Latvian journalism, up close and personal

The photo above, taken in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, shows copies of Rigische Novellen, the first newspaper published in Latvia. So the newspaper business has been around for a while in this country.

Nevertheless, newspapers here face problems unlike any we have to deal with in the United States, as I learned in several intense days of meetings and conversations in Riga. Thursday began with a lecture to about 35 journalism students at the University of Latvia. Once again, I found myself among bright, passionate students, and once again they reacted as well as I could have hoped to my little history lesson about Montana journalism and corporate domination of the state as a whole.

(Just dropping by for the first time and wondering what Travels with Xavi is all about? Click here to read the introduction.)

Next up, all of all things, was a lunch meeting with 10 or 12 members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, plus two American professors from the University of Denver who happened to be working with the chamber group. Since this group had so little in common with any other audience I’d spoken to yet, I gave a greatly condensed version of my presentation (shortened on the fly),  then opened things up to a general conversation.

It helped that Shannon’s husband, Mike, who works in the political division at the U.S. Embassy, joined us for lunch. He was able to chime in on several questions I considered a little above my pay grade. I should also mention that all day Thursday and Friday, Shannon and I were accompanied by Zelma, a Latvian woman who works in Shannon’s department at the embassy. She had formerly worked at the national press agency, so she had a good grasp of journalism and a very good command of English. Thus she served as our translator whenever needed, and she always asked pertinent questions at events where for whatever reason audience participation was temporarily stalled.

I think all of us at the AmCham meeting were most impressed by a 12-year-old boy, who was there with his mother, and whose understanding of national and international affairs would have been impressive for someone two or three times his age. At one point, though I can’t remember exactly what subject was under consideration, someone said that the U.S. House of Representatives might take some specific action, when the young gent interrupted to say that, no, such an action would be prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. I felt that I might have been in the presence of a future president of Latvia.

I snapped this photo at the end of our event with people from the Stockholm School of Economics. In the center is Shannon Ritchie, and at right Zelma, both with the U.S. Embassy. At left is a woman from the Stockholm School, whose name escapes me but whose friendliness and help were most welcome.

After a short period of rest, we sped off to one more event — dinner with a group of 20 students from the Stockholm School of Economics, followed by a wide-ranging conversation with the same group of people. It might sound odd that I was speaking to such a gathering, but it will make more sense when I tell that all of them were mid-level media managers from Russia, Georgia, Moldava, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics. Most of them were already working for media outlets and some of them were journalists who had moved up from reporting to more managerial roles.

This was a fascinating group. One student was particularly relevant to the presentations I had been giving in Bulgaria and Latvia for the past week because he was part of a staff of (I think) 15 people working on a 5-year-old online newspaper in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here I had been telling everyone that digital journalism was the wave of the future and that there were all sorts of models for making such journalism work, but most everybody I’d met so far had seemed either skeptical or fearful, worrying that such a venture would be impossible in this part of the world.

But here was someone actively engaged in reinventing journalism, and he said the average age of the people working on his newspaper was 25. That answered another frequently raised question — how were up-and-coming journalists supposed to get any experience and mentoring if all the older reporters were bailing on the industry left and right? I had been tempted to say that good reporters would make their way, make their own experience, but I didn’t want to sound arrogant or condescending — and yet here was just the sort of reporter I had had in mind.

I liked him even more during our informal conversation after dinner because he behaved exactly as I would have done in similar circumstances at a similar age. By which I mean that he acted bored and a trifle put out by having to sit and listen while he could be out getting things done. He was also dressed in jeans, striped socks and beat-up tennis shoes, and he drank a good deal of the free wine, all of which further raised him in my estimation.

It was all stimulating as hell for me, but by the end of this very long day I felt as though I had never been so sick of hearing my own voice.

Friday morning, Shannon picked me up about 9:30, and after stopping to fetch Zelma we headed out for Jelgava, which happened to be Zelma’s home town, about 25 miles from Riga. It was, if anything, even foggier this morning, so that my view of the countryside was confined to maybe a quarter mile on either side of the highway.

My lunch mates in Jelgava.

Our destination in Jelgava was the newsroom of the Zemgales Zinas, on the second floor of a building that housed a bookstore on the ground floor, which was a nice touch. My schedule had been arranged so hastily and I had so much on my mind that I wasn’t sure what kind of event this was supposed to be. As it was, it was perfect — just a conversation in a small circle of small-market journalists, just like me. Several members of the host newspaper were on hand, as were three or four people who traveled from other cities just for this meeting, as well as the director of the independent newspaper association of Latvia, or something like that.

Though we all had much in common, I certainly had never dealt with the one thing they all identified as their biggest problem. Latvia is divided into 109 municipalities, they told me, and most of them published their own “newspapers” — and I put that in quotes because most of them used air-quotes every time they referred to them. Anyway, these local governments, in hopes of damaging the independent newspapers who want to report fairly on what public officials are up to, use taxpayer money to publish glossy, full-color “newspapers” that also include paid advertising.

“The biggest problem is this, I think,” one of the younger journalists on hand told me. “They steal our readers and our money.”

As another put it, referring to readers, “If they can get bread for free or if they have to pay for the bread, actually they will take it for free.”

The guest of honor was a woman from a newspaper, Bauskas Dzive, about 40 miles from Jelgava. Her newspaper had filed suit against the local municipality, asking an administrative court to bar the it from publishing a newspaper with taxpayer money. That court ruled against the newspaper, but on appeal the Supreme Court ruled that the local publisher was at least entitled to seek a ban on advertising in the municipal paper. The local newspaper has taken its larger case, seeking a complete ban, to the European Court of Human Rights, which has scheduled a hearing.

It sounds like a hell of a fight, and I wish them all the luck in the world. They are used to fighting. One journalist, who looked to be about my age, said he and his wife were “at the barricades” in 1991 and 1992, on the way to finally winning independence from the Soviet Union. This fight with the municipal authorities is all part of the continuing “awakening process,” he said, and the fellow from the newspaper association added, “It is not so easy to build a democracy in 25 years.”

They reminded me again of my old journalism colleagues when they started arguing with each other, interrupting, gesticulating and half-shouting. Some of them knew only a little English, with the result that Zelma was sometimes trying to translate the words of one or two people simultaneously while two or three others were bellowing in the background. Zelma was adept at restoring order as needed.

It was a stimulating visit. I felt so much empathy for these journalists, so much respect. They deal with all the downsides of daily journalism, on top of which they are playing large roles in the building of a democracy. That is something that must get you out of bed in the morning.

Some of them had to leave after the discussion, but the rest of us decamped to a fine restaurant on an island beside a canal that connects two rivers that run through Jelgava. We all continued talking through an hour-long lunch, with the U.S. Embassy picking up the tab. It was money well spent, and I know that journalists like free food almost as much as they like animated conversation.

I would love to have seen more of Jelgava, but we had to race to yet another appointment — my last official visit in Latvia — at the offices of another newspaper, Diena, this one in Riga. If I understood correctly, this is the largest paper in Latvia, with a circulation of 30,000 and about 30 people working in the newsroom, which means it’s quite similar to the Billings Gazette. Here I was interviewed by a young reporter, bearded and a bit scruffy, with an impressive tattoo covering one arm, in the newspaper’s “morgue,” the term traditionally used by American journalists to denote the room where bound copies of the newspaper are stored. (The one at the Montana Standard was my favorite: it was in a concrete bunker in the bowels of the building, with nothing but a conference table and chairs surrounded by hundreds of huge bound volumes of old Butte newspapers.)

He interviewed me for maybe half an hour, occasionally digressing to tell a war story or two, as did I. It was an enjoyable if somewhat strange experience, to find myself on the wrong side of an interview again, and then we got a quick tour of the newsroom. It was nearly deserted, being late Friday on a newspaper that doesn’t publish on Saturday or Sunday, but the general atmosphere, especially the desks littered with notebooks, newspapers, computers and coffee mugs, made me feel as though I could have sat down and gone straight to work.

And as for work, or whatever it was that I had been doing on behalf of Uncle Sam, it had now come to a close. We drove back to the hotel, where I thanked and bid Shannon and Zelma goodbye, then went to my room feeling a great deal of relief. Not that anything I had been doing was terribly difficult, but I felt I had been “on,” and under scrutiny, for something like 10 days, and this after four months of retirement. I was ready to do nothing.

Nothing turned out to be a lot of fun, but I think I’d better bring this post to a close and save my post-duty ramblings for another day.

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