“This program has hit the nail on the head”

Marta Ardashelia

Anatoly Verbin. Photo by Hakob Hovanisyan

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In the course of five days, this person is able to explain the essence of journalism and teach practical skills required for further work in the field. Anatoly Verbin has been in charge of the workshops within Perspektivy program for two years. Having worked in Reuters International News Agency for 16 years, Verbin moved from the newsroom into the lecture hall. His classes are a unique combination of theory and practice. He literally helps young journalists to take off for deep waters, while sharing experience and giving valuable advice to already established professionals. Marta Ardashelia talks to Anatoly Verbin about Perspektivy program and the way it helps to meet the challenges of modern journalism.

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- Before Perspektivy program, you had worked with journalists and employees of governmental entities. How do you personally benefit from this program?

 The most important thing about this program is that it has hit the nail on the head. When it was being created, we did not realize that our profession was at tremendous risk. At that time, there was no fake news, post truth, or alternative facts. These terms describe the craziness happening in some spheres of journalism. Thus, the program hit the very point of confrontation that is happening at the moment not just in journalism, but in the world in general. Confrontation between closeness and openness. Ultimately, the main division in the world is not between capitalism and socialism, or Christianity and Islam, but between an open and a closed society. Perspektivy is an international program that helps journalists from different countries interact with each other. Two years after its launch, the program has very timely found itself in new realities.        

- You say that it is an international program. Are the journalists flexible enough to overcome the same stereotypes and confrontation among the countries they represent within the program format?

Possibly, the reason is that we receive a significant number of applications. For every cycle, we get between 150 and 200 applications, from which we have to pick 12. May be due to this careful selection process, it is very rare that we have any difficulties. Though rarely, mistakes happen, when we host participants, who are not very prone to cooperation with people from different countries.

- Your workshops have become legendary. For me personally, they have become a turning point in my student life. They are a strict and exact imitation of the newsroom, where everything happens in real life format.

Well, I’m essentially a Reuters’s person (Thomson Reuters International Information Agency, author’s note). The main principle of all Reuters training programs, including those that I took part in, is learn by doing. That is why in the majority of Reuters trainings including my workshops and even when I’m not working under the auspices of Thomson Reuters Foundation, the main focus is on practical exercise. Theory is used only to explain, why something is right from my viewpoint. I think, if you give theory for five days in a row, most likely the students will sleep well at classes without learning anything. On the contrary, if they are constantly doing and creating something, there is hope that they will be able to learn something this way. Since all of our participants come from different countries, all practical exercises of various forms are performed in imaginary countries, in order to avoid a feeling that some journalists know more about a certain situation. Conditions are the same for everyone.

- Do you invent all these incredible scenarios yourself inspired by the news and real events? What are your favorite elements that help the trainings thrive?

Am I supposed to share with you all my professional secrets? (with laughter, author’s note). I’m always improvising and changing something. First of all, it is just boring to automatically repeat one and the same thing. Moreover, since I’ve been doing it for quite a while, I hope that I can feel the group. Sometimes the participants want to talk more about global problems in our profession. In this case, I take something out and spend more time on the discussion. On the contrary, other groups just need non-stop action. However, whatever the scenario is, we still cover the basics: balance, the other party, structure, good lead.

- To what extent are the journalists you work with ready to the challenges of the newsroom?

We have participants from independent and from private mass media, we also have participants from state mass media. I’m very happy to see journalists from small towns and small media entities ready to learn. They show great interest in learning. To be honest, in the present world and especially in the regions people chose journalism by vocation as opposed to trying to earn a lot of money. And it explains a lot.

- I will try to be diplomatic. Perspektivy program has its own stars. It is a fact.

Yes.

- Whom would you distinguish among all the participants?

Well. We don’t talk about those who are present here, right? (with laughter, author’s note). Although, I have to be honest, I enjoyed reading your material

Thank you.

Of course, I would distinguish some participants. This is inevitable. Even in theory, groups always have leaders. I remember very well Maxim Kurnikov from Echo of Moscow in Orenburg.  He made an incredible journey within the framework of cross-border journalism. He traveled through the winter, blizzard, and snowfalls that stopped road traffic, along the entire border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Five or six thousand kilometers! I would distinguish  Alisa Kustikova from Novaya Gazeta. Although, to be honest, everyone is unique and interesting in their own way. It’s a different matter that due to a number of reasons participants have different starting points. In any case, you can meet very interesting people, indeed, sometimes they would find themselves in journalism by chance. You can learn something interesting and something new from them. This is the best part of the program and of workshops with journalists in general. I think it is a reciprocal learning process – I lean from them and they learn from me.

- What is the most valuable experience that you receive from the participants?

First of all this is practical experience of living in this world. As a journalist, I have worked in Reuters agency all my life, which is one thing. Working as an editor of a news website in Russian regional center or in one of the countries-participants – is a completely different story. It is also a different level of confronting the pressure on the part of the authorities. A person, working in Reuters, is protected by certain instruments, documents, and mere prestige, but a person working in a small town or small local mass media can be easily exposed to a totally different level of pressure. I’m very interested in how they manage to overcome and resist this pressure.

- Has Perspektivy program managed to become a community for people with certain values and vision of the profession and its further development in the present world?

I must admit that at first I was skeptical about this idea of inviting people from different countries and making a two level program that includes workshops or classical trainings, on the one hand, and cross-border part, when people create their own materials, on the other hand. However, it has worked well, because if you take a look at the website including your own material, you will see that the journalistic product itself produced within the framework of the program is extremely interesting. For example, it has been my pleasure to nominate a couple of Perspektivy materials for Editorial Board Prize. This is one of the most prestigious awards in Russian independent mass media today.

Some people working in quite good professional mass media entities, can immediately apply the new skills acquired in our program. Other people having listened to the stories and having tried themselves in creating quality journalism, go back to real life that is completely different. I understand that, too. I cannot influence in any way the editorial policy of the mass media they work for. However, I believe that we lay a certain foundation for future. Look, how fast the situation in all countries is changing. My favorite Georgia, where you live, is a wonderful example: it has magically transformed from one of the most corrupted states that emerged on the ruins of the former Soviet Union into something else. And this is despite the hard history of armed conflicts. The same can happen in other countries that have not yet transformed into democratic societies, let’s put it mildly. Sometimes changes happen very fast and journalists should be ready for it. In this sense, our program is laying a small foundation, because we mostly work on professional qualities that help to cope with a large number of new challenges.

- Perspektivy also has special atmosphere. Very often it is determined by geographical factors. Sometimes we go to Georgia, sometimes it takes place in Moscow, sometimes – in St.Petersburg. How does it influence the mood?

Even if you take a look at the feedback of the participants from my Tbilisi group, most of them are not about the classes, but about the city that they were walking around non-stop in any weather and after a long day of hard work. You are right, Perspektivy program creates a certain community. The change of places is also very important, to my mind. It can certainly make it more difficult for our Natasha Pisarenko (Program Coordinator, author’s note). To a large extent, she contributes to the positive atmosphere by arranging visits tо editorial houses and organizing meetings with interesting people on top of the workshop curriculum. That is why, I believe, this program is quite successful for the time being.

You can apply for the workshops of the Perspektivy program autumn season