How It All Began
It’s now been almost 10 years since a fateful comment from one of TOL’s board members at the time. Katarina Vajdova, an educator and former director of Slovakia’s Center for Independent Journalism, turned to me at one point during a board meeting and said something like, “You’ve developed all this expertise from training journalists from Eastern Europe and the Balkans through your grant programs. You should really think broader, and start to reach out to students further afield who might also want to benefit from your approach.”
That comment helped set into motion an effort to look beyond our traditional borders and launch our first initiative to attract trainees outside of our coverage region: a two-week course for aspiring foreign correspondents. Our plan was fairly simple: offer participants a very practical, real-world experience that they were unlikely to get at school. The program would include a schedule chock full of lectures from working foreign correspondents – spanning the spectrum, from reporters for radio and TV, newspapers and magazines, to photojournalists and news agency veterans. The speakers would blend illuminating anecdotes with the do’s and don’ts for breaking into the trade, landing in a foreign country for the first time, and writing compelling foreign dispatches.
Just as important, if not more so, our trainees would head out into the cobblestoned streets of Prague, to try it for themselves: to actually taste the life of a foreign correspondent. With all the challenges of not speaking the local language, or knowing the lay of the land, they would produce their own piece of reporting. We then would get together for a group critique, and then armed with that feedback, trainees could then try to get their stories published.
And, somewhat to our surprise, our pitch for that first course actually worked! Back in 2005, we welcomed 26 aspiring foreign correspondents, from all over the world, who trusted us enough to come to Prague and join us on this maiden voyage (It helped our credibility, of course, that we were also simultaneously publishing our respected newsmagazine).
Evidently the formula for those two weeks worked, as the graduates told us then – just as many alumnae have re-iterated since – that they were inspired to head off and start reporting, no longer intimidated, or lacking the confidence that they could do it.
We were also very lucky to meet Michael J. Jordan in those early days (no, not that Michael Jordan, as his first e-mail notified me). Michael, a long-time foreign correspondent in post-Communist Central Europe, instinctively understood our approach, no doubt linked to his education at Missouri’s prestigious School of Journalism, which prides itself on a learning-by-doing methodology. Michael has since run our course more than two dozen times, guiding students through hundreds of stories by now, some which were then published on TOL, or by media outlets in their home countries. He will again join us in July 2015.
Crucial to the development of our foreign-correspondent course since its early beginnings, Michael is himself a longtime freelancer (and currently reporting for AFP and others on the political crisis in Lesotho, in southern Africa). The field of foreign reporting has changed mightily over the past two decades, with the closure of hundreds of foreign bureaus and massive cuts in foreign coverage. It is now a bit unrealistic for young people to dream of a cushy foreign posting, with lavish salary and full benefits. Some of those jobs still exist, of course, but far more likely is the life of a freelancer, many of whom juggle some international reporting with another career or two. Michael and many of our faculty live such lives and have shown our trainees how to piece together an exciting and fulfilling livelihood, preparing them for the profession of today, not 20 years ago.
In short, I will be forever grateful to Katarina for her advice. By expanding our reach beyond the borders of Eastern Europe, we have fulfilled our mission as a journalism training organization and spurred many young people into seeking careers in this field. We have hosted students from as far away as Brazil and Australia and worked with universities as diverse as the University of Georgia, the University of California (Berkeley), the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Baptist University. Hundreds of others have interned with TOL in our various departments.
In the process, we have learned to see ourselves as much more than just a “training” organization, as we once did, or only a publisher (as we were at the very start, not even with a training department). As we celebrate our 15th anniversary this year, we can proudly say that we now feel firmly entrenched in the field of international education.
All of which leads me to announce the official launch today of TOL Education, which replaces TOL Training, as the home for all of our educational offerings: everything from internships and tailored courses for universities, to our renowned short-term, practical courses, which include our core foreign-reporting program, still going strong after all those years.
Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director.