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After Graduation, Journalism Students in Eastern Europe Stumble

‘… there’s little interest in what Slovak journalism refers to as publicistika: serious news features, profiles and analysis. It turns out such stories can be bad for business.’

By Michael J. Jordan
Foreign Reporting
Katarina Jenkutova was the sort of student who makes teaching worthwhile. Two years ago, she was one of my 30 Slovak journalism students at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius, in the provincial but historic city of Trnava. They were cute and bright, yet also shy and sometimes lethargic. I had to scold several not to surf online or message friends during class. Yet Jenkutova stood out among the handful who seemed genuinely attracted to the kind of reporting I taught—serious, pound-the-pavement news features and personality profiles. I had high hopes for her future in journalism.

Then this past year, while sitting in a smoky Bratislava café, I was tickled to see her appear on the television screen hanging from the ceiling. Reporting, live! The volume was muted, but no loss: my Slovak-language skills would’ve only caught every fifth word. It felt great knowing she was out there, in the business.

For this article, I contacted her to hear where she is today—and why. Via blotchy Skype-video, she explained that she’s been reporting at the national news network for a year, as a correspondent from her postcard-perfect hometown: Kosice, Slovakia’s second-largest city. The good news: she makes enough money to survive. The bad news is that she wants what so many young reporters across the industry want: guidance, for both the gratification of improving themselves and the desire to sharpen their (very marketable) journalistic skills.

The context, though, is very different in post-Communist Central Europe, where an authoritarian reflex toward the media is often visible in Slovakia and Hungary. Jenkutova graduated from a university that stubbornly insists on a heavy dose of old-school media theory, taught by old-school professors who eschew roll-up-your-sleeves practical learning. She landed in a TV job for which she was expected to produce a piece per day, though she had little hands-on experience and desperately needs coaching. However, her young, overworked editor, who is based in the capital, Bratislava, 500 kilometers away, does not have time to provide each staffer with professional development (by e-mail, phone or in person), such as how to ask the tough question, or to challenge the authorities.

“Once I read about the morning staff meeting, where it was said, ‘Katarina didn’t do a good job on this.’ I asked for more about this, but there was nothing else,” she tells me. “I know I’m a young journalist, doing many things wrong. But if no one ever tells me what, how can I learn to do it better? Sometimes I feel very frustrated, even crying, like the only thing that keeps me going is the money.”

Retaining Good Journalists

Why would it matter if a bright young Slovak like Jenkutova were to burn out and flee the profession, as so many others before her have done? It’d not only be a loss for Slovak journalism, but another blow to the country’s democratic evolution. The European Union’s ex-Communist members need watchdog journalism more than ever. Disillusionment with democracy—and nostalgia for the past—is rising across the region, according to a 2009 Pew poll, fueled by climbing prices, dogged joblessness, nasty politics and pervasive corruption. And the Spring 2011 issue of Nieman Reports spotlighted how corruption-sniffing reporters and news outlets across the ex-Soviet orbit face an array of threats, including political, economic and legal pressure. Farther to the east, they even suffer acts of violence. Forms of censorship not seen since life behind the Iron Curtain have been revived. “Most censorship is of an ‘inner’ nature,” Polish investigative journalist Beata Biel wrote in the Spring 2011 issue. “Journalists self-censor because they are aware of their employer’s political position and thus do not submit stories in opposition to it.”

Yet one element lacking in that Spring issue was a closer look at the failure to effectively nurture journalists for futures in the industry. The shortcomings begin during their university education, then extend into their impressionable early years in the field. While my lament is about what happens to young journalists, the media’s situation is actually a microcosm of so much that ails post-Cold War Eastern Europe, even 22 years into its painful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Not enough money, not enough staff, not enough time, not enough training —and not enough strength to resist external political and economic pressures.

I’ve experienced this firsthand as a foreign correspondent reporting from this region since 1994, then while teaching journalism for two years at universities in Slovakia and the neighboring Czech Republic. Recently, I heard this in the grumbling of former students now working as journalists. I also learned more about it this spring as a panelist at a World Press Freedom Day event in Bratislava, “Journalism Education vs. Media Practice.”

At this gathering, I met Lukas Diko, who is editor in chief of Slovakia’s TV Markiza, the largest news channel in a nation where TV is the largest media source. At 31, he is already steering Slovakia’s most influential news content. In the West, he’d likely be a wunderkind junior editor. Diko knows his relative youth illustrates the state of Slovak journalism, as regime loyalists were forced out. He recalls his self-consciousness at a 2010 global journalism conference, where he was seated among editors 20 and 30 years his senior. “I could see how young I was for this job,” he says.

Diko told me that graduates show up at his offices looking for jobs. But in talking with them, their motivations become apparent. They speak of the allure of being in front of the camera in this news-as-entertainment era or of getting the job as a steppingstone to a more lucrative opportunity in politics or business. Despite hundreds of applicants to choose from, Diko complains, “It’s so difficult to find qualified graduates.” While he and a clutch of colleagues are gripped by sense of mission, much of the new generation “goes for the glamour, rather than the hard work of journalism,” he said.

Reconnecting With My Students

This conversation inspired me to find out how glamorously my students live today. The short answer is, not very. In the fall semester of 2007 and 2008, I taught journalism across the Slovak-Czech border, at Masaryk University, the second-largest Czech university, in Brno, the second-largest city.

One of my 2008 students, Andrej Slivka, left his central Czech hometown of Pardubice to study something “cool and prestigious”—journalism. Rather than gravitate to the capital city, Prague, he headed the other way, to explore the Moravian city of Brno, with its quintessentially Mitteleuropa architecture, watering holes, and winter market. In my class, he was clearly drawn to the local music scene, so he produced a profile of a Czech beat-box musician. He’s since gone on to write some 200 music-related items for the Czech website, Superbeat.cz. He isn’t paid for it, but at least gets into concerts for free. He still doesn’t want to go to Prague, which he describes as “too fast, all about hype, and you can be beaten up in the metro any time.” Yet in Brno, he juggles his career ambitions with the quandary of living in a small country and working in an equally small media market.

Ideally, Slivka told me, he’d write about music full time. But in a country of only 10 million, the 23-year-old observed, “maybe only six or seven music journalists are paid enough to support a family.” He also considered a narrower niche—one I didn’t know even existed—reporting about poker. The card game has grown in popularity, yet Czech poker journalists “aren’t good at understanding the game,” he said. Either specialty, though, would require a move to Prague.

Life in a small country with fewer opportunities creates pressure to choose a path wisely. To broaden his horizons a bit, Slivka stayed put at Masaryk for a two-year master’s degree in international relations. “If you just have a bachelor’s degree, you’re nothing in this society,” he says. “I can’t tell you right now I want 100 percent to do this with the rest of my life, but I’m trying to take time to make the best decision. I’ll definitely find some job, but I’m not too optimistic about finding one I’ll be happy in.”

He is not my only former student now studying international relations. Martina Dockalova was the most serious-minded of Czech students in my 2007 class. She was hooked on newspapers at age 15. As she grew older, she told me, “When my friends wanted to go to the pubs, I’d say, ‘Wait, let me finish the paper, then we can go.’” Now, she isn’t drawn to the grind of daily deadline, but wants to delve thoughtfully into foreign affairs. She speaks Greek, interned at the Turkish Daily News in Istanbul, is a part-time editor at Valka, a Czech-language quarterly on war history, and recently wrote a long essay on Alexander the Great.

She watched some of her classmates dive into newspapering in Brno, but they didn’t last long at their jobs. “They started at an extremely low salary, like 600 euro per month, which is really nothing when you pay 300 to 400 euro for a small one-bedroom apartment,” she said. “Also, the work is exhausting.”

At 25, Dockalova keeps her options open: she may pursue a PhD, take a full-time position at Valka, or perhaps operate from the foreign desk of a national paper. Money, she says, is not as much a priority as finding the right platform: “To be heard, where everyone is reading your article.”

Even when my students land in journalism jobs, I wonder what wisdom, if any, they’ll absorb from their youthful elders. Diko says he offers modest training to help launch them. Down the road, there will be less time to further develop them—or do what it takes to retain them. In his newsroom of 60, he explained, “We don’t have the time to teach staff, to lead people, when it’s easier to just write an e-mail.”

This is something I want to ask Jenkutova about when we finally reconnect through Facebook. Before our Skype-video chat, she sends me a link to a recent sample of her work. It’s a very clean, professionally produced piece of her reporting in a downtown Kosice park. A small group of neighbors and environmental activists were protesting a city plan to chop down some trees and sacrifice a precious green space for some new development. It’s a straightforward, daily news story, reporting that something happened today. It’s a good start, but I see greater potential.

“You could dig even deeper,” I suggested, perhaps with too much of a lecturing tone. “Use this event as a window onto how environmental activism feels so empowered two decades into the post-Communist transition. Or, as a window onto civil society, and what progress has been made two decades into the post-Communist transition.” It’s my view that journalism can inform and educate Slovak society about how far they’ve come—and how far they have yet to go—in their unprecedented transformation from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy.

She accepted my advice, then politely set me straight about what is realistic.

“Thank you for the muza,” she said, using the Slovak word for inspiration. But her bosses want a story per day, every day. There’s no money, no staff, no time to invest in such reporting. Even worse, there’s little interest in what Slovak journalism refers to as publicistika: serious news features, profiles and analysis. It turns out such stories can be bad for business. “If I do something on the activists, and they criticize someone, that person can sue me and say it wasn’t balanced,” she told me, her frustration palpable via Skype. “Then I look like a bad guy. There are many cases where reporters tried to go deeper, but it costs the company a lot of money.”

The inevitable consequence is empty, superficial reporting, far from the meaningful truths about Slovak life today—another symptom of democracy’s ill health in this part of the world

Michael J. Jordan has reported from 25 countries during the past 17 years for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and other publications. He is a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, teaching in its international journalism program, and has taught reporting at the University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Slovakia; Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic; and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. He blogs at http://jordanink.wordpress.com/ and can be reached through e-mail at mjjordan23@earthlink.net.