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Posts Tagged ‘Training’

One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor's Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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[This piece appeared Sept. 30 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I at are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. (more…)

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The historic Central wet market after light rain this morning. (Photo: mjj)

Tomorrow, my workshop begins. The department has kindly been flexible to create a shorter but more intensive role for me, with a nifty title: “Super Tutor.”

What’s that? Beats me: you won’t find “Super Tutor” among faculty job descriptions. Even Google yields a paltry 7,370 hits. And I didn’t see any with journalism in mind.

So, my visionary boss at HKBU, Huang Yu, is allowing me to carve my own path. What a challenge it will be: 77 graduate students. My assignment is to provide journalistic guidance to each student. Three times. Over a six-week period. Not individually, mind you. That schedule would drive a man batty.

Instead, they’re broken into 16 groups of five, with a few quartets. For the mathematically oriented, that works out to meeting eight different teams one week, for 90 minutes a pop, then the second eight the next week. Rotate weeks until Oct. 25. With a couple of lectures for the entire community mixed in. (Then, back to my family in Slovakia.)

I could do what I did last year, when I was one of many tutors. I met with two slightly larger groups – with 6-7 students each – three times apiece. Total: 6 tutorials. This time, 48 tutorials.

Last year, the tutorial criteria: discuss whatever they want to, as long as it’s journalism-related. Lots of latitude, but limited to conversation. After all, each of the students already had me every week for my foreign-reporting course, for the whole semester. Tutorials were just something “extra.”

This time, I want more. This is the only chance I have to get to know them. So, I’ll fashion myself into a “Journalism Coach.” What better way to connect with them than through their work, nudging them in the right direction with their reporting and writing?

Tomorrow, I hold my first two tutorials. My game plan is … (more…)

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (more…)

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[This piece appeared Aug. 13, 2010, on The Mantle.]

 

PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

A Romani man in the Hungarian town of Heves describes the widespread unemployment his community faces. (Photo: mjj)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others. With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague. (more…)

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PRAGUE – When teaching, I often brandish the phrase “serious, responsible journalism.”

This to me means many things. But when it comes to foreign correspondence specifically, it’s the demand for context. For an audience back home, it would be un-serious to portray any situation – whether economic, political, social or otherwise – as if it happened overnight, in a vacuum. It didn’t, of course. And it may not have happened only here.

That’s why we have an obligation to broaden and deepen.

By broaden, I mean: Is this situation in Central European Country X unique, or actually part of a trend across post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe? Or even part of a wider trend among all 27 members of the European Union? In what way is it similar or different? And why exactly?

Clearly explaining this, somewhere up high, also provides the reader even greater incentive for why they should keep reading: either the situation describes is unique, or it’s a microcosm of a broader pattern.

This rule applies to virtually every story. We just had 15 participants for Transition Online’s latest foreign-correspondence training course, and they all chased topics that needed such context.

A Bosnian-born Australian and her Canadian reporting partner probed relations among the post-war Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian communities in Prague. Yet is this relationship unique to Prague, or similar elsewhere in the world, like Australia or Canada? Find an expert on the ex-Yugoslav diaspora, I recommended to them. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – When a titan of American story-telling criticizes, you listen.

Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Which is why I read, and re-read, Garrison Keillor’s May 25 column, “When everyone’s a writer, no one is.” Gulp. Just yesterday, I Skyped an esteemed colleague – a journalist and author – seeking a voice of sanity: Am I going a little overboard with this whole blog thing?

You see, I’ve gazed at my blog … and fallen in love. I dub this “The Narcissism of Blog-Love.”

I’ve succumbed to the personality disorder infecting millions around the world, through blogs, Facebook and other social-network sites: like Narcissus, we delude ourselves to believe that others will marvel at the beauty of our thoughts or actions. Or at least, find them interesting enough to read about.

Hey, I have something to say about Central Europe! Read me! Look, I took nice snapshots! Click on me! Yet what if no one answers our Facebook post with a “So-and-so likes this” thumbs-up? Devastation. (That’s one of the symptoms!)

Not only do I contribute to the blog-blather, I prod my journalism students to do so as well. [See post below.]

Even if we assume that lots and lots of us do have something interesting to say, there’s too much of it. As my colleague Skyped back, “I am overwhelmed with stuff that I am actually interested in.”

This extends to the growing phenomenon of self-publishing.

“The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside,” writes Keillor. “You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.”

Perhaps Keillor isn’t referring to me. Only the others. After all, I’m writing about really interesting stuff. Would a real Narcissist of Blog-Love be deterred? Heck, no. On to my next post!

[For posterity’s sake, I'm flowing Garrison Keillor’s entire column …]

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BRATISLAVA – My blog-servations notwithstanding [see post above], I see several compelling reasons for why young or aspiring journalists should join the blogosphere.

It’s not only “practice makes perfect”: the more you write, the more it improves.

First, I consider my blog as a diary of sorts. But not the kind you stuff under your pillow. It’s a public diary. In a for-your-eyes-only diary, you can write as sloppily as you want. No worries about spelling, grammar, structure, transitions, etc. If you prefer stream of consciousness to actual story-telling, fine.

This public diary, though, requires greater discipline and higher standards. If your name is attached to any piece of writing, for anyone to read, you want it in the best possible condition. That forces you to take the writing more seriously, choose more selectively which topics may be of interest to readers, smoothe the edges, clean it up, post only what you can be proud of.

In other words, treat the Internet as editor.

Second, blogging offers you an opportunity to hone specific writing and reportorial skills. Sitting in a café? Capture color, describe the scene. Want to dabble in opinion-writing, feature-writing, travel-writing, humor? Your nine-to-five existence may not afford you such opportunities. But your blog can. I myself use mine to venture into writing styles new to me, as a career newspaper guy.

Which leads to a third benefit to blogging: a showcase for your work. Plenty of people are trying to impress editors with ideas for what they’d like to do. You, though, can show them you’re doing it. Direct them to the relevant links on your site. Journalistically, we call this “show, don’t tell.” There’s not a more persuasive way to make your case.

Lastly, if you’re out there, toiling in obscurity like me, blogs enable you to “build your brand”: This is who I am, this is what I do.

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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PRAGUE – When I told family eight years ago that I’d also start teaching journalism, my sister innocently asked, “Really? What’s there to teach?”

The perception, I suppose, is understandable. Grab pen and pad, ask questions, gather information. That’s worth a semester of university?

Last week in Prague, a shoulder-to-shoulder training reminded me how much there is to share about journalism techniques and strategies. In this case, the lessons learned were specific to how to “parachute” into a foreign country and – with time limited – capture enough of the necessary reportage and multimedia elements to produce a meaningful exploration of Czech education.

The key, as always, lies in the advanced preparation: from back home, before your journey even begins. I’ve written about this before, most recently for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. So I won’t rehash here the imperative to “hit the ground running.”

Instead, in Prague I found myself repeating a mantra I’ve adopted over the years: push, push, push – politely but persistently – to get what you need.

My training partner, Andy, and I were working with eight participants, whom we divided into three teams. For more on the substance of what they reported, read my piece in The Mantle.

After lectures on Monday, reporting was to fill the next three days. That’s it. Three days. But one thing soon became apparent: the teams, all of them new to this kind of international reporting, hadn’t lined up enough meetings – especially with the right kind of sources.

On Tuesday morning, I joined the team exploring the IT gender gap, on their visit to a Czech company manufacturing anti-virus software. The plan was to speak with a woman or two working in IT there. Except, as the spokesman then told us, the company has no women in IT, just sales and marketing. Sure, we got some material. But it was no bull’s eye. (more…)

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We Bratislavers enjoyed the warming weather this week. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I read the sports pages, which nowadays are obsessed with statistics. Well, I would like to note that I myself set a career record the other day.

Not something cool-sounding, like “Most publishable words produced in a single day.” No, this is one that you aspiring journalists out there should desperately avoid: how many months I went between jotting notes in my notepad, and finally starting to jig-saw together an article from those same notes.

Ten months. Ten months!

I think my previous record was about six months, set back after my 2008 trip to Kazakhstan. Boy, do I remember how painful that was. “Never again,” I muttered to my wife, over and over.

This time, in the spirit of Vancouver, I’ve bettered that mark. Oh, I’ve got terrific excuses for why I foolishly shoved an important project to the back-burner. (The Hong Kong posts below explain a lot.)

Just know, it’s hung over me for months. I knew the bill would come due.

For those of you who haven’t gone through this before, how to describe it?

First off, I’m reading that chicken-scratch penmanship. Especially, if I’ve taken notes while walking, sitting in a moving car, or if someone is just talkin’ fast.

When the material is still relatively fresh, it’s much easier to decipher certain words. I can feel the context. The words around it trigger the memory and sensation of speaking with some unique character, in some place that 99 percent of the world’s population would consider “exotic.”

Those embers, though, start to go cold after a while.

This week, I’ve been reading through, and it’s like poking into an attic of mementos. (“Was I buying that guy’s story as he was talking?”) Slowly, I’m breathing life into those notes. I’ll also spruce them up with updated research and fresh interviews.

Those articles, produced with young Romani reporters in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania (visited last month), will appear in the coming weeks in Transitions Online. And on this blog, of course.

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BRATISLAVA — Rather than settle back into my exact routine from the old days, pre-Hong Kong, I’m creating a new one: as a more involved parent.

About two months into my HK stint, my long-suffering wife – who was still working full-time and raising three kids, alone – told me: “When you come home, things will have to change.” Bum-ba-dum-bum-BUM! “You’ll have to take 10 hours that you usually give yourself for work, and give that to the kids – especially, to take over weekly chauffeuring duties.

She was right, of course. Work is one thing, but parenting is another. In the process, I’ve re-learned one less of child-rearing: you get out of it, what you put into it. The daily aggravation of this or that is then outweighed by the greater affection you receive.

So, no complaint on that front. On the other hand, I’ve struggled to regain my productivity. I think the kinks will straighten out, with my new routine humming, within a month or so. At least I cranked out another piece for Nieman Reports, thanks to the editor’s deadline this week.

While plowing through the Hong Kong edits, I also prepare for my Monday flight to Bucharest. In Romania, my Romani reporting partner, Petru, and I will chase two or three stories. It’ll depend on how effectively we gather material from three cities: Bucharest, Targu Jiu and (picturesque) Sibiu.

While I look forward to a return to Romania and another Balkan adventure, I’m torn about leaving the family again, even for just a week. When I did the same in Prague last month, my younger son said, “Aw, you’re leaving again?” Besides, winter in Romania sounds even grayer than winter here.

After that, though, it’s back to the kids and that book project.

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[The following appeared in the Dec. 9, 2009, edition of Harvard's Nieman Reports. It was accompanied by two related pieces on breaking into the business. To read them, click here and here.]

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

LITVINOV, CZECH REPUBLIC – Miriam and Lisa have struck pay dirt. It’s a hot late-July day in the Czech mining town of Litvinov, in bucolic northern Bohemia. We’ve just driven into the Janov “estate”— or what the Czechs derogatively call a “ghetto.” Built into a hill on the eastern edge of town, the wall of whitewashed apartment buildings are mostly occupied by Roma, known less kindly here as “Gypsies.”

For young reporters Miriam Ostermann, a 22-year old freelancer for Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, and Lisa Coghlan, a 21-year old Welshwoman who lives in the English midlands, this is the first time they’ve worked on a foreign news story. And a trickly one it is. In Central and Eastern Europe, eyes widen whenever you announce plans to visit to a Roma quarter. It’s the kind of place locals would never visit; they’d cross through only if they had to. Go there, and someone might beat you, folks will warn, or pinch your bag. Neither, it must be said, has ever happened to me in my journalistic forays into Roma neighborhoods.

In Litvinov, the fellows are out early, a lucky break for us. Shy of noon, the casino is closed, yet Stepan Chudik and his friends are hanging in front of the Vietnamese-owned grocery—with its large sign misspelled, Supermaket—nursing a round of cold beers. Stephan’s shirt is unbuttoned to his rotund belly, revealing a heavily tattooed torso with a dragon, a devil and what looks like Al Capone in white fedora. He’s a clear character, so Miriam, Lisa and I approach him.

In particular, we want to know what’s happened since last Nov. 17th, when some 700 weapon-wielding skinheads marched on Janov, where they clashed with about 1,000 Czech riot police. After 17 were injured, half of them police, some Czech observers wondered if Litvinov was on the brink of “ethnic war.” This was not the first time this question arose; a decade ago, some 20 Roma were murdered by Czech extremists, and as recently as April, three Molotov cocktails tossed into a Czech Roma home severely burned a two-year-old girl.

While I’ve visited the Roma on other occasions to report on their lives and circumstances, this time I’m here as a teacher. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – Success in doing international reporting as a freelancer isn’t about what transpires in a foreign land; it lies in the thorough preparation done back home, well before your departure.

Why? Because the reporting trip will cost a bundle, and your time spent on the ground will be limited. So it’s essential that you can collect the story elements you need as efficiently as possible. With 15 years of experience behind me, I can now gather enough material so that I can work on up to six news features during an eight-day reporting trip.

The essential formula to make this work can be summed up this way: Start by producing a salable idea, then deliver what you’ve promised. There are two approaches to finding stories, after you’ve targeted a country or region in which to focus your reporting.

*Search the Web to learn about something interesting or important happening in that country or region.

*Pursue topics of interest to you, then find out if these issues are compelling in the country you’ve targeted.

The most promising approach, though, is a combination of the two, if you hope to convince editors to send you there.

Hints About Finding a Story

If, thanks to Genghis Khan, Mongolia fascinates you, then sit and think: “What exactly interests me about Mongolia today?” Business? Tourism? The environment? Human rights? Yak-herding? Let Google lead you to appropriate Web sites and start brainstorming ideas. Save relevant articles and reports in your file. And once you decide on a direction to take, you’ll want to strengthen your piece by citing any relevant research, history, or quotes from experts found in this file. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – For those who want to do real foreign reporting, the Transitions Online Foreign-Correspondence Training Course offers preparation through the biannual program it created in 2005. Attracting 15 to 25 participants each January and July, the class takes place in the historic, cobble-stoned city of Prague with lectures from journalists with The Economist, the BBC and other well-respected news organizations.

I often kick off our time together with a lecture about how to break into foreign correspondence. While my colleagues are primarily full-time staff, the 15 years I’ve spent traveling to 25 countries as a freelance foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and others means that I bring a different perspective. In the digital age, this type of freelance reporting work is changing in important ways, though there is much about doing these stories that remains the same.

Here are a few pieces of advice I share with the participants, especially those interested in working as free-lance journalists:

Find a cheap place to live. At first, the assignments and revenue may not roll in. You won’t want a high cost of living as added pressure. So head south or east. When I lived in post-Communist Hungary in the 1990s, one story payment typically covered one month’s rent.

Invest in learning. Take a course in photography or camera work or film editing since demands for multimedia are far greater now. The ability to enhance your story-telling with a slideshow, streaming video or even a short film might be enough to turn a “maybe” from an editor into a “yes.” For the past two years, I have not travelled to an assignment without expecting to shoot photographs that will appear with what I write. [See my photo essay about the hundreds of Kosovo Roma who still live in a United Nations camp atop a toxic dump, 10 years after being displaced by war.]

Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. This means not shying away from the “start-up” costs of any business, such as setting up a home office, purchasing professional-quality technology and other investments of time and energy that may not pay immediate dividends. (more…)

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We’d kept it a surprise, asking all the students to bring to class: a) a print-out of their transcribed interviews (see Sept. 23 post below); and b) their laptops.

Surprise! Today we want you to write; turn your interviews into articles. Some students gasped.

My partner and I strategized ahead of time, creating a basic story structure that we insist they follow. First, one sentence to summarize what your range of street sources told you about the Oct. 1 anniversary, with some indication why they’re saying what they’re saying. For example, if sources are excited, indifferent or of mixed opinions about the anniversary, include a few words about why.

Then, a deep, meaningful quote that SHOWS, say, the excitement or indifference. As I always tell students, you’re free to write whatever you want, but you must back it up with facts, statistics, anecdotes, quotes … anything to make your point credible.

Then a paragraph to explain the big picture: what the anniversary is, what Beijing is doing, why the authorities are doing what they’re doing. Then, a “reader-friendly” transition that brings us back to Hong Kong. This is story-telling, after all, and we can’t jerk the reader from idea to idea, without some connective tissue to smooth the ride. Here I introduce students to the wonders of the word “meanwhile” – as in, “Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong …”

Finally, we want more real-people perspectives. On paragraph to introduce a new character, explaining a bit of their story, where they’re coming from, what their views are. Then a supporting quote that explains why exactly they feel the way they feel about the anniversary.

That’s it: story structure in four parts. Three hundred words. In 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, my partner and I circle the room, coaching them individually when they hit a wall.

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Time to pound the pavement.

My teaching partner and I have devised the first reporting assignment for our 70 students, pegged to the Oct. 1 commemoration of 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China – or in Western short-hand, six decades of the Communist regime.

The story out of Beijing is two-fold. First, a security clampdown borne of anxiety about anti-government protests: public celebrations will only be tolerated in the capital. Second, a show on par with the Beijing Olympics that will showcase China’s gleaming new military hardware, signaling both the country’s economic and diplomatic emergence on the world stage.

Reaction in Hong Kong, though, is mixed. The British handover in 1997 only hardened the pro-Chinese versus pro-democracy factions. Since most of our students are from the mainland – and hearing open criticism for the first time – we figured it’d be interesting for them to go gauge public opinion.

The benefit is manifold: build confidence in approaching strangers; understand what it means to collect a “cross-section” of public opinion – across socio-economic class, gender, age, etc; and hone a skill I’ve found to be the great weakness of a young journalist: the ability to dig deeply, beyond WHAT people feel or believe, to explore WHY EXACTLY they feel what they feel, or believe what they believe.

Moreover, we required them to find and email me English-language news links describing various anniversary activities planned for here and Beijing. This emphasizes the need for advanced preparation, to impress interviewees with their seriousness and enable them to ask smarter questions.

How will we measure how deeply they’ve dug? We’ve asked them to transcribe their interviews.

This should be interesting.

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QuillLogoBy Michael J. Jordan, August 2009 Issue

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Every foreign correspondent has a tale of their big break: the story that, in the eyes of editors back home, suddenly transformed them from a dreamer who only talked about the overseas reporting they wanted to do, into someone who’s proven they can deliver the goods.

My break came in Spring 1995, amid the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. My story: the babies abandoned by the Bosnian Muslim women whom Serb paramilitaries had raped. Rape as a war crime.

My journalistic journey had actually begun years earlier. I was the son of Cold War refugees from Hungary and Egypt, and my professor father often took us along to international conferences. I, too, wanted foreign adventure.

There are essentially two ways into foreign correspondence: Climb the ladder at a major newspaper, win awards and seniority, await the vacancy of a plum post overseas. Or strike out on your own, push through the back door.

I chose the latter. (more…)

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