Prague’s transitional education

The Prague Post

Local publication putting focus on journalism training

Transitions Online is an issues-based Web publication focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. It’s probably not the first place you’d think of when it comes to continuing education, but staff here has been training journalists throughout the region and farther afield for nearly a decade now.

“It was an experiment,” says Jeremy Druker, the site’s executive director. “Could an issues-focused magazine survive on the Internet?”

So far, so good. In fact, not only does the publication seem to be flourishing, but its influence appears to have extended way past Europe. This month, for instance, 42 students from Hong Kong Baptist University flew in to attend a private course on how to be a foreign correspondent. Druker figures they train about 100 journalists every year and hopes these “on request” courses from universities around the world will grow.

Transitions Online actually began as a print magazine, Transition, in 1995. Published by the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI), it was more of an academic publication looking at the issues facing the 28 countries affected by the fall of communism in the early ’90s. When OMRI closed in 1997, the publication morphed into a monthly journalistic magazine and was renamed Transitions. But, two years later, funding was cut and half the staff quit. Those who stayed decided to start an NGO and make a go of things using an online format. The publication received an onslaught of pitches from young journalists, eager to write for the fledging startup, which is how the training “programs” first got started.

“At the time, not a lot of journalists wanted to write for the Internet,” Druker says. “We were doing de-facto training, and then decided to look for grant money to work with journalists throughout the region.”

The first actual workshop — a “Stringer’s Summit” — for the publication’s own correspondents was held in 2001. Participants were taught basic journalism skills. While this is still a focus of the workshops, other more specialized topics are now covered, too, such as the European Union, war crimes in the Balkans and diversity and corruption issues. The past couple of years, Druker also notes, have seen an increase in new media topics, including online publications and blogging.

“We promote new media in general, but especially in repressed countries where the media is restricted or state-controlled,” Druker explains. “We promote blogging as a legitimate form of journalism.”

The next step, suggested by one of their board members, was to take their training experience and knowledge and offer it to the general educational world. Their first class was held in summer 2005.

“It was another experiment,” Druker says. “Could we get people to come to Prague for a commercial course?”

Could they ever. That first two-week course, “How to be a Foreign Correspondent,” attracted 26 people. It touched on all facets of the business — stringers, freelancers, not just staff people — providing a realistic view of the profession. Transitions Online brought in journalists from well-known media outlets around the world, including The Economist and the BBC, to give lectures.

“Professional journalists don’t have a chance to train young journalists,” Druker says. “For students it was great, practical orientated tips, how to hit the ground running.”

The second course, held in 2006, drew in 37 people from 26 countries. Druker says the international exchange aspect of the course is another advantage — participants get to meet and work with people from all over the world.

The Training Institute, as the workshop branch of the publication is called, has also hosted a business reporting class in connection with Dow Jones, a new media class and an investigative reporting course. This summer, organizers are planning a travel writing class. While these classes are usually populated with undergraduate and graduate students, some courses also see employers paying for their journalists to attend, Druker says.

Last year, the Training Institute held four commercial courses, nine grant-funded workshops in Prague and five outside of Prague. The grant-funded classes included bringing journalists to Prague from Central Asia and Russia and teaching them how to run an Internet publication.

In November, Transitions Online held a workshop, partially funded by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, for professional journalists from Belarus and the Balkans on covering the EU and economic integration, Druker says. Workshops held outside Prague included ones on new media in Lithuania and Ukraine for Belarusian journalists. Trainers also went to Moldova last June at the request of a local organization to speak with young journalists.

“Studying abroad is becoming more popular; students are demanding it,” Druker says. “We would like to be an overseas center for these schools, a place where they can get a quality course.”

Hong Kong Baptist University contacted Transitions Online and requested the course. The trainer communicated with the students weeks before their arrival and encouraged them to start doing research for an article they would write in Prague. The article is written and critiqued here, and the best ones are published on the publication’s Web site, a bonus available to participants in all their courses. Druker says this offers students a clip, and provides Transitions Online with content, an example of the synergy that has developed between the Training Institute and the magazine.

With a business plan based on subscriptions, advertising, syndication and the occasional special project, it is always a challenge to find new money. Druker says part of their mission is training, but it’s also putting out a high-quality magazine on the region. Ideally, the money from commercial courses will be used to fund editorial operations. Even though they are funded by donors, he emphasizes their content is always independent.

“Donors don’t influence what we write, but may request certain topics like education or the Roma,” he explains. “Many articles on certain themes may not get written, which is why we want an unrestricted editorial budget, and we can get that from commercial courses.”