Saturday, March 28, 2009

I'm back in Belgrade, my last day here before returning home.

This has been a good trip. Perhaps it's that I finally have a better understanding of what and how to do in my instruction. Maybe there is a realization among participants that it is time to implement changes and the changes I'm advocating are a good place to start. I'm here as a media management and sales trainer. For many of the participants, they've entered a media career by chance. They have on-the-job training but that may be based on non-competitive circumstances. In old Yugoslavia/Serbia, there were no private stations. Once municipalities were authorized to operate newspapers and radio/TV stations, the firms soon became bloated with employees--patronage appointments in a society with universal employment. A weekly newspaper might have 100 employees and only 70 to 75 would routinely show for work.

Privatization has now taken place. The staff of 100 has shrunk to 25 to 40 in size--which is still too large. But it's a great start. The challenge now is to develop a generation of employees and managers who are more entrepreneurial than their predecessors. Simple management tools help: job descriptions, employment applications, performance reviews and employee performance recognition. I talk about Jim Collin's Good to Great approach to leadership. This time, I've added some thoughts from The Carrot Principle as to how to acknowledge employee performance. Common sense? Common sense is not so common.

Is all of this the same stuff I do back home? Yes and no. It's simplistic to say I'm just here to give lectures. I spend 8 to 9 hours everyday with my group. I don't think many of my colleagues at U.S. universities could make it through the first couple of days. And many would have no interest in trying. Some lack practical application of the materials they teach. Others couldn't dream of traveling to another country, especially one where the people don't speak English. Making the jump across cultural, political and economic differences is the single greatest challenge. There are 500 or so mass communication/journalism programs in the U.S. While the program sizes vary, there must be between 8,000 to 10,000 faculty. I don't think I know of more than 100 people who have made two or more trips outside the U.S. for teaching, training or research projects.

Unlike my U.S. students, there often is no common ground between the participants and myself. My challenge is to present the information as something that can be implemented in their workplace. There's some theory, there's lots of practical advice and there's an encouraging dose of enthusiasm. I meet wonderful people, many of who have high aspirations. I know that it is the circumstances of birth and life that have me on the side of the table opposite them. I am reminded to be grateful for what I have.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I am in Nis, Serbia. Last night, I was the featured speaker for a group of journalism students at University of Nis. The journalism program is about five years old. While enrollment is strong--250+ students--facilities and faculty could be improved. I was invited to talk about journalism and media from the U.S. perspective. I felt some dread because I increasingly find the quality of journalism in decline. Newspapers are shrinking in number and edition size. Reporters seem to be less experienced than ever. Television focuses all too much on visual stories at the expense of important stories that don't always have accompanying visuals. Worst of all, until the financial crisis, we seemed to be shifting increasingly away from issues of substance and toward shallow subjects. If anything positive comes from this crisis, perhaps it will be a slap in the face reminder that conspicuous consumption is not the goal of life.

As we started the discussion, there were 75 to 80 students in the room, I discussed a free press as one of the essential elements of a democracy. The other two elements are competition in elections and the marketplace, and participation in government and society. Journalism, strictly speaking, is part of the third element--civil and political freedom, which includes free speech and free press. I laid the old trap that I've often set for my students in the U.S. They agreed that some journalists are not responsible in their reporting and that wages are too low. They also agreed that they want to be professionals, just like doctors and lawyers are professionals. I snapped the trap shut by telling them that a regulated press, with professional standards--minimum education standards, perhaps licensing--is no longer a free press. What is important, however, is a press that strives to be professional--responsible, fair and accurate in conveying the news. My goal for the thousands of students I have taught is to help them learn to gather, evaluate and convey information. I owe Russ Shain, my former dean, with helping me understand this when I was a new member of his faculty nearly 20 years ago.

My comments were translated and this added to the length of the presentation. After about 40 minutes, we took questions. And, my were the questions great. I realize they used an encounter with a foreigner to get some answers they might not ordinarily hear. It's just like the class speaker in my class who could repeat my previous lecture but would have so much more credibility.

I wonder whether my students would have been able to engage a visiting journalist from Serbia or even the U.K. I'd like to think so but I struggle to find students who are inquisitive about news events. One of the best questions came from a 4th year student who asked how journalists avoided endorsing or manufacturing consent for government actions. While he was thinking about U.S. media failures to question intelligence estimates of WMDs in Iraq (weapons of mass destruction--have we forgotten that acronym?), I also discussed President Obama's efforts to secure media and public support for his economic policies.

It was an enjoyable event.