Ambition pays off for cross-border journalists

Nabi Abdullaev

Nabi Abdullaev mentoring a team during Cross-Border journalism meeting in Tbilisi, March 2017

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The 2017 spring round of the Cross-border Journalism programme turned out to be very exhausting for us mentors, but it promises to become the most gratifying one so far.

The participants choose to pursue multifaceted stories that spawned new angles and sidebars we could not have predicted when we first discussed story ideas in Tbilisi in March.

The combined efforts of the participants, junior and senior mentors, and of our project coordinator Natalia Pisarenko paid off in a way we all should be proud of: two of four projects (on fighting hepatitis C and on life in Baikonur) appeared in the respected Russian publications with national outreach; Novaya Gazeta and Meduza. Meanwhile team member from Kazakhstan also published its version in its own country's quality media outlet. In Georgia the story was shown on national TV

The third project, on lives of the Pomors by the White Sea in Russia and of Kashubs by the Baltic Sea in Poland, is set to be published by the iconic Ogonyok, one of Russia’s oldest magazines. The fourth project turned into a complex comparative study of lives of rural youth in Russia, Ukraine and Armenia.

What made this season so difficult for us all were our own ambitions. We set eyes on very sensitive topics and would not settle for less than quality journalism, involving thorough analysis and with a powerful human interest component. There are many voices in works of our participants, including of those who had barely been heard before, and we faced a daunting task of organising these voices into coherent narratives.

In this regard, the project on fighting hepatitis C in Russia and Georgia particularly stands out. Nothing has been written in such detail, scope, depth and human appeal on this topic in Russian so far.

The same can be applied to the project on the lives of rural youth. Whenever the modern media chooses to cover youth issues, it concentrates on the aspirations and fears of urban young people, whilst their peers living in the decrepit rural backwoods remain completely outside the limelight. Our participants from the Russian province of Udmurtia, from Ukraine and Armenia, attempted to fill this void, going out and talking to young village residents, in what became an interesting and compelling cross-country study.

The long-read about life in Baikonur seemed to start off as an entertaining but light project in the early days but when it went out, it was balanced by a series of pensive expert interviews gathered by the Kazakh participant of the project. Implementing this project was quite a challenge given (and we need to admit our guilt of ignorance here) that Meduza is banned in Kazakhstan. We thought hard through most of the project cycle of how to minimise the risk for everyone involved.

The last, as yet unpublished, project, seen at the onset as an ethnographic, mainly visual, cross-study of two ethnic minorities living by the sea in Russia and Poland, had also turned into one long ordeal for two its participants as they travelled in the Russian north and were intermittently questioned, courted and escorted by Russian border security officials.

Difficult as they were, I believe that many of this season’s projects would not see the light or would cause way more pain and fatigue to its authors, were it not for the support from junior mentors – alumni of previous projects trained and engaged to provide support.

In the case of the project on hepatitis C, Alisa Kustikova was its driving force, collecting and editing writings of other participants. She oversaw the design of the project (and it is worth mentioning here that it is a whole separate website) and pressed for its publication by Novaya Gazeta.

Maxim Kurnikov provided critical help to the Baikonur project, explaining safe logistics and providing sensitive counsel on the political and security environment and on how it can affect the work of our participants there.

Marta Ardashelia helped to boost visual components of the rural youth projects, honed texts and ensured that the local stories of the project participants made sense to readers from other countries.

I believe that inclusion of these junior mentors into the programme will help us to set ever higher bars for our projects.

Call for application for a next Cross-Border journalism programme is now open. Find out more here>

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