A programme with a difference

Ron Popeski
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    Perspektivy’s Chief mentor – A programme with a difference

    Perspektivy’s Cross Border scheme goes beyond emphasising fundamental journalism skills, says its chief mentor, Nabi Abdullaev. And it is very different from most international workshops.

   Abdullaev says his role in overseeing a programme bringing together journalists from ex-Soviet states is not just to put participants through drills in getting the lead and the sourcing right and seizing the reader’s attention.

     One of his chief tasks, he says. is to instill a sense of social responsibility to ensure participants are aware of just what it means to be a journalist. And, with the help of specialists, to bring his charges up to speed on the changing fundamentals of the profession – embracing the Internet, including the shift away from newspapers to the small space afforded by smart phone screens.

     “It’s all about a different understanding of what it means to be a professional journalist. Some people have a blurred understanding of the role of the profession, the social role. We try to address this in our programme,” he said.

    “I try to put their work in a broader context to explain that in addition to being part of someone’s business, you also have a certain social responsibility. We might talk about this for an hour and then they return to their routines. You hammer one or two nails into their heads and hope that these nails will remain there and help them to navigate in this profession.”

   

    Team building over seven to nine weeks

    The programme differs from more conventional journalism workshops bringing together journalists for a few days of exercises and question-and-answer sessions.

    Rather, it assembles about a dozen participants – from big cities and smaller regional centres alike – to work together on stories to be published in Russian (as well as in local languages and English) in the journalists’ own media outlet alongside other stories produced by the programme.

 Group members – from countries as diverse as Belarus, Georgia and Uzbekistan--work together under Abdullaev and one more mentor for two days, return home for seven to nine weeks and then meet again to fine tune and complete their joint projects,

    Fundamentals are important too.

    “I don’t edit their work. They have editors of their own. I help them with structure,” he said. “Some participants don’t know structure. They can just give you a brick of text and you have to help them disassemble it and then assemble it in the right way. Without this, there is no learning process.”

    But, he said, “it’s not just about story-telling. Some participants have the knack for identifying a good story. Others do not have an editorial approach when observing things…And I try to teach them that.”

    Sometimes, the joint stories can deal with what, at first glance, might seem to be the most mundane of topics – recent themes have included the daily lives of taxi drivers and what city governments do to dispose of or recycle their garbage. This creates what Abdullaev said amounted to a “comparative study”.

    And it would be a mistake, he said, to underestimate the ability of journalists in ex-Soviet states, whatever the form of government in place, to produce copy critical of those in positions of authority.

    “The limitations on journalism that we believe exist In certain countries are not as strict as we imagine,” he said, citing stories exposing corruption in Uzbekistan written by a recent participant of the programme as an example. “They cannot directly criticise the president, but a lot of other things are doable. You can actually still do meaningful reporting by looking at other pressing issues that are problems for the authorities.”

    Cooperating and budgeting

     Some of the skills acquired by participants In the course of the nine weeks are peripheral to writing copy, but essential to cooperating with colleagues and surviving in a business environment.

    “They start thinking economically. They have a budget and they need to spend it wisely. They need to cooperate with each other. “There are three, four, five, sometimes six people working on the same project.,” Abdullaev said. “There are negotiating and management skills that they get while doing this. It’s not just you attended a workshop…This is something that is tangible.

   Some rules are put firmly in place as befits a space as complex as former Soviet states.

   The programme steers well clear of conflicts that might pit one participant’s country against that of another, each side depicting the other in a negative light.

       “I will not allow such a story to appear. It would be a wasted shot,” he said. “This would make it impossible to advance our education and networking and professional development agenda,” he said. “And there would be a fear of advancing political views. That’s not the idea behind this.”

       But due attention is paid to the realities of the digital age that go beyond story-telling. Like the use of multi-media techniques or even linking online copy to games.

       “I explain how media consumption has changed from newspapers to phone screens. And a phone screen has only three paragraphs,” Abdullaev said. “And if you cannot grab the attention of a reader within 100 words, the probability of that reader scrolling down to the next page dramatically declines.”