extinct). It sounds dramatic — but those three weeks changed my life.

Our team — led by Rutgers University Journalism Professor Jerome Aumente, an experienced trainer — conducted a series of basic, U.S.-style journalism workshops in five Serbian cities — starting and ending in the capital, Belgrade. The State Department paid us double the usual paltry honorarium; it was considered a somewhat dangerous assignment. Slobodan Milosevic was still firmly in control — even as NATO was threatening to bomb the country.

Our focus then was to give some very brave and committed independent journalists the reporting tools to dig under the Milosevic propaganda machine and write objective news reports — as they struggled to dodge the government goons who would sweep down and impound printing presses and radio and TV transmitters — and sometimes send journalists to jail. It was a dismal time for Serbia and there was a palpable sense of fear around every corner. The weekend we left for home that fear enveloped us as well; talks with Milosevic had broken off, NATO was about to issue an activation order and US Embassy personnel were ordered to leave the country.

Fast forward to June 2006. Again Jerome Aumente (now Distinguished Professor Emeritus) and I are conducting journalism workshops in Serbia — this time on business and economic reporting. Milosevic is dead. The country is bent on qualifying for European Union membership (or at least its leaders are) and the privatization of many state-owned companies is well along. There is a sense of energy and determination to move forward despite the controversial overhang of Kosovo independence and the Hague war crimes tribunal. Serbs now have many of the tools of capitalism — like credit cards and mortgages — and particularly in Belgrade, new buildings dot the landscape along with new cars.

Photo
Class photo, Belgrade, 2006

This time, there is no threat of bombs or jail or worse hanging over our workshop participants’ heads. But for many Serbs there remains a real economic crisis; that same (and necessary) privatization push which is moving the country toward the rest of Europe has cost many Serbians their jobs. The government- mandated bidding process provides little transparency and no protection for workers or the cities which depend on their spending.

Almost all the participants in the two, week-long workshops we conducted were relatively experienced business and economic reporters and editors in the context of a country moving slowly away from a command economy. They had an excellent grasp of the issues Serbia is grappling with right now — namely inflation, low wages, unemployment, consumer debt, privatization and the effort to foster small, entrepreneurial businesses. But they saw their country’s problems in isolation and as reporters only occasionally looked at Serbia in the context of other formerly communist nations. When they did make comparisons their conclusions seem to be that Serbia is somehow different and unique. Serbia as a whole has been living with war and sanctions for so long that people --including journalists — tend to look only inward. There was not much real understanding of how publicly traded companies operate in a global marketplace or of how a global economy actually works.

That said — I think about three fourths of our journalists were clearly

hungry for tools to help them uncover the truth — particularly about the privatization process and the companies from outside Serbia which were buying most of the businesses and factories. Most of the participants had access to the internet at work but had little knowledge of how to exploit its vast information possibilities. So we talked extensively about using the internet (and e-mail) for basic research, for investigative reporting and for ways to find answers when none seem available in Serbia. I spent a lot of time with the webpages of shareholder-owned, multi-national companies — explaining how to find quarterly and annual reports and how to read them. But my sense was that most news outlets did not have the true broadband connections needed for all this — either because those connections are still very expensive or simply because much of Serbia’s infrastructure is so antiquated.

When we made some field trips we saw many abysmally under-equipped newsrooms — both broadcast and print. Some smaller newspapers had so little money for operations there wasn’t even toilet paper in the broken-down women’s rest room — never mind enough modern computers to go around. For every high-powered TV station like B-92 in Belgrade — which under the leadership of Veran Matic had been the flagship of the painstakingly constructed, original independent media network we had worked with in 1998 — there were two others struggling to cover the news with ancient camera equipment and bare-bones studio sets.

At the newspaper in Nis (Serbia’s second largest city), many editors didn’t even have computers, although the composing method — computer to flash drive to printing company — was quite creative. (That newspaper, city-owned when we were there a year ago, has now been privatized). In contrast, B92 (TV and radio) in Belgrade has a great deal of new technology as well as a new building with clean bathrooms and even a cafeteria, paid for primarily by money from non-governmental organizations but also by advertising. And some newspapers, radio and TV stations (and the Ekonomist magazine) had sophisticated websites with a lot of advertising. So the media picture was a crazy quilt of haves and have-nots.

Photo
B92 Newsroom

Since my field is broadcast news and I have no print background at all, I tried to help those workshop participants with story elements and modern video production as well as ways to make business stories interesting without fancy computer-generated graphics — something most reporters simply didn’t have access to. In general — it seemed most broadcast reporters knew most of the elements they should have but not always what to do with them. Most of the TV news I watched this trip was still about a hundred light years behind the rest of Europe and the US in production values. (It was more difficult to evaluate radio news because of the language barrier but overall, Serbian music stations sound pretty up-to-date in the European style.)

There was no provision made (or apparently desired by the US Embassy in Belgrade which requested the training) for any kind of actual story development. I think that was a real disservice to the participants. For reporters in transition — there is nothing as valuable as taking your newly-learned theoretical skills, going into the field and, under a trainer’s supervision, shooting, writing and editing a story for broadcast. As any experienced newsperson can tell you, the way a story develops is often quite different from how it was originally conceived.

I know this approach works for reporters learning ethics-based journalism because I saw it working in another post-communist country just a few years before this Serbian assignment. The country was Albania — and I was there in 2002 — co-leading a workshop on investigative reporting in Tirana, the capital city. Beyond the actual news skills we were trying to instill, the ultimate goal was convincing average Albanians that by telling their stories for broadcast, they could begin to change the culture of corruption that permeated every aspect of life — from getting a phone installed to getting privately owned land back after decades under “collective” seizure.

After a week in the conference room on the basics of investigative reporting and TV news production, we set up teams which went out and shot, scripted and edited their stories. With me standing over their shoulders, participants (all experienced reporters, producers and cameramen—but again, in a backward news environment) could see right in front of them the difference between biased and unbiased reporting. They could practice their new skills with follow-up questions (simply not used in post communist Albania) to elicit real information from closed-mouthed officials. I helped them adapt the current production techniques we had shown them and during the script writing process often sent them back out to re-shoot or get additional video/sound where needed. With the help of an expert Tirana video editor and a documentary film maker, the reports — which averaged 8 to 10 minutes each — were turned into an hour program named “Hapur” (Open). After we left it was broadcast across a country-wide network and resulted in an on-going series of similar programs for some time. Several of our reporters who knew English stayed in touch by e-mail — sending scripts and asking questions that showed how they were experimenting with ideas and techniques on their own, and passing on what they had learned to their colleagues. And although Albania was far more isolated than any other country under communism and its immediate aftermath, the journalists in our workshop were almost pathetically eager for help — and willing to take what in their old-school minds were major journalistic chances.

Photo
Nis workshop

I too have been willing to take chances.

I said at the beginning of this story that my life had been changed by my first visit to Serbia. My fellow trainers and I had been willing to go where, perhaps, others might have feared to tread. And as a result all our lives — but mine most of all — became improbably intertwined with Serbia and the friends we made there.

Remember my friend Lola — who now lives in Tokyo? In 1998 she was a reporter and, with her first husband Nikola, co-owner of a small, independent radio station in Nis. Our friendship had been cemented the following spring when thanks to fate and the State Department’s ineptitude, both she and Nikola, along with their four year old daughter, stayed with my husband and me at our home in New Jersey. At the time the U.S. and NATO were dropping cluster bombs on their city and their country. The “how and why” get pretty complicated, but basically — at the end of a follow-up trip to the US Nikola was trapped in New York City when the NATO campaign unexpectedly began and all flights to Belgrade were cancelled. We took Nikola home to wait it out; Lola and their daughter finally escaped to Hungary and arrived in the US a few months later. Some years later Nikola and Lola divorced; he eventually went back to Nis and became editor of the city’s website. And she is now in Tokyo with her new Japanese husband — after a number of years in Manhattan. And that’s only one story — one set of friends — one life-altering experience out of many.

When Jerry Aumente and I arrived in Belgrade last June for our second training assignment --- we met two more friends from 1998. One –who had acted as our translator back then — had become the on-air BBC radio bureau chief in Belgrade (and now anchors and produces an up-to-the-minute 60 Minutes-like program on the Serbian public broadcast TV station). The other — who had been our “fixer” –the guy who arranged everything from hotels to equipment to black market money changing — is now an independent documentary and arts event producer. Jerry and I have gotten to know his parents and heard his father’s fascinating stories about traveling for Yugoslavian state TV in the Tito years.

Photo
First row, L-R: Jerry Aumente, Stephani Shelton. Back row: Mima Djuric, Nikola Djuric.

I was sent to Serbia back in 1998 to stretch minds — to help some gutsy independent journalists fight for freedom. But in the end it was my mind which was stretched — and is still being stretched. Because that’s the great bonus of going to someone else’s country and exchanging knowledge. You get as much as you give. In my case — maybe more. It’s been a gift I could never have anticipated.

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