Hungarian journalist Attila Mong made news himself in 2010 when he publicly protested a controversial and repressive media law by observing a minute of silence on his daily news show on the Hungarian Public Radio. That symbolic gesture was enough to get him suspended. Since then, he has continued to champion press freedom in Hungary and around the world. He became a Storyteller-in-Residence for Ashoka (Europe) in 2013 and believed in it so much that he's now helping Ashoka expand the program globally. We invited Attila to share his experience and insights as we begin our search for a Storyteller-in-Residence in Canada.
1. As a journalist known for your efforts to protect press freedom and fight corruption, what was your interest in joining Ashoka? What opportunities did you see in becoming a Storyteller-in-Residence?
I have been an investigative journalist dealing with anti-corruption and white-collar crime for almost twenty years, but somehow, I had started to feel that merely exposing the “bad guys” was not enough to achieve the changes I wanted. Before coming to Ashoka, I had the opportunity to serve as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and I had a lot of time to rethink my journalistic goals. Stanford also offered me a lot of interesting experiences, talks and inspiration that made me think about journalistic innovation and social entrepreneurship. When I discovered the Ashoka Storyteller-in-Residence program offered by Ashoka Europe in Berlin, I knew it was the right thing for me. In brief, I would describe it as a fellowship giving journalists a chance to become changemakers.
2. Tell us about the project you worked on as a STiR Fellow in Germany. What question or problem were you trying to address?
As I am originally from Hungary, Central Europe, my project proposal for the STiR program was to identify the journalists in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary who have a different approach to journalism - an approach which focuses just as much on the solutions offered by social entrepreneurs and changemakers as the challenges themselves. I was and still am working to create a network of these journalists, one that helps them exchange ideas, best practices and encourages debate in the region on the wider responsibilities of journalists. My project is also addressing changemakers, raising awareness among them on how storytelling techniques can be used to improve their communications. I am just back from Budapest where I did a very successful storytelling training to some selected Ashoka fellows.
3. What value did you find in connecting with Ashoka’s community of social entrepreneurs? What type of relationship do you think should exist between journalists and social innovators?
Ashoka is a wonderful community of changemakers, people who work on creating great solutions to existing social problems and challenges. I believe that real journalism is about showing a full context: if we want to fulfill our responsibilities as journalists, it is not enough to simply expose and investigate the challenges; we must use the same rigorous techniques to investigate the different kind of solutions. Our responsibility is also to contribute to a meaningful public debate on how to solve the problems societies facing. We must not advocate certain solutions, of course, but we should use our best journalism to show what works and why as opposed to what does not work.
4. You are helping Ashoka expand the Storyteller-in-Residence globally, starting with Canada and Mexico. What’s the vision for STiR as a global program?
The vision is for StiR to become a global program for journalists (writers, editors, photographers and videographers) who are committed to helping their readers and audiences see patterns of social change, so they can be changemakers. The program's main goal is to identify these journalists in various countries and also to create a worldwide network of these “storytellers” who will hopefully contribute to a global debate on social innovation and what role journalism should play in this.
5. What advice would you give to those who are elected as STiR fellows?
The fellowship is offered for a short period of time, usually maximum 3-months, so the best advice I can give is to make sure you use the potential of the Ashoka network to its maximum. The network is full of inspiring people who will help you understand how the minds of changemakers work. All this will help the STiR fellows create change themselves in media and journalism because I deeply believe that we need changemakers in media more than ever.
6. Journalism as an industry is facing some existential challenges right now. How should journalists working in the internet era view their work and the value they bring to society?
In my talks and presentations, I often say that journalists and media companies should quickly forget that they have “audiences.” The broadcast era is over. We now have People Formerly Known as the Audience, people who don’t simply “consume” information that clever editors and journalists produce and put into some kind of black box, call it radio, TV or newspaper. People want to be part of what media organizations are doing: they want to share, like, reblog the content, and they want to participate. So I believe that tomorrow’s news organizations cannot survive simply by reporting and distributing information. Instead they will thrive by moving to higher-value activities, such as helping people advance their lives, engage powerfully in their communities and society - and, ultimately, bring about change. That means journalists must investigate potential solutions in addition to exposing underlying problems. Publishers must connect knowledge to participation, create communities of problem-solvers, and turn readers into changemakers. A truly engaged audience will yield both social impact and higher economic value.