Jeremy Druker is developing the foundations for professional journalism in two critical markets: Central Asia, where independent journalism is constantly under threat, and Central Europe, where there is a strong need for industry standards. By placing emerging local journalists at the center of independent and professional journalism and connecting them through a pan-regional network, Jeremy seeds the field with “media multipliers” and institutionalizes benchmark standards for the media industry. His efforts are keeping the flame of independent journalism alive and strengthening civil society in some of the most repressive countries in the world.
The New Idea
Jeremy is creating the foundations of professional journalism in areas of the world where independent media remain fragile and journalists often work in an atmosphere of apprehension. Across Central Asia and Central Europe, Jeremy places young journalists at the center of changing these region’s media industries. He believes that benchmark values for independent and professional journalism must be constantly reinforced in transitioning communities, and that the solution lies in emerging local journalists themselves. Jeremy’s organization, Transitions (TOL), acts as an independent keeper of that vision by seeding the field with professional journalists who are trained to uphold only the highest core professional journalism standards in some of the most difficult contexts.
TOL offers journalists critical skills and on-the-job training to defend these standards and make their communication more effective, even as the industry undergoes drastic evolution toward citizen-produced media and new ways of content production that may undermine quality. TOL trains over 700 underserved and sometimes isolated journalists annually across 29 countries on topics such as writing sensitively about religion or ethnic minorities, new media techniques, election reporting, education, Roma issues, and many others. These journalists are encouraged to leverage new technologies, such as podcasting or blogging, in order to produce more “trendy” journalism while maintaining the highest standards and ethics. TOL also provides them with first-hand journalism experience by giving them the opportunity to be content producers for the Transitions Online news platform, where they are continually provided with feedback on their stories. Often for the first time, with access to professional support, local journalists are better equipped to dig deeper into social issues and act as watchdogs for their respective communities.
With the right training, tools, and networks, these journalists go on to create new ideas and further develop the industry in their home countries or elsewhere. By acquiring new skills and becoming part of a pan-regional peer network, young journalists play the role of “media multipliers,” the most powerful force to change the industry. TOL acts as a catalyst for innovation led by local journalists by connecting them into theme-based communities and regional networks that represent the highest independent journalism standards in the region.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union, democracy, pluralism, and freedom of information continue to suffer in great part because the media industry does not play a strong enough formative role in society. The governments of these countries all too often fail to provide legal, political, and economic protections to enable open and independent journalism. When media fall prey to government repression, commercial pressures, and their own self-censorship, industry core standards run astray and citizens in these regions no longer have access to a wide range of views and opinions.
Young journalists, as the future keepers of these core standards, traditionally receive few, if any, training opportunities in the workplace, particularly the farther east they live. Specifically, they do not receive sufficient education in covering social and economic issues, investigative journalism, and other pressing issues of the day. Despite 20 years of international assistance and exposure, many journalism departments in former Soviet countries still stress theory over practical experience and end up employing professors who either have never worked in journalism or did so many years ago. Unfortunately, quality journalism training centers (either non-profit or commercial) have not sprung up to fill the gap; while some countries are home to well-respected institutions, others have none. Many of these centers have also struggled to find sustainable business models, meaning they are often dependent on donors and therefore must adapt their training content to donors' whims. Without the right training, emerging journalists are disempowered to create the foundations necessary for professional and independent media to thrive.
Core standards are not only being undermined, but the amount of news content is also diminishing. With shrinking news budgets and the increased tabloidization of traditional media, the coverage of complicated social issues has also diminished. In this atmosphere, media outlets lack the funds or motivation to train their reporters in specialized journalism or “beat reporting,” whereby journalists are able to build up a knowledge-base and gain familiarity with a particular sector, such as health, education, minorities, or the environment, European integration, economic reform, and so on. A major challenge facing emerging journalists is how to pursue serious journalism, while also incorporating new and trendy forms of media production and maintaining the highest professional standards.
In light of these obstacles, across Central Asia and Central Europe there is a strong need for an independent center to serve as the keeper of core professional journalism standards, and to carry out this function in a way that institutionalizes and continuously reinforces the foundations of a skilled, professional, ethical media industry.
In 1999 Jeremy and three colleagues decided to transfer the print magazine they were working for into an online platform. Frustrated by the lack of other donors and more business income, the Soros Foundation had decided to cut part of the magazine's funding, leading to the exodus of senior staff. At that time in Central Europe, it was a radical move to shut down a print magazine and launch a startup on the Internet, but Jeremy and his colleagues were determined to prove that serious journalism covering the post-communist countries could survive on the Internet. With seed funding from the Open Society Foundation, Transitions Online thus became one of the first exclusively online magazines in Central Europe.
In the following years, with no fundraising, financial, or managerial experience, Jeremy, acting as executive director, and his small team learned on the fly how to run an online magazine startup. A major first learning experience for TOL was how often to publish content; monthly content updates turned into weekly updates, which eventually turned into daily updates. In response to the increasing need for content, Jeremy began to think creatively about engaging talented journalists from societies overlooked by mainstream media. TOL thus began to recruit local journalists to write about topics and issues that they could not often write about in their home countries due to political bias, censorship, or other reasons. As such, TOL became a space for local journalists to publish their stories internationally, while exemplifying professional standards to audiences back in their home countries. For example, a Kazakh journalist recently wrote an article on the large regional disparity in his country, which would have been next to impossible for him to publish in Kazakhstan due to censorship. Through TOL, the article reached 15,000 readers monthly, thousands more through syndication databases, and tens of thousands more through businessweek.com, which regularly reprints TOL articles. By involving local voices across Central Asia and Central Europe, Jeremy shifted TOL from a static print magazine to a dynamic platform of young, talented local journalists who learn skills that can drive independent and professional media in their local communities.
Jeremy soon realized that the exchange of numerous drafts and feedback with young journalists was essentially equivalent to on-the-job training, and it was all done virtually. Jeremy began to think more systematically about conducting trainings and in 2002, he launched TOL’s first international training workshop on fundamental journalism skills. Over the next few years TOL began holding in-person journalism workshops, mainly in Prague and Sarajevo, training approximately 75 to 100 people annually. Numbers started to rise rapidly around 2006, as TOL began to train journalists from Central Asia, Russia, and Belarus, and added a distance-learning program. The number of trainees again rose once TOL expanded the training to cover new media and initiated programs in the southern Caucasus. For the last two years, TOL has hosted around 50 free-of-charge training events annually, reaching roughly 700 people across 29 countries.
TOL has multiple levels of impact. First, through creating a space for local reporters to uphold core industry standards while educating them in new media techniques, Jeremy and his team are keeping alive the flame of independent and professional journalism in some of the most repressive places. Second, TOL is acting as a “home” and enabling platform for talented journalists frustrated with state-dominated media or commercial media, empowering them to have much greater impact than they would without support. Finally, through its pan-regional networks, TOL is raising international awareness around topics that local journalists believe are important and deserve direct action, and which otherwise would not be picked up by mainstream media outlets.
More and more, the media industry is interested in the effective usage of new media and social communities. TOL was one of the first media development organizations in Central Europe to introduce training on new media, which represented a turning point in TOL’s approach to journalism education in repressed countries. Jeremy realized that the use of new Internet-based media could offer an empowering and expanding toolbox for independent voices, particularly in countries with limited or no access to free media. In practice, such training workshops have directly led to innovative uses of new media to cover issues neglected by local media. After receiving TOL training, a participant in Azerbaijan organized video reporting on a YouTube channel on the attack on the Azerbaijan Oil Academy; in Belarus, another group launched a new social network to promote podcasting on socially important issues.
The several hundred TOL-like-minded journalists, who share similar ethics and standards for independent journalism, are becoming influential “media multipliers” by building professional journalism and civil society in their home countries. Empowering individual journalists with new skills, knowledge, and the right network helps them become innovators within the industry, and encourages them to initiate their own startup blogs, launch low-cost Internet publications, or write as freelancers. For example, after receiving new media training participants sometimes have the opportunity to apply for micro-grants from TOL to put into practice what they have learned. Examples of successful grantees moving on to create their own media outlets include a woman from Georgia who started up a lifestyle blog for young people that is now one of the most popular blogs in the country. Another woman, a freelancer from Azerbaijan, launched a site about women in the Caucasus, focusing on Georgian minorities in Azerbaijan.
TOL’s regional network also ensures the transfer of ideas among local journalists. For example, through the training and alumni network, journalists from a country such as Azerbaijan can learn more about countries, such as the Czech Republic, that are farther along in their transition, and vice versa. Jeremy’s strategic plan calls for developing this network further to enable and empower the communities of journalists who work on specific topics often neglected by mainstream media. For instance, Jeremy has created an online site focusing on education-related journalism (chalkboard.tol.org) and may soon launch a site dedicated to environmental journalism in the region. Finally, TOL provides an important outlet for the international publication of the work of underserved and often isolated journalists. Today, there are around 500 paid subscribers to TOL, and readership can be multiplied by several hundred more. Visits to the website total to approximately 15,000 per month from both subscribers and non-subscribers and hundreds of thousands more have access to content via syndication agencies and partnerships with online news sites such as businessweek.com. Over the years, TOL articles have also appeared on CNN.com and in The Guardian. With one of the largest online archives of articles on Central and Eastern Europe, TOL has become a global reference point for many audiences. In order to increase readership and public discussion, within four to five years TOL is considering relaunching its Russian version and publishing more in Serbo-Croatian, further enabling journalism to truly be local and accessible to all.
Over the years, Jeremy has been spending a great deal of his time crafting a sustainable financing model for Internet journalism. He decided to strengthen the paid-training component of TOL, hoping it will become a model for the sustainable production of high-quality independent journalism. While TOL’s commercial activities constitute 24 percent of the organizational budget, since 2005 the paid training component has been growing. In 2010 it constituted approximately 70 percent of the organization’s total commercial income. Other commercial income streams have been developed, including magazine subscriptions, syndication, and advertising. Jeremy calls this a hybrid citizen organization/commercial model (grants still constitute approximately 75 to 80 percent of TOL income, but TOL aspires to be less and less dependent on grants). Increasing the paid training income, TOL has created tailored journalism courses for Hong Kong Baptist University the last few years and has provided lecturers for a course run by New York University in Prague.
Thinking strategically about the future, Jeremy hopes that other media outlets will replicate the TOL model for publishing serious journalism, especially in regards to a focus on underreported topics and on having multiple income streams. To raise awareness around the TOL model, Jeremy is interested in offering TOL in more languages and will also be putting into place systems to improve tracking of readership figures and public discussions about TOL’s content. Over the next year, TOL will also begin to better track its network. Specifically, Jeremy plans to monitor the activities of alumni and the impact of their respective media outlets throughout the region. Jeremy likens his vision to a map of the countries where TOL-trained journalists work and where each journalist is represented by a light. As more and more journalists join the network, the number of lights spread exponentially over the years until the light overtakes the dark.
Jeremy grew up in Brooklyn, NY. His parents, both descendents of immigrants from Eastern Europe, believed in getting Jeremy and his brother out of their Brooklyn neighborhood and exposing them to other parts of the city. Jeremy remembers seeing diversity among his peers every day on his baseball team and in his elementary school. In high school, Jeremy was captain of his baseball team and an editor of his school monthly literary journal.
As a young Harvard student, Jeremy continued to be involved in the school newspaper and recalls it being as central to his life as sports and studying. When he became assistant editor, he knew he was hooked on journalism. Toward the end of his time at Harvard, Jeremy attended a fascinating talk at Harvard about how journalism was changing in Eastern Europe and a conference that had taken place in Prague on the topic. He followed up with the conference participants to learn how he could get involved in the field and soon started studying Czech on his own. In 1992 Jeremy traveled to Central Europe (Prague) for the first time, where he taught English and independently interviewed local journalists on their changing careers. It was at this point that his professional journalism career took off.
Working for various NGOs and an alternative weekly in Prague, Jeremy wrote interesting pieces on media transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. He was most proud when he was labeled as an “enemy of the state” by a member of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar’s government for his report on the Slovak government’s repression of the media. Jeremy also had a chance to travel to Belarus, Macedonia, and Albania and had eye-opening experiences regarding the quality of media and journalism education in these countries. Everywhere he traveled, Jeremy heard complaints about media bias, the overemphasis on theoretical training instead of practice, the lack of quality teachers, and so on. At this point, the dire need for reinforcing professional journalism in the region was becoming abundantly clear for Jeremy. These experiences laid the foundations for him to set up an organization that would build the skills and confidence of young journalists.
The transformative moment that shaped Jeremy as a person and influenced the development of TOL was the collapse of its print predecessor, Transitions. Although the magazine was successful, it relied on expensive printing and distribution costs. Jeremy believed the biggest problem was that it was over-dependent on one donor. When the magazine lost a major part of its funding, the management team decided to leave. This was a real blow for a young journalist like Jeremy—to see that a quality publication wasn’t immune to failure. Thus, under Jeremy’s direction, a group of four people (Jeremy, a Serb webmaster, a British intern, and an American copy editor) decided to transform the publication into an online format. Jeremy co-founded a new organization, Transitions, and began to look for funding to explore whether quality, public-service-oriented journalism could survive on the Internet. Ten years later TOL has not only survived, but it has flourished to become the leading cross-regional platform for the growth of independent journalism in some of the most repressed countries in Central Europe and Central Asia.