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Vol 3, No 26
24 September 2001
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Slovakia's 21st Century Journalism School
An innovative learning-by-doing approach teaches a new generation of journalists
Marius Dragomir

The older generation learned one way, defined for them by authoritarian forces… The new generation has the duty to make a different kind of journalism.

- L Kelly

For students from former Communist countries, finding scholarships in the West, especially the US, is something they are eager to do. But two years ago, they were given an enticing, albeit unusual, opportunity—studying "American journalism" in a little-known town in Slovakia. Svaty Jur, a village you can't even find on a map, roughly 15 kilometers away from the Slovak capital Bratislava, didn't exactly sound appealing to prospective students. But to a team of American teachers and media professionals committed to "building a 21st century journalism program" it actually seemed quite exciting.

American Laura Kelly—a veteran journalist, and head of the postgraduate journalism program at Academia Istropolitana Nova (AINOVA), a private Slovak university—reminisced on her way back to the US about her two-year "Slovak" experience.

Perfect balance: Teaching and working as a journalist

A freelance writer, editor and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Newsweek International, The Miami Herald, Kelly eventually chose teaching.

"Actually, teaching chose me," Kelly said. "It was never my intention to become a teacher. I was working in Miami as a journalist. After I left a job as an editor for a magazine there, I spent some years freelancing and traveling extensively. It was exotic and interesting, and I had plenty of work, but I felt disconnected from the daily life in Miami."

"I sent my CV to the journalism school at the university (there) thinking I would teach a class one night a week, just to give my life a little structure. I did. I liked it. Like isn't the right word. It fit me like a pair of shoes made exactly for my feet. That was in 1988," said Kelly as she recalled her introduction into the world of teaching.

She added, "The more I taught the more I realized that I had found the perfect marriage: Teaching journalism helps me be a better journalist. And making journalism makes me a better journalism teacher. Teaching is the most gratifying work I've ever done but I also know that I could not effectively teach journalism unless I continued to work as a journalist. One of my strengths as a teacher is that I am out there doing just what it is I am teaching the students how to do. I know of what I speak."

Explaining her classroom approach Kelly proffered, "The way I look at teaching is that I am a firestarter. I attempt to make a place where students will feel safe and willing enough to open up their minds and let some new ideas blaze inside."

How journalism studies began at Academia Istropolitana Nova

As a Knight International Press Fellow, Laura Kelly came to Slovakia in September 1999 to design and administer the journalism program for postgraduate students from Central and Eastern Europe at AINOVA. A masterful multi-tasker, Kelly spent her time supervising external lecturers, recruiting students, designing curriculum, training internal staff, and teaching.

"The idea of the journalism program was, as I understand it, a desire on the part of several American-based overseas media assistance programs, foundations and programs and of Katarina Vajdova [the current director of the academy]," Kelly said.

The writer turned teacher added, "I'm not sure where it began exactly, but James Greenfield, the head of the Independent Journalism Foundation in New York City (and the founder of the Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Bucharest Centers for Independent Journalism) and the International Center for Independent Journalists (a Washington, DC-based organization that administers the Knight International Press Fellowship, among other programs) wanted to aim for some journalism training that had longer effects, concentrated on practical skills and used an intensive teaching method with professional journalists as teachers. Money came from a handful of foundations and embassies and we cadged it from wherever we could."

Among the sources: The Knight Foundation, Fulbright, the Independent Journalism Foundation, the US Embassy, the Austrian Embassy, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, and the Soros Foundation. Some of these were direct funds, others were services provided or trainers whose salaries were sponsored by these organizations. For example, Rhoda Lipton, who taught television, was a Fulbright Scholar and Patti McCracken, who taught visual journalism, was funded by a US Embassy grant.

With their bags in tow, students came in search journalism training...

On a freezing January day in 2000 one could see in the main railway station in Bratislava a bunch of shivering, confused young adults, trying to find their way to somewhere called Modra. This group of Romanian students accepted to the program, who, exhausted after an almost 24-hour trip by train, were asking everyone "where is this district?" It was actually a village, somewhere 30 kilometers from the capital. Struggling with the huge, heavy suitcases, they got on an old-crock bus, and traveled the road to Modra.

Once there, they faced an exhausting walk from the bus stop to the dormitory, located somewhere in an open field, in the middle of nowhere. The facilities are something like Wuthering Heights, but on smaller dimension. With some USD 250 a month, they managed to fend for themselves. In most of the former Communist countries, this is more than a pensioner earns. However, on the whole, the program would need more money. "There was as much money as there was and we made do with what we had," Kelly said.

...Partnerships were forged and the program began to take shape

Pondering the difficulties of setting up a new journalism school, Kelly said: "To run a program in the way I would like, however, we would have had more money to buy more and better equipment. Teaching 21st century journalism means a hefty investment in equipment. You need digital cameras, editing suites, top-of-the-line recording equipment, Internet access, video cameras, dictaphones, software, scanners and printers, computers for everyone. That is a lot of money and we simply didn't have it. So we made partnerships as best we could and tapped into existing resources in Bratislava."

In an effort to provide journalism students with something more than what had traditionally been offered to the region, AINOVA set out to fill a void. Describing the typical scenario, Kelly pointed that it is often the case where a journalist sponsored by American and Western European organizations parachutes in somewhere for a one or two-week training, gathers a group of journalists, does a workshop and then disappears. As Kelly sees it, this kind of training falls short of the mark because there is, "No follow-up, time [is] too short for relationships to develop deeply. Skills and ideas were introduced but didn't have time to take hold or be practiced and developed."

When asked whether the journalism program at AINOVA is a kind of "no holds barred" approach to instruction Kelly said, "Yes and no. Not all of the students participating in the course have journalism experience, so for them the work and skills and concepts were an introduction to journalism. And for others the work was a continuation of what they had learned with perhaps some different philosophy attached to it and some different work habits."

She added, "However, for most it was a brand new experience since in most of these [countries] journalism is taught by former Communist propaganda makers who have prepared for half-a-century journalists for the Communist state-controlled media."

Overcoming Soviet-era journalistic practices

Speaking with a solemn understanding about the difficulties of teaching in the region Kelly surmised, "Most state/public universities in post-Communist countries provide journalism education that is still largely theory based, woefully short on necessary equipment and taught by people from the old school (former ministers of propaganda, professors who have never had work published or dealt with an editor or who knows the pressure of a deadline or a manipulative source, journalists who were in their prime during the days of Communism and the style of journalism practiced then). The curriculum often doesn't include internships or practical experience. It is instead heavy on subjects such as the history of media, media and society, philology."

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"These subjects have their place because they offer a larger frame," Kelly adds. "But what is missing is the same dedication to skills courses. Journalism, I believe is a craft, which means it needs to be practiced and modeled. The master-apprentice model is the way most craft is taught, learned and passed on. Someone who is new to the craft watches and listens to someone who is skilled and experienced in the craft. The apprentice tries. The master encourages, corrects, advises," so says the journalism instructor.

"Where is the older generation of journalists who can and will teach the younger ones how to make journalism in countries that are struggling to define themselves and wrestling with huge social and economic, and cultural changes?" Kelly rhetorically asks.

Then putting forth her own sensible explanation she said, "The older generation learned one way; it was a way defined for them by authoritarian forces. It was a way that suppressed critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and investigation. It was a way that didn't include a sense of responsibility for empowering people with information that might lead them to demand change or explanation from the powers that be."

Sensing what is now needed Kelly said, "The new generation has the task and the duty to make a different kind of journalism because they are now living in countries that have chosen another way of governing themselves. And if people have chosen systems of government that give them the chance to participate in the way they are governed, they need information. Reliable information that incorporates a variety of perspectives on the complex issues that effect our daily lives."

Cultural imperialism is not the answer

Perhaps surprisingly—the university does after all proclaim its brand of teaching in the "tradition of US and Western European journalism"—the American Kelly is not so keen on "the American way."

Admittedly, as Kelly put it, "Certainly there is an American way of doing journalism, just as there is a Romanian way and a French way and a Japanese way and an Armenian way. Each country responds to its market, its government, its ideals, its history and traditions, and its social codes when it makes journalism or 'commits journalism' as one American reporter calls it. I'm not so keen on the term 'American journalism' to describe this program because it carries with it hints of imperialism. It is a limiting and inexact term, also. To think that I can export American journalism and import it into another country is to deny the individual evolution, culture and identity and traditions of that country."

"As a country, America has a palpably different history, social structure and value system than those in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe," the journalist-teacher points out. Calling it as she sees it, Kelly revealed, "I would be naive or arrogant to assert that American journalism is a perfect system. There are plenty of lousy journalists in America, but historically the country has been one that has nurtured and safeguarded the power of the press and recognized its vital importance for the healthy governance of the country."

"Instead of the term 'American journalism,' I think of this program as one that teaches professional, democracy-building journalism."

There are no cookie-cutter formulas when it comes to quality journalism

Kelly continues, "As a teacher, I am not interested in telling someone else that I know the right way to do something. The idea of the program then is to teach the larger concepts and principles and the professional behaviors and practices borne of those principles for journalists in a democracy. Essentially, being a professional journalist in a democracy means doing a hell of a lot more work than being one in a society where the government dictates content."

"I think part of the resistance to this style of journalism we're teaching is that we're asking not only for fundamental shifts in definition and role, but we're telling the students: Look, to do it this way, you've got to check your ego at the door, get off your asses, edit that dream of fame and wealth, and work more."

More to the point Kelly asserts, "You must leave the office and find people to interview. You must ask questions and not blindly accept all answers. You must have at least two or three sources of information in a story. You must be accurate, which means double-checking and spending more time being attentive and exacting. You must present information in a logical progression of thought, which means more time critically thinking, sifting, and organizing. You must answer all questions the story may raise, which means spending time thinking like a reader."

However, some students resisted the approach to "democracy-building journalism"...

"I understand the resistance, especially because our students have lived in and might have worked in countries where journalists can sit in their offices smoking, sniff for scandals and then pontificate a rambling stream of a story based on what the journalist thinks is so," Kelly remarked.

Media evolution and cultural preferences

"Now, because journalism is intertwined with culture, not every practice and habit in place in America or Great Britain or France will be appropriate for someone making journalism in Moldova or Kazakhstan or Georgia. Plainly, as Kelly suggests, "Every country is in different stages of reinvention and evolution and thus, the forces and factors that come to bear on journalism—the market, the legal system, the participation level of the citizenry, the internal professional culture of journalism—are also at varying stages of development."

AINOVA's journalism head illustrates her point: "We have students in the program from Poland and from Albania. Technically, these countries are both part of Eastern Europe, but their media evolution and development are in markedly different places. No matter the current climate of any country, though, I believe you can find professional journalists in countries all over the world. Journalists who embrace the responsibility of the job, who define it as a public service."

Reflecting on the students who have participated in the program thus far Kelly says, "We've had journalists come to lecture in the program from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia. They have all been professional and they have, I believe, experiences far more relevant to the daily lives of the students in the program than I have as a journalist who has practiced all of her professional life in America where the government and the economy enjoy stability... On the whole I found them [students] to be bright, world weary, well-educated, receptive and savvy."

"They are by far, much more educated about history, literature and politics than my students in the States. Most of their formal education, however, has been in a pedagogical style that doesn't value interaction, discussion, or debate. The classroom culture in many of their countries is radically different from that in an American graduate level, skills-oriented journalism school. So in some respects they had to be taught how to be taught."

So, where are they now?

At least six of the students from the first two years have been accepted into graduate journalism study in the US at Columbia University, American University and the University of Illinois, but only two are studying in the States currently: one in Boston and one in Illinois. Another is attending graduate studies at the Central European University in Warsaw.

Quite a few are working as journalists: Two of the four Georgians who attended. About five of the Slovaks are also working in journalism, including one who just got a full-time job at Sme, considered the best paper in Slovakia. One is working as a reporter for the English-language newspaper in Slovakia, The Slovak Spectator, and another is a regular freelancer there. Two others freelance for magazines while they attend further studies. Two are working in Prague as journalists. A Hungarian student will work with a photo agency in Budapest for a year before he attends graduate school in the States. Two are working in TV, one in Romania and another one in Kazakhstan. One student from Bulgaria was working in radio, but he now must enter the army for compulsory service.

Some have returned to jobs they held before attending the program. A Romanian has returned to his public relations job. So has a Lithuanian student. A Slovak continues to work as a translator. A Ukrainian student returned to her job with contemporary art in her country. One student from the second year is in Norway attending medical school. A Romanian student has remained in Slovakia and teaches English here.

Why did only some of the graduates actually go into journalism? Seemingly, because they came back to their countries where "the democracy-building journalism" is not working. Or, in other words, where the 21st century hasn't yet begun. That's the reason why some adamantly didn't even want to return to their countries. Some didn't, but most have.

"Some of them are satisfied with the work they are doing now, some aren't," said Kelly. "How much of this is the restlessness of youth? The pressure of a deadline and an editor? The strictures of salary?"

Kelly acknowledges, "I do know that this program teaches the students journalism in a style that is not widely practiced or accepted or encouraged in their countries with an ethical underpinning expected. Now I know that there is some confusion and some disconnect when the students make the transition from ten months of living abroad and learning to make journalism in one way and then returning home. They have written to me about it. They have told me their stories."

Marius Dragomir, 23 September 2001

Moving on:


Stefan Troebst
The Latest
Balkan Conflict

Marius Dragomir
Journalism and Democracy

Sam Vaknin
Macedonian President Trajkovski

Julie Hansen

Ilya Marritz
No Man's Land

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

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