Face of the new journalism

Business reporter John Rebchook’s face is worth studying. It may be the face of the new journalism – or at least one of them.

Let’s get to know him a bit. Some 30 years ago, John cut his teeth in journalism at the El Paso Herald-Post. While there he wrote a lede that proved memorable enough to be included in Mel Mencher’s Reporting and Writing textbook, one a lot of us grew up on. The lede went like this:

In less than three miles, Joseph L. Jody III ran six stop signs, changed lanes improperly four times, ran one red light, and drove 60 mph in a 30 mph zone all without a driver’s license. Two days later, he again drove without a driver’s license.
This time he ran a stop sign and drove 80 mph in a 45 mph zone. For his 16 moving violations Jody was fined $1,795.
He never paid. Police say that Jody has moved to Houston. Of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 outstanding traffic warrants in police files, Jody owes the largest single amount.
Still, Jody’s fines account for a small part of at least $500,000 owed to the city in unpaid traffic warrants.
In February, Mayor Jonathan Rogers began a crackdown on scofflaws in order to retrieve some $838,000 in unpaid war¬rants. As of mid March, some $368,465 had been paid.

Clever, eh? It’s a classic example of the delayed lede, one that teases the reader a bit before getting to the point, or nut graf, of the story. Today, however, I suspect that such a lede would suffer a swift death in an editor’s keyboard. Even John, in his new life as a Web journalist, would likely spike it as ill-suited to our impatient, get-to-the-point times.

Nowadays, John’s prose goes more like this:

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers announced today that his office has filed a lawsuit against Western Sky Financial, a South Dakota-based online lender, and its principal, Martin A. Webb, for making unlicensed, high-interest loans to Colorado consumers.
According to the lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, the company made more than 200 loans to Colorado consumers since at least March 2010, during which time it was not licensed with the state. The loans to ranged in value from $400 to $2,600 and had terms ranging from seven months to 36 months. The loans’ annual percentage rates ranged from 140 percent to 300 percent.

John’s reporting today can’t dally or tease. He gets to the point in part because he’s not writing for a newspaper any longer, but rather for his own blog, the pleasantly green-logoed Inside Real Estate News: Colorado’s Real Estate News Source.

John’s readers, like Net readers generally, have little patience for cleverness or meandering. They want the news at the top, so they can move on quickly if it doesn’t grab them. They don’t graze languidly, but rather rush to pull out the news that is relevant to their business. They take what they need and dash off to the next meeting.

John, who worked at the Rocky Mountain News for some 26 years until it folded in 2009, is an example of a new kind of journalist. It’s not just his prose that makes him interesting. It’s his business.

When the Rocky died, John took his expertise as the paper’s longtime real estate editor and created his Net product. It’s a vehicle for and about players and projects in the real estate industry in Colorado. He has a few sponsors who pay for ads on his site and, he says, help him make a living (albeit not quite as cushy a living as when he was a veteran editor at the Rocky.)

As Inside Real Estate News grows, however, John expects that the returns will grow, too. He’s so confident in it that he recently turned down a job at a local weekly in Denver. He likes being his own boss, he says.

Lots of journalists may wind up running their own shows in coming years. Online reading is surging as traditional print newspapers struggle. And the fate of outfits such as The Huffington Post, recently sold to AOL for $315 million, suggest that the appetite for well-devised Web products is hefty. (John, would you settle for 1/315th of that?)

Of course, would-be Web journalists do have to bear a few things in mind, and John’s experience underscores them. First, he offers content that is in high demand, at least in certain circles. Much of what he does is specialized and it isn’t commodity news readily available in lots of other places. What’s more, he works fast, getting his news out ahead of the pack.

Finally, John is able to handle the business side of his operation, taking time to market his services to advertisers even as he stays on top of the news. He stays on top of the growth of the Net, too, putting out the word about his blog on Facebook.

John’s grinning punim isn’t the only look of journalism in the future. TV, magazines, and other vehicles will likely have a place, alongside some newspapers – on the Web or not. But take a close look at him anyway. Whether in textbooks or on the Net, he has plenty to teach us.

Few straight lines in life or work

Career choices used to be simple. Go to school to be, say, a doctor, lawyer or reporter. Get your degree, apprentice as an intern, an associate or a budding Jimmy Olsen, and then ply your trade. In medicine or law you would make a lot of money and learn golf for when you retired at 55. But for growing numbers of us life rarely moves from point A to B anymore. Instead, we follow a long and winding road with some fascinating forks.

Consider Lynde McCormick, a colleague at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in the 1980s. While working as a business reporter, Lynde wielded a deft touch with words. He had a sharp eye for big, broad stories and wrote weekly takeouts for a supplement we called Business Tuesday, doing packages the rest of us all wanted to do. Later, he rose to business editor, where — among other things — he waged war on adverbs. If it ended in an “ly,” he’d say, kill it. A Californian, he also had a weakness for fast cars and from time to time turned his hand to new car reviews.

Lynde’s career has taken some stunning turns since then. He left the Rocky for the bright lights at a TV channel the Christian Science Monitor experimented with and then joined Monitor Radio. An adventurer, he landed a job with CNBC in Hong Kong, a spot he loved. When CNBC pulled the plug in ’96 on its Hong Kong operation and merged with Dow Jones TV in Singapore, Lynde says, he moved back to Boston to serve as business editor at the Monitor’s newspaper. Meantime, his equally adventurous wife, Andrea, started a company that imported Chinese antique furniture.

Then things got interesting. After a couple of years, he joined her business. The pair drove around the country, towing a trailer and doing antiques shows, as many as three each month. Eight years ago, they opened a gallery in Manhattan, The Han Horse on Lexington Avenue, to market furniture from the late Qing Dynasty (1700-1900) and pottery artifacts from as long ago as 206 BC. They continue to run it, even though the antiques business has been a tough go in recent years.

By something of a back door, the McCormicks also got into the restaurant business. They backed a friend who opened a spot in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and wound up running it when he ran into personal problems. The Brooklyn Label serves espresso drinks that Lynde says are “amazingly good.” It’s gotten some good notices from, for instance, New York Magazine.

As his career has unfolded, Lynde’s reporting skills have come in handy. “I have constantly tried to gather as much information as possible, going to expert sources, listening to what they had to say, and then using the parts that made sense for our restaurant,” he says. “It’s a lot like writing a story – you gather the best information possible and then use your own judgment and intelligence to figure out how to use it.”

He also has developed a good sense of marketing and customer service — which might be helpful for journalists. “With both businesses, our philosophy has been that when someone walks through the door, the goal is not to sell them something but to make them want to come back,” Lynde says. “The result is that people, generally, like us… which has a lot to do with why we are still in business.”

Today, the Rocky is no more, a victim of the Internet and the great newspaper consolidation wave. The Monitor serves up its news coverage mostly online, a route many news outfits may wind up taking. And CNBC soldiers on. But the skills Lynde mastered at such places are helping him in ways he likely never imagined. I expect he has few regrets for the time he spent learning them.

For many journalists and journalism students, the road won’t be straight. But the views can make it damn interesting.

Student journalism — not just for laughs

Some 38 years ago, Jim Vallely was a New Jersey college student who had a knack for humor and a nice touch with a pen, but he wasn’t sure how to put the two together. Nourishing what he recalls as “a very faint ambition” to become a writer, he’d hang about the school newspaper office. Once, we published a piece he did called “Suicide note from a dog.”

Sadly, the piece seems lost to history. That’s sad because Jim, left in the photo, today is a prolific comedy writer in L.A. His credits are stunning: writer and co-executive producer of Emmy Award-winning Arrested Development, exec producer on Running Wilde, consulting producer on ‘Til Death, as well as various producing spots on The Geena Davis Show, The John Larroquette Show and The Golden Girls.

Jim is a big deal in the world of writing and production.

And this weekend he sent me a touching note crediting the launch of his stellar career to our paper and the piece about the dog. “I was published!, and I decided then and there to pursue comedy writing,” he wrote.

School newspapers can make a huge difference in people’s lives. That’s obvious for future journalists – as employers tell us when they’re considering intern candidates. Outfits ranging from local papers to the likes of Bloomberg put such experience at the top of their list. They want to see the clips. They know there’s nothing like getting out, covering things and having to put your work out – on deadline and with an editor’s oversight — for the world to see.

But school papers also matter whether journalism is in your future or not. Writing, editing, getting a platform for commenting on the world is invaluable for anyone who plans to do anything involving pecking at a keyboard. It teaches you how to look carefully, think critically, organize your thoughts and subject them to the cut and thrust of public debate. Such skills are central to law, politics, teaching, business – really just about anything professional. It’s just also a hell of a lot of fun.

Jim went on to do standup work in New York in the 1980s. That, I’m sure, was his crucible. He honed his craft in a lot of tough rooms. He then found his way to L.A., where he’s been writing for TV for the last 25 years.

Thanks to the wonder of the Net, he tracked me down and wrote to remember our time as fresh-faced undergrads. We had spent a lot of time talking about writing, trying to figure out where our dreams would lead us. He recalls my urging him to specialize in something. “I asked you, ‘you mean, like humor …’ and you said yes,” Jim wrote. Thus, the dog piece.

Jim went on to specialize – in spades. He figured out what fit him and pursued it, despite, I’m sure, huge challenges. His gambles and his stick-to-it-iveness paid off.

But a school newspaper did mark a big turning point in the road for him. Students who don’t make room in their crowded college lives for it may never know what opportunities they are giving up. Think about that the next time you see a hilarious, award-winning show. Look, too, for Jim Vallely’s credit.

Making business journalism sexy (almost)

Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.

These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.

We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.

The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.

Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:

— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)

— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers

— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate

— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures

— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities

— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)

— follow economists’ blogs, such as Marginal Revolution and Economists Do It With Models, and get discussions going about opposing viewpoints

— turn students onto sites such as businessjournalism.org, Talking Biz News, and the College Business Journalism Consortium

— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job

— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch

— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman

— discuss scandals such as the Chiquita International scandal (Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 m and fired a reporter after he used stolen voicemails)

— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues

— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”

— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.

We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.

And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.

For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.

Test Case: Capitalism’s Rise in Kazakhstan

Nineteen years after breaking free of the collapsed Soviet Union, Kazakhstan remains one of capitalism’s last frontiers. From its nascent stock exchange in the financial and commercial center of Almaty to the sprawling Abu Dhabi-like construction and institution-building under way in the capital city of Astana, the country continues to seek its footing economically. Its mixture of private enterprise and state direction, together with a benevolent strongman’s rule, would make the place a fascinating laboratory for an economist.

There’s no question that Kazakhstan is the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, the richest of the “stans” and the most politically stable. Its oil wealth in the Caspian Sea has already been staked out by China, Russia and the Western countries, especially the U.S. They covet its huge fields of reserves as strategically vital alternatives to Mideastern suppliers. About as big as Western Europe and far less populated, the country also boasts hefty supplies of uranium and just about every other mineral developed societies need.

And yet, it has a long way to go to be a fully formed modern capitalist state. For one thing, many residents still  live in crumbling Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks that can stink of sewage, and feature dark cement staircases with missing windows and poorly planned and maintained common areas. Our apartments in gleaming, modern Astana would be low-end by South Bronx standards. Lines of trash bins next to playgrounds invite vermin hard by spots where kids play. The play area, surrounded by our five-story apartment buildings, is a vivid demonstration of the tragedy of the commons – overgrown and decaying with apparently no one to maintain it or at least to maintain it well. Similar buildings linger in Almaty, as in this photo of one sprawling tower block. (Click on it to see detail).

But in Astana people live in Soviet-era blocks, spread across the old area of the city, because the apartments were given to them free in the Soviet days. Even now, many can’t afford the stunning new buildings still under construction in the newer parts of the city. That housing is being privately developed and sold. Instead, people borrow to buy pricey cars – Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses, Range Rovers and others dominate the jammed roads here. One of our guides says Kazakh people like to “show off” and they often go deeply into debt to drive glitzy cars. They also crave glitzy western brand names, as Gucci stores in Almaty suggest.

Certainly, people will occupy those shiny new buildings over time, though. The country is developing a solid middle class of well-schooled professionals, managers and state bureaucrats who will take to the new residences once their resources allow it. If nothing else, supply and demand will drop the prices of the new condos, one would think. The construction, driven by a real estate bubble that popped a couple years ago, still lumbers along, albeit at a slower rate.

It’s hard to imagine, much less portray, the extent of new development, particularly in Astana. The city was rechristened as the nation’s capital only in 1997 by President Nazarbaev, and it has risen into a Disneyland-like sprawl of some of the most ingenious and playful architecture in the world. In the new city centre, as it is called, a glass and steel pyramid rises near towering office buildings shot through with arches and sporting clever overhangs or minarets. Bright pastels reflect the sun. Even amid the slowdown, building cranes still dominate the skyline behind billboards that hawk the luxury living promised by the novel structures. It’s as if the whole place is a World’s Fair.

We visited the Eurasian National University on Thursday. The gorgeous facilities, housing a museum that showcases ancient artifacts of the region’s earliest days and paintings of warrior heroes of old, are part of a university created by the president to train future leaders, many in the ways of the West. The president also set up a national scholarship program that sends young students to study abroad, so long as they return to help modernize Kazakhstan. Leaders in the journalism school at the university asked us if we could host students at UNL and develop an educational collaboration – something that I am sure our folks would be keen to do.

Our meeting was almost like an affair of state. We all gathered on one side of a table of microphones and the J School faculty gathered on the other. My name was printed on a card, as was that of the J School director opposite me. A small Kazakhstan flag stood before him on the table, and a small American flag stood before me. The session began with rather formal speeches of welcome, all run through a translator from the U.S. Embassy. (The embassy is a stunning new building, corner of America behind some tight security. Very welcoming folks there, too).

Soon enough at the J School, we got down to finding common ground. Since my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I and the Kazakh faculty were all about the same age, we bemoaned the lack of reading by our Internet-driven students and fretted over the future of print. I got the feeling, however, that preparing students to deliver Net-ready material is not on their agenda here – yet. A meeting with a newspaper editor later confirmed this, as he complained of declining readership but also said he hoped the Net wouldn’t usurp print journalism until he was ready to retire. He, too, is ahem, of a certain age.

Yesterday, some of the students and I went to a stunning mosque with a helpful guide who counted herself as a far-too-unobservant Muslim. Men and women prayed together in the mosque, unlike the more traditional mosque we visited in Almaty. I was able to sit with the group as an imam led prayers. And, to the dismay and disgust of our hostess, some women walked in sporting short skirts. Islam light seems to prevail here.

Afterward, we went to the Lubavitch-run synagogue, Beit Rachel. The shul is in a beautiful building that features a gleaming Star of David on its roof, much like churches showcase crosses – and far more showy than most shuls in America. Nonetheless, it is fenced off, unlike mosques, and has a security guard in a booth at the entrance. Much as religious tolerance is the rule here, Jews have reason to be cautious, it seems. There is also a large Catholic church in town. At Beit Rachel, young Israelis urged me to lay tefillin, which I did. We all had imposed on them a bit, with a local TV crew running all about the building filming us as we did our photojournalism there.

On Saturday, I went to services where, sadly, there were just a yeshiva boker who spoke only Hebrew, a couple other guys who spoke Russian and one delightful fellow from Baku, who spoke English. I’m told more people come when the rabbi is in town, but he’s in Israel at the moment. Still, it was fun talking with the Azeri fellow and it was a delight to eat cholent, the first meat I’ve (knowingly) had in a few weeks. We had a pleasant time all around and got an Amidah or two in.

Further on the religious front, a group of us on Friday also visited a pyramid where all the world’s religions are celebrated. Conferences there periodically draw global religious leaders to talk about their differences and similarities. It’s part of the president’s vision for a harmonious world. I’m told the Pope is among major world religious leaders who have stopped by.

Religiously and financially, there’s a sense of freshness and newness about the country. It’s as if it is still discovering itself and its role in the world, even as it celebrates its ancient history. It also needs to carefully walk lines, balancing Russia, China and the U.S., as well as keep religious and ethnic differences from becoming problems. It is enjoying — but must be cautious about — the billions of dollars, renminbi and rubles that have poured into place in the last 15 years or so. Its institutions are hard-put to keep pace.

Perhaps the best example is the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange. Set up two days after the country’s currency, the Tenge, was introduced in 1993, KASE is the home bourse for 121 companies. Like markets the world over, these outfits have been roller-coasting in recent years. After soaring past $96 billion in 2008, the market capitalization of the exchange members plunged to about $25 billion last year before recovering to about $64 billion now. The volatility reflects how interlinked Kazakhstan’s economy is with the world’s. The market is still comparatively small and, though heavily electronic, maintains a cubicle-filled trading floor, as the photo here by Sarah Tenorio shows.

As one might expect, oil and mining companies dominate the exchange. But banking and finance is important, too. And all these outfits rise and fall based on global conditions. The finance sector here went into free fall, with lots of bank defaults, because banks here had borrowed heavily from global banks. Real estate, which boomed in U.S. fashion, collapsed amid overextension, leaving Almaty with lots of unfinished buildings. Luxury homes in a neighborhood called Luxor near the KASE offices were going for $4 million in 2008 and they have since fallen by half that.

Still, Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth should sustain the country as long as the world continues to need oil, uranium and other crucial materials. What’s more, the nation’s leaders are keen to diversify the economy to avoid overdependence on such resources. Tourism, for instance, is an area they would much like to expand. If they can improve their hotels and tourist infrastructure, there’s no reason they can’t make a go of it.

Over time, this country’s development will be fascinating to watch.

Kazakhstan: Divine Thoughts

Religion seems to be a modest affair here in Kazakhstan, tolerated if not exactly encouraged. Almaty features a stunning Russian Orthodox Church, interestingly located in the heart of a park dedicated to World War II soldiers. The park, filled with oversized monuments including an eternal flame, seems very Soviet in style. And so, it’s perhaps fitting that the Russian Orthodox Church is there. It’s as if it’s making a statement about the centrality of all things Russian, whether in history or culture.

It was intriguing to spend some time in the church yesterday. Women, and a few men, would come into the ornate church, kiss icons, light candles and make elaborate signs of the cross on themselves. Most of the visitors were older folks, most looking more Russian than Kazakh. I suppose they were praying for relatives and friends and they found something helpful in visiting the icon-filled space. Perhaps the bevy of images of saints and of Jesus and the place’s general solemnity was comforting. Most seemed in need of something, an understandable thing, of course.

The other day, a group of us visited a mosque not far from the church. It was quite different. For one thing, we saw only one woman in the place and she wasn’t praying. Men, instead, were the supplicants and many were fairly young. There were no icons, only a wall with elaborate swirls and writing at the front. There were no chairs, only carpet for prayer (silent, but an active affair, with much standing, kneeling and prostrating). Sarah Tenorio, who took the photo below, and Elizabeth Gamez were allowed in and, as a mark of liberality here, were not required to cover their hair. We later learned that the mosque was built since Kazakhstan declared independence from Russia.

And today a few of the students are visiting the Mormon church services here. This place is far more low-key, based in the bottom floor of a nondescript apartment tower block far from downtown. There are few signs even noting its existence and, true to Mormon style, no crucifixes (they prefer to focus on the risen Christ, I was told by one of the missionaries there). The group, about 130 or so folks including a number of young Americans who incongruously call themselves “elder” or “sister,” is keen to sign up more members here.

We’ve been told that the authorities here are not fond of such small churches. They tolerate Islam, perhaps because it’s such a big part of the culture of Kazakhs, and they seem to value Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps for the statement it makes about the importance of things Russian. But recently there was a campaign against a Hare Krishna group from Russia that set up a compound outside town. We were told the place is being bulldozed after some legal action, since a local developer wanted the land. One could imagine that other small groups keep their profiles low to avoid similar troubles.

My guess would be that religion has not taken as powerful a hold here as in some other Central Asian spots because of economics and decades of official atheism under the Russians. On the economic front, if the system meets basic needs and provides a bit more for the people they may not feel as keen a need for something transcendent. Kazakhstan has developed a substantial middle class, it seems, and it’s not surprising that religion would be a light affair with many of those folks. Further, one imagines that students in Russian-controlled schools were discouraged from zealous practice and religious leaders were relegated to largely ceremonial roles.

The big question, though, is whether Kazakhstan can hold firm against the Islamic tide that grips others not far from here. Muslim groups in China, Uzbekistan and even parts of Kyrgyzstan have grown quite assertive, worrying both the local systems and folks in Moscow and Washington. Russia has had huge problems with Islamic terrorists, who seem to regard it as poorly as they do the West. Will affluence, if it comes, lead to Saudi-style revivalism, where the sons of the rich look for meaning following fiery imams and even the likes of Bin Laden? Or, will downturns in the economy, if they come, lead people to extremism? With the Kazakh president here expected to pass the baton in a few years, and the economy suffering from some real-estate induced trouble lately, all sorts of things could bubble to the surface unless the transition is handled well. It all bears watching.

Kazakhstan — Underexposed by Design

Fearlessness is helpful in a journalist. For photojournalists – especially those working abroad – it is mandatory. This is becoming clearer every day here in Kazakhstan, a place where cameras seem as welcome as American robber-barons would have been in Moscow in 1917.

Our photojournalism students are having their mettle tested here. Repeatedly, as they try to shoot in seemingly public places, they are waved off. Scary-looking security guards pop out of buildings, flailing their arms and jabbering away in Russian or Kazakh to tell them “no pictures.” The other day, as all eight students and I approached an indoor market area, a guard radioed to a colleague perched on a rooftop high above us. Roofman formed X signs with his arms to make it clear that no snapping was allowed. And all we wanted was lunch!

Fortunately, the students are rising to the challenge. They are using friendly smiles, charm and a certain fearlessness to disarm reluctant subjects and persuade them they mean no harm. Yesterday, as Patrick Breen was shooting fortune-tellers near the Green Market he managed to stave off some character who was accusing him and Elizabeth Gamez of being from the FBI and somehow helping foment a Kyrgyzstan-style revolt. They also persuaded a fortune-teller to let Patrick photograph her (in a scarf above) even though many of her colleagues protested the attention. (Patrick’s fortune looks bright, by the way, she told him).

People do usually welcome our students once they understand what they’re up to. With the help of one of our guides, Travis Beck got one of the photos attached here at a “family home,” a kind of orphanage located in Talgar, 20 kilometers east of Almaty. Director Eskozhina Tuyak, smiling over the bread, was happy to tell him about the place – called “Nur,” Kazakh for sunlight – which houses some 66 college students, some married couples and others. Some 110 people aged 4-25 live at the place, which Tuyak started in 1998 by selling her personal apartment. She worked in the state’s ministry of education for 43 years.

This is a country of many contradictions. On the one hand, people could not be more hospitable. Our waitress in an Internet coffeeshop, for instance, went out of her way yesterday to help us get a ride to our next appointments, visits to the Internews press-advocacy group and the Kazakh Stock Exchange. And folks there, similarly gracious, helped us get back on an exchange bus. We wander about at will, with no one holding us back or shadowing us. Travis was also able to photograph a group of children at play, below.

On the other hand, it’s a place where security concerns loom large, often pointlessly so. The hostility to cameras, for example, is widespread. Signs in restaurants bar photography. People in cafes gesture “no” with their hands and shake their heads when our students point cameras at them. No photographs are permitted, we were told, during trading hours at the stock exchange – only shots of the empty trading floor after hours.

Theft is not uncommon, we’re told. Don’t hand your cameras over to anyone to shoot your picture because they’ll take a flier with your gear. And yet, the common way of getting around is taking what our kids call “random cabs,” standing in the street and holding your hand low until some random person picks you up and you negotiate a ride around the city – always under 500 tengey (about $3.25). It’s common for women to accept such rides well into the evenings, and we took a couple random cabs yesterday.

It’s as if there’s a blend of Central Asian tribal hospitality and Soviet-style state paranoia. Since the country was a part of the USSR until the early 1990s and remains heavily Russified, worries about security and a need for control seem to be woven into the cultural DNA. Why does our nearby indoor supermarket have three guards, one stationed near the entrance and two just outside the cash register area, even as one or two more stand sentry at the mall entrance? Why do buildings under construction need guards in their lobbies? Why do police cruise the streets at night, pulling people over for U turns on deserted stretches of road or checking IDs? And why is Google’s eblogger seemingly jammed?

Certainly, security worries are a big part of the American experience, especially since 9/11. Think about how guards now roam with abandon across all areas of American life and security has become a huge industry, going far beyond the airports. New Yorkers are considering putting virtually every street under surveillance. And plenty of American institutions, such as corporations and government bodies, bar press photography on their premises unless it’s under tight control. Here, though, it’s security on steroids, whether justified or not, and without the newest technology.

Another thing that has struck us is the lack of homeless people. This plague, rife in American and European cities alike, seems not to be an issue here in Almaty. We have seen none. Partly, we’re told, this is because people are family oriented here and take care of their own. Partly it may be because mentally incompetent people are confined by the state, as they once were in the U.S. There are a few scattered beggars – see Patrick’s photo of one unfortunate footless man – but no bedrolls in the parks or people pushing grocery carts. Poverty is an issue, to be sure, but its human face in the city seems less obvious.

So I must admire our student photographers. They are managing through these challenges, finding fresh ways to show life in this fascinating society. Our work, of course, should be helpful to the place, as we tell readers about how ordinary Kazakhs go about their days – whether they run apple orchards and brokerage operations or pray in the mosque or, as in Patrick’s photo below, play with pigeons.

As they rove around, cameras in hand, the students are surmounting all sorts of obstacles. Language difficulties, transportation challenges and persuasion of reluctant sources. It all demands a bit of nerve, and they are summoning it in spades.

Kazakhstan: The Tale Begins

So today, the adventure begins. We head off to Kazakhstan. E-tickets in hand, bags packed, passports in our secret waistband pouches (designed to never leave our bodies to stave off pickpockets and such). This will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for eight high-energy journalism students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a colleague here and me.

But what a headache getting to this point. First there was that nasty business in Kyrgyzstan. Even though we had read up on the country, listed stories we planned to tell and developed contacts for them, mapped out a detailed travel plan, etc., the folks there decided to go and have a revolution. It’s that “hopey, changey thing,” I guess, since the economy there was in the Dumpster and corruption reigned. Bottom line for us: fascinating stories there, sure, but it’s a no-go on safety grounds.

So, we’re going next door. We’ll pop in on a country akin in size to Western Europe, a place of forbidding desolation on the steppe and remarkable beauty, in places such as the Red Canyon of the Charyn River. Ah, doesn’t that sound like something out of a fantasy! Just check out the image of Lake Kaindy on the top of this post. Much of the country, in fact, sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” One imagines traveling the countryside like Hobbits on a crucial mission. Certainly, Kazakhstan sounds nothing like the place Sacha Baron Cohen satirized in “Borat,” an image Kazakhs are understandably keen to erase.

We’ve moved fast to get up to the speed on the country. Replicating our Kyrgyzstan research, we’ve reached out to contacts in the last couple weeks, developed tentative story lines and done our best to nail down an itinerary. There will be much to tell: unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is relatively well-off, enriched by natural resources including oil and uranium. It has modern cities in Almaty, the financial capital hard by China, and in Astana, the political capital, more centrally located. Urban wealth and rural poverty should make for intriguing contrasts.

There’s also a ton of history there that influences the place today. As a longtime Soviet Union member, until independence in the early 1990s, the place was a favorite dumping ground for Stalin. The remnants of Gulags endure not far from Astana and Russian survivors of the exile camps and their descendants still live in the area. A bit further from Astana is Semey, a place where the Russians tested nuclear weapons, leaving a population that to this day exhibits the genetic problems and deformities spawned by radioactive contamination. It’s the reason Kazakhstan has renounced nuclear weapons, selling its uranium for peaceful uses, it says.

Politically, the country is run by a former Soviet Kazakh leader who remains remarkably popular. Nursultan Nazarbayev, we’re told, has brought economic stability and a general level of comfort that has some folks calling Almaty the Singapore of Central Asia. While not as free a place as many countries in the West – with restrictions on the press and little political debate– it is nonetheless a thriving state-directed capitalist economy that seems to do right by most of its citizens. It has a stock exchange that I’m hoping to visit in Almaty and its capital, Astana, rose Brasilia-like by design at the instigation of the national leader.

Religiously, it sounds like a fascinating place, too. As far as I can tell, the people follow a modernized version of Islam. We intend to visit Saudi-funded mosques to test this theory. I suspect the radicalism that infects other stans, notably Uzbekistan, is missing from Kazakhstan. It sounds something like Turkey.

We’re not as well-prepared as I’d like to be, though, given the short prep time we’ve had, we’re better off than we might be. We have apartments reserved in Almaty, have made contacts there and in other cities we intend to visit and have a general itinerary. But we will make a lot of decisions on the fly, based on the guidance of folks we meet. Essentially, we will ask where the most intriguing stories are and pursue them. This will be a journalism of discovery.

My colleague, Bruce Thorson, is nonplussed by the lack of a detailed roadmap. His experience in South Africa and Kosovo, on prior reporting trips, involved thorough preparation and then the need to toss it all out once on the ground. As in wars, battle plans prove useless once the fracas begins. We’ll meet folks in Almaty and Astana, he says, who will lead us where the news is. And, indeed, we both have reached out to a good number of folks who are amenable to helping.

So, unless the volcano in Iceland gets in the way – a lingering cloud, ahem, on our route through Germany — we’re off shortly to Omaha, Chicago, Frankfurt and Almaty. We leave in the early afternoon today and arrive a bit after midnight Almaty time on Wednesday. United and Lufthansa will carry us literally half-way round the world from Nebraska. Should be a great ride.

Protected Sources


When should journalists rely on anonymous sources?

Almost never, most professionals say. Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, in January slammed staffers at BUSINESSWEEK for quoting them. Bloomberg, which in December bought BW from McGraw-Hill, uses unnamed sources “reluctantly only when the benefit … outweighs the lack of definitive attribution,” the editor said. Without names, he added, “readers have no proof that [the quotes] are more credible than hearsay.”

AP seems a touch more tolerant. Anonymity is acceptable, it says, if “the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.” But it holds that the source must be reliable and the information cannot be gotten otherwise.

So, for us at the J School, the question arises: was it right to grant anonymity to a young illegal immigrant arguing against a plan in the state Legislature to boost tuition for illegals at the state university? The piece, headlined “Nebraska lawmakers and education officials debate immigrant tuition bill,” is a leaned-down version of an earlier story that identified the student.

Acting with compassion and prudence, my colleagues yanked that first story off our Website, NewsNetNebraska.org, after the student had second thoughts about her identity becoming known. No one here wants to put a student — barely an adult, really — in the crosshairs of politicians who could make life difficult and much more expensive for her. My fellow teachers here are educators, first and foremost. We’re all here to give students a shot at fuller lives and meaningful careers.

Still, the case is rich with lessons — and questions. The first piece, for instance, put a human face on an otherwise sterile and abstract debate. This came across with power in such details as a photo and audio slideshow where the student made her case — in her own voice — about the value of education to an immigrant. Even the most tough-minded would have to feel sympathy: this girl’s parents braved a desert crossing in the early 1990s to get her across the border at age 2, and she wants nothing more than a good, affordable education to become a contributing American citizen. Our student journalist did a superb job in drawing out such color and detail.

Regrettably, most such details are now missing. The slide show is gone altogether, as are all other photos of the young woman. Instead, readers get only a cold abstraction. Consider the lede — “If Nebraska continues to help educate immigrant college students, the state will benefit in the run, says an undocumented student who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

Does this put the argument in human terms? Does it make a reader feel anything? Further, does it meet the tests Bloomberg and AP apply for anonymity? In hindsight, an advocate for illegals, arguing with some passion, could make the same case with his or her name attached (a university official does so in the piece, but as blandly as a lawyer would). Perhaps the student could then have been referred to, with some detail about her situation but no names. Maybe this would buttress the argument a bit.

I believe my colleagues acted rightly in taking the student’s name and photos off the story. The woman — likely under 21 and a promising student — had pleaded that she didn’t understand the implications of going public on our Web site. Fair enough. Fear is a troubling thing, and it’s not uncommon for people to have second thoughts when the stakes are high and the personal cost steep. In a way, this young student has more to lose than, say, Rosa Parks.

But for everyone involved the cost of anonymity is high. For one, readers don’t see the face behind the argument. It all seems like just another bit of legislative yammering. Our illegal neighbors don’t even seem human, but are reduced to colorless terms such as “undocumented student.”

More troubling for journalists, we lose credibility. Every time we rely on an anonymous source, we say, “trust us, there really is a person behind these quotes but we just can’t tell you who that is.” Say that too often and readers will stop believing you. Finding people who are willing to put their names on the line in difficult situations can be hard work. But in the end, it makes for good journalism, the kind that can influence the actions of politicians.

Darndest Things


Kids say the darndest things.

If I mentioned that Linkletterism to the college juniors and seniors in my classes, I’d get a blank look or worse. First, they would have no clue who made the phrase famous. Worse, they wouldn’t want to be called kids, even by someone with three kids all a smidge older than they are. More to the point, they wouldn’t want me to treat their thoughts so offhandedly.

Indeed, there’s no way I could treat what they say lightly. Early each semester, I ask students in my magazine-writing class to do a short autobiography. I’d like to get to know them a bit and see how well they write. Usually, I get far more than I bargained for. These kids, it turns out, come with baggage.

“I was born in Bethlehem,” one young fellow writes. “Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one with mangers, wise-men or Saviors. Rather, it’s a ratty industrial town in Pennsylvania whose sole claim to fame is the Philadelphia Eagles training camp at nearby Lehigh University.”

From there, my student says his chief desire is “to avoid the fate” of his parents. He doesn’t want “to be doomed to live decades with a person I don’t really like to simply avoid being alone.”

Then there’s the promising young lady who attended the same all-girls Catholic school as her mom, an Indian immigrant. “I was only 14 years old when my mother received a phone call from my principal telling her I was being expelled from school for being gay,” she writes. “It wasn’t my ideal ‘coming-out’ story, considering I had never brought up my sexuality with my family before, and equally, the repercussions were not ideal.”

And there’s the bright guy whose dad developed such severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that he lost his job, couldn’t drive for fear of killing someone and flipped light switches hundreds of times. “I couldn’t handle people thinking I was living in a comedy when in reality, I was listening to my mother cry herself to sleep in the spare bedroom,” the fellow writes. “I had to stop playing baseball because we couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have anybody who could drive me to practices.”

Whoa, brother. The pieces tear my heart out. I’m not sure whether to reach out to a school shrink to get in touch with the kids (or perhaps to counsel me on how best to take in such life issues). Certainly, Art Linkletter’s kids raised no such problems.

But, after talking with other faculty here – and listening to my own inner counsel – I do what I believe journalism instructors should do. I look at the revelatory work as pieces of writing. Does the writer make his or her points well? Does the piece hang together? Does it invite readers in, set a nice table for them and give them a solid meal? Are there good ledes, nut grafs and kickers? Painful as the accounts may be, do they paint a true and accurate picture? Does the writer do the job with grace and wit?

Today, I put parts of such pieces on the screen for the class to discuss. I read aloud or paraphrased some sections, praising them for their color or nice turn of phrase. I got excited about the anecdotes they sketched out. Unless I had their permission, I didn’t say who had written the more personal material. I kept that anonymous, or at least as anonymous as it can be since the students peer-edit each other’s work.

Like any reader, I prize an honest and thorough account of challenges someone has faced. I encourage the students to tell their stories well, of course, and I’m enormously pleased when they do. But I must admit that I’m pained by their tales, and grow to like them for their candor. It’s real life, folks, and that can be tough. I also wrestle with the temptation to grade them more for honesty than style or organization, something that takes a challenging dose of hard-headedness.

The fact is, as I tell my students, that everyone carries baggage. As we get older, we learn how to hide it better, I suppose, or it becomes less of a burden. It’s because they are kids, I suspect, that they are willing to share so much of what weighs them down now with a stranger, some guy at the front of the classroom who they barely know but who aims to make them better writers.

So is teaching an easy job? Not always. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.