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Home > Publications > Quill > The benefits of international media partnerships


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
The benefits of international media partnerships

by Jeff South

Feodosia, Ukraine, and Bloomington, Ind., are 5,600 miles apart, separated as much by language and culture as by geography. But a close relationship has developed between the two cities’ leading newspapers: Kafa, a thrice-weekly in Crimea with a circulation of about 35,000, and The Herald-Times, a 28,000-circulation daily in south-central Indiana.

In 2004, six Kafa managers and reporters spent several weeks in Bloomington, working side by side with their H-T counterparts; The Herald-Times reciprocated by sending nine staff members to visit Kafa’s operations over the course of the year.

Each paper printed a batch of stories about the prairie a half-world away. While in Ukraine, H-T Editor Bob Zaltsberg filed columns comparing Crimea to Northern Ireland (“Both areas are ethnically and culturally divided”) and noting that International Freedom of Speech Day “was a bigger deal in Feodosia than in Bloomington.”

Iryna Smyrnova, a Kafa editor, visited the Indiana University campus and wrote about the prevalence of smoking and drinking: “As far as the penchant for dangerous toys goes, the young people are alike everywhere — in America and in Ukraine, whatever is forbidden fascinates them.”

Alexey Batourin, who covers politics for Kafa, observed that Americans are far more polite and friendly in the flesh than in the movies. “The people of Bloomington all but dispelled the Hollywood-induced myth of foul-mouthed Americans in a matter of hours,” he wrote.

But the exchange wasn’t just a feel-good exercise set to the Disney song “It’s a Small World.” It produced tangible results: With advice from The Herald-Times, Kafa redesigned its Web site and raised its profile among search engines popular in Ukraine; boosted its circulation by offering online subscriptions and distributing copies at hotels; created a newspaper section and online forum for young readers; developed a beat system and daily planning schedule for reporters; improved distribution by purchasing three newsstands; and increased advertising revenues, in part by publishing a local Yellow Pages. Iryna Prokopuyk, Kafa’s publisher, said interacting with The H-T made her paper “more professional” and “more credible.”

“I think the Ukrainian journalists we worked with soaked up ideas and concepts like sponges. They learned practices and policies they could use in all departments of their operations: reporting, writing, circulation, advertising, Web-based journalism and more. It was a very rich opportunity for them,” said Andrea Murray, managing editor of The Herald-Times.

“For us, it was a renewal of commitment to our own tradition of independent and watchdog journalism,” she said. “When you see people working to develop these traditions in a new place, you come to appreciate the tradition on your own turf even more.”

J.J. Perry, The H-T’s entertainment editor, agreed: “I also found myself inspired by Kafa and feel a certain kinship with its staff. It’s exciting to know that, across the globe, they are working as hard or harder over there as we are here. And they are doing the same thing we want to do: putting out a good newspaper.”

“I think the Ukrainian journalists we worked with soaked up ideas and concepts like sponges. They learned practices and policies they could use in all departments of their operations: reporting, writing, circulation, advertising, Web-based journalism and more. It was a very rich opportunity for them,” said Andrea Murray, managing editor of The Herald-Times. “For us, it was a renewal of commitment to our own tradition of independent and watchdog journalism. When you see people working to develop these traditions in a new place, you come to appreciate the tradition on your own turf even more.”

J.J. Perry, The H-T’s entertainment editor, agreed: “I also found myself inspired by Kafa and feel a certain kinship with its staff. It’s exciting to know that, across the globe, they are working as hard or harder over there as we are here. And they are doing the same thing we want to do: putting out a good newspaper.”

Kafa and The Herald-Times were paired by the Ukrainian Media Partnership Program, which creates and nurtures long-term relationships between selected media outlets in the United States and Ukraine. The UMPP is operated by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a nonprofit organization whose mission includes promoting independent media in developing democracies.

The program is funded by the U.S. State Department. Since it was launched in 2002, the UMPP has arranged 16 partnerships: Eight have involved newspapers, six have involved television stations, and two have involved radio stations. IREX attempts to match media outlets of similar size, such as the Sobytie newspaper in Dniprozderzhinsk with The New Mexican in Santa Fe, and Vezha TV in Ivano-Frankivsk with WDBJ-7 in Roanoke, Va.

The paired outlets interact online and in person. Typically, several Ukrainian managers and journalists make two two-week visits to their U.S. partner’s operation, and the U.S. outlet sends corresponding delegations to Ukraine each year. The partners share information about business management, advertising, marketing, circulation, distribution, news coverage, journalistic ethics, technology and other subjects.

Participants say the UMPP demonstrates the benefits of international media cooperation beyond “mir i druzhba” (Russian for “peace and friendship”).

Of the six Ukrainian newspapers that participated in the UMPP between 2002 and 2006, five reported improvements in advertising, four in news content and three in their Web sites. In addition, three of the newspapers created new publications.

Of the seven Ukrainian broadcast outlets that participated in the UMPP between 2002 and 2006, five reported improvements in marketing and promotion, four in news content, three in advertising and three in production techniques. Four stations started community service projects that also enhanced their image.

American media outlets benefited, too. Mark Layman, WDBJ’s production manager, said the partnership with Vezha TV “allowed us to learn from them. … We learned about work ethic, good attitudes, desire, commitment, drive and friendship. Anyone can learn to run a camera, computer, to direct or to sell, but seeing a total staff unification toward achieving a common goal — success and community respect — cannot be taught. It has to come from the heart.”

Melitopolskie Vedomosti, a twice-weekly paper (32,000 circulation) in Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine, was paired in 2005-06 with the Observer-Reporter, a daily paper (34,000 circulation) in the southwestern Pennsylvania city of Washington. Park Burroughs, editor of the Observer-Reporter, visited Melitopol and saw its range of niche publications for elderly people, young readers, rural residents and other groups.

“We had anticipated learning nothing more than about Ukrainian culture, politics and its fledging media industry. That would have been enough for us, but we did pick up some practical tips from our Ukrainian partners,” Burroughs said.

“Although they were struggling for solutions to their advertising and distribution problems and really needed our advice there, they were more advanced than us in other aspects. Most notably, they had embraced the concept of niche publications and were actively adding and dropping publications in order to reach particular segments of society. This was something we were just beginning to do.

“Their flexibility has become a model for us. I don’t think we would have dared launch a second bimonthly magazine if we had not seen how successful our friends at MV were in similar endeavors.

The goal: ‘strengthen

independent media’

IREX describes itself as “an international nonprofit organization providing leadership and innovative programs to improve the quality of education, strengthen independent media and foster pluralistic civil society development.”

The group was founded in 1968 by U.S. universities to administer exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since then, it has grown to include a portfolio of $50 million and a staff of more than 500 professionals worldwide. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C.

IREX receives funding from government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Other donors include the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the World Bank and foundations such as the Carnegie Corp. In addition, IREX partners with about 200 groups, such as the World Association of Newspapers and the European Journalism Centre, and universities.

IREX believes independent media, free from governmental and political control, are important for democratic and economic development. For that reason, the group works with local partners “to advance the professionalism and long-term economic sustainability of newspapers, radio, television and Internet media.”

Through workshops and other activities related to professional journalism and business management skills, IREX has offered training for independent print media outlets in Ukraine since 1996.

Several years ago, IREX officials realized that there were limits to the effectiveness of workshop-based training, said Svitlana Buko, administrative manager for IREX Ukraine’s media programs. Many Ukrainian journalists had workshop fatigue: They didn’t need a one-day dose of training; they needed support and encouragement in applying existing skills.

“I think we’ve graduated from the idea of training individuals to the idea of forming relationships that can have long-term effects on entire media outlets,” Buko said.

About the same time — in 2002 — the U.S. State Department asked for proposals to implement a partnership initiative between media outlets in Ukraine and the United States. IREX applied for and won the contract to administer the project. Thus the Ukrainian Media Partnership Program was born.

The UMPP gives selected Ukrainian media outlets short- and long-term opportunities to interact with their U.S. counterparts. Those interactions include not only training, but also job shadowing, internships, information sharing and on-site advice.

The program encourages long-term cooperation between the individual professionals who work at both outlets, Buko said. The goal is to develop professionally managed Ukrainian media outlets that produce objective news and reporting.

To be journalistically independent, outlets must be financially secure, free from government support or influence. That is why the partnerships address strategic management and advertising as well as news content.

Buko said that to the best of her knowledge, there is no other program like the UMPP. She said IREX does not have any similar projects in other nations.

There are certainly exchange programs for journalists: For example, the Radio-Television News Directors Association has opportunities for American journalists to visit Germany and German journalists to visit the U.S. And programs such as the Knight International Journalism Fellowships send experts from one country to share their knowledge with news outlets in another country.

But the UMPP is a true exchange involving entire media outlets. While other programs aim at individual development, the UMPP is concerned with development of all functions, on both the content and business sides, of a media organization. The goal of the UMPP is not to teach a particular skill but to build a relationship that will benefit media outlets for years to come.

The payoff: better news,

better marketing

For example, Vezha TV, which operates a television and radio station in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, instituted several changes after an exchange of visits with WDBJ, the CBS affiliate serving the Roanoke-Lynchburg area in western Virginia. Vezha said it increased advertising revenues 10 percent by implementing advice from only the first WDJB visit.

Among other strategies, WDJB helped Vezha develop a media kit for potential advertisers. The additional revenue allowed Vezha to purchase its own transmitter.

Vezha TV also developed daily promos for news and other programming, redesigned the announcement preceding news programs and positioned itself as a family-friendly, people-oriented station. The news department adopted an “Our City” studio concept and actively engaged citizens, said Angelina Kruglova, project manager at Vezha.

Moreover, the station started a fundraising campaign to help a struggling retirement home make much-needed repairs. The campaign, based on a WDBJ model, generated donations from businesses and citizens and enhanced Vezha’s reputation for corporate responsibility.

Vezha was founded in 1999 as a municipally subsidized company, but “the government had made clear that Vezha would be required to move to a self-sustaining operation,” said Bob Lee, president and general manager of WDBJ. “We spent extensive time with our partners to help them understand promotion, sales and marketing.

“They quickly came to realize that in a free-market broadcasting environment, their survival depended on grasping and mastering such capitalist concepts as competitive marketing and advertising support. They got it quickly, and I believe the fundraising campaign for the local pensioners’ home was an early manifestation of their new religion.”

Participating newspapers also said they got a lot out of their partnerships.

Sobytie, a weekly paper (57,000 circulation) in Dniprozderzhinsk in eastern Ukraine, was paired in 2005-06 with The New Mexican, a daily paper (28,000 circulation) in New Mexico’s capital. The New Mexican sent staffers to Ukraine in February and August of 2006; Sobytie sent staffers to New Mexico in June and December of 2006. The December delegation included Youri Zaytsev, publisher of Sobytie, which was started in 1996 as the first private publication in its region.

Zaytsev and his colleagues learned about circulation, advertising and other financial matters and studied, among other things, how The New Mexican produces an arts magazine and Spanish-language weekly. Zaytsev said the visit triggered a “revolution in my mind. My dreams about the successful future of my newspaper became very tangible” as he crafted a five-year strategic plan with help from his American partners.

As a result of the UMPP, Sobytie has developed a subscription campaign, new advertising strategies keyed to holidays and seasonal events, and a better process for creating financial budgets. The paper also implemented newsroom changes: switching to Adobe InDesign layout software, updating its stylebook and providing incentives to motivate editorial staff members.

In reports to IREX, UMPP participants cited various benefits of their partnerships:

Thanks to WFIU, the NPR affiliate at Indiana University, Radio Mix, a commercial station in Dnipropetrovs’k in southeastern Ukraine, introduced new programs for younger listeners (such as “R&B city”). Radio Mix also started a fundraising drive to buy equipment for the neo-natal intensive care unit at the city hospital. The campaign included ads noting that the hospital could accommodate only 12 newborns in its neo-natal ICU and asking, “Should we let the 13th child die?” The public-service project, conducted in the fall of 2006 and spring of 2007, raised more than $21,000 for an infant respirator and other equipment.

“We realized how great of an asset our radio can be to the community,” said Radio Mix producer Olena Kotova.

Inspired by 13WMAZ, the CBS affiliate in Macon, Ga., Union TV in Makiivka, southeast Ukraine, hired an advertising copywriter, started throwing receptions for VIP advertisers, created a Web site and launched a local investigative reporting program called “Zone of Special Attention,” which has addressed such issues as homeless children, AIDS, abandoned houses and human trafficking.

Union TV also started a charity drive to provide presents and supplies for the city’s 1,200 orphans during the winter holidays. The campaign, called “Warming Orphans’ Hearts,” was the first of its kind in Makiivka. Natalya Zakharzhenko, director of Union TV, said that opinion polls showed citizens were grateful for the project, and she plans to make it an annual event.

With ideas and advice from The Herald-Times in Indiana, Kafa’s circulation increased by 5,000, and its advertising revenue rose 145 percent. The Feodosia paper extended delivery routes and started circulating in more cities and villages. Kafa also initiated six Web projects (such as an online “high school alumni club” and a page of English-language news) and started an RSS news feed.

In September, Kafa publisher Iryna Prokopuyk launched a new newspaper, Svezhaya Gazeta, in Simferopol, the Crimean capital; Prokopuyk said her relationship with The Herald-Times gave her the impetus to expand.

RIA Corp., a newspaper publisher in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, said its corporate advertising department achieved 30 percent growth, thanks to The Herald of Rock Hill, S.C. As a result, RIA was able to open a printing plant and buy a press, and it introduced several more newspapers and magazines, including a daily called 20 Minutes. The company also started a news service to provide content to other publications across Ukraine.

For the U.S. partners, the benefits were less tangible but still important. Most of the American participants said they benefited primarily by learning about Ukraine and drawing inspiration from their counterparts.

“In countries in which the notion of press freedom is developing, young newspapers and news outlets have an innocence and purity about concepts. That teaches U.S. media much about the bedrock values we so often take for granted,” said Rob Dean, managing editor of The New Mexican.

He said the partnership with Sobytie gave his staff “a reason to reflect on the mission of an independent press in a free society. We are reinvigorated about our work because we see it as a force for good. We see that clearly through the experience of a newspaper like Sobytie that is in its infancy.”

Don Buckindail, the new-media manager for 13WMAZ in Georgia, said: “Honestly, I received more from my trip to Ukraine than I feel I gave, which in turn will help my professional experience here at home. Long term, I think it can re-energize media companies, reminding them of the true calling and power of our business. In addition, it can illustrate that issues and concerns are universal regardless of market size or even country of origin.”

The importance of international media relations

Svitlana Buko and other IREX officials define success by the partnerships’ sustainability: whether the relationships continue after the exchange visits have been completed. Early signs are promising.

For example, although the formal partnership between the RIA Corp. and The Herald ended in 2003, the South Carolina paper continues to assist the Ukrainian company. In 2005, Gary Young, production manager for The Herald, traveled to Vinnytsia to help set up RIA’s new printing press.

The partnerships’ sustainability may be tested if the UMPP itself ends. Buko said the project is scheduled to expire after 2007, although IREX and media officials hope the State Department will extend funding.

While IREX clearly has an infrastructure and experience for fostering partnerships between far-flung media outlets, it may be possible for news organizations to forge the relationships on their own. About 700 U.S. cities have “sister cities” abroad; American newspapers and television stations could scope out the media in their sister cities and strike up international friendships.

Internet telephony and video-conferencing can greatly reduce the time and cost involved if participants can overcome language barriers. With little expense, participants could chat online about media issues, share news stories and other content, and link to each other’s Web sites. More involved relationships could entail on-site visits, personnel swaps and internships.

Cross-cultural connections are critical in our globalized world, said Dan Kubiske, who teaches journalism at George Mason University and until recently chaired SPJ’s International Journalism Committee. He has reported extensively from Asia and has traveled to various countries on behalf of SPJ.

Kubiske recalled the chain reaction after he showed the SPJ Code of Ethics to reporters in the Dominican Republic: A feisty start-up journal incorporated the code into its own mission statement, which it decided to run in each issue. At the journal’s coming-out party, the publisher spoke for 20 minutes about media ethics.

“As a result, a public dialog on ethical behavior in journalism began and lasted for months,” Kubiske said.

He said exchange programs can “help foreign news media learn from our mistakes — and victories.” More importantly, they “get American journalists and media outlets to understand that there is a big world out there that is being ignored out of ignorance,” he said.

“If a local U.S. station or newspaper works with a counterpart in Ukraine or Mongolia or Serbia, then that U.S. media outlet has a vested interest in explaining what is going on in those countries. Maybe the editors will see that there are local stories that connect to those countries. Maybe they will do what we are supposed to do and give our viewers, readers and listeners the news they need instead of just the news they want.”

Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that VCU is one of IREX’s partner institutions.

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