Longtime newsman Jack Ronald started traveling to countries where journalism is a young and sometimes dangerous profession shortly before his 50th birthday.
During his first trip and the 14 since, Ronald has taught journalists how to build independent media operations in countries with histories of limited freedoms and little funding for reporting news.
He returned from his most recent seminar – this time in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan – in late January.
For the 62-year-old editor and publisher of The Commercial Review (Portland), the work began as a personal goal.
“The joke in the family is that is started with a midlife crisis,” Ronald said. “I wanted to be in a situation where when I turned 50 I felt like I made a difference.”
Sure, you could say he’s made an impact in Portland after more than 30 years in leadership roles at the newspaper. But safe journalism hardly counts when colleagues around the world risk their necks and livelihoods to report the news, he said.
So in 1997 Ronald applied for a Fulbright award. He was accepted and spent a semester in 1998 teaching about the concept of free press at the State University of Moldova. Wife Connie and daughter Sally accompanied him to the former Soviet country, a small republic between Ukraine and Romania.
Between his classes he did one-on-one consulting work for regional newspapers that were making strides to establish workable business models.
With circulations of only about 1,000, they operate under the radar compared to larger papers in the area, which tend to be more influenced by financial and political pressures.
When Ronald and his family returned home after his teaching stint, he felt satisfied with his efforts.
“I thought it was over after that,” Ronald said.
But six months later he got an offer to go back to Moldova to lead a seminar on media self-sufficiency.
He gladly went, and the calls have kept coming for the past 13 years. Ronald has led media seminars in nine former Soviet countries and Afghanistan, usually for two or three weeks at a time.
The risks of teaching media skills in countries that aren’t friendly to an independent press aren’t lost on Ronald.
Police stopped his car and searched the trunk in Belarus when he conducted sessions there in 2005. He was deported from Kyrgyzstan on arrival in 2009.
In Afghanistan he felt relatively safe because of the high level of security, he said.
“I’ve felt more at risk in other places than I did in Afghanistan,” Ronald said. “In Belarus, there was a greater likelihood I would be arrested.”
In Afghanistan, the training project through the Institute for War and Peace Reporting kept a low profile. There was no sign on the walled building, and a guard was posted at the door, he said.
For most of his 10 days there he was the only Westerner he saw. He stood out for being older and taller than most Afghans but doesn’t think he was immediately recognized as American – definitely a Westerner but possibly European.
In the mornings and afternoons he conducted seminar sessions and then made use of the Internet at the office to e-mail his wife and write a column before heading back to his room.
Darkness fell about 5 p.m., so he was always in his hotel room by then.
“There’s not a whole lot to do in Mazar-e Sharif after 5:30 at night,” he said. “I was stuck. I joked that it was almost like house arrest.”
A propane heater with an open flame heated his room. Most evenings he had dinner alone there.
“You read, you write and you hope there’s a soccer game on satellite TV,” he said.
In other countries where he’s conducted seminars his evenings were spent with colleagues who showed him around their cities. In Afghanistan his room was the safest place to be at night.
His family supports his trips despite the dangers.
“I think they’re pretty philosophical about it,” he said. “My wife knows that it’s important to me. She knows it’s not my nature to say no to one of these.”
The weeks-long trips have altered his management style, Ronald said. He’s still in contact with his staff while he’s gone but delegates more responsibilities.
Ronald spent nearly a year planning how the paper would run during his Fulbright experience.
“When I came back the hardest thing was not to take the reins back,” he said. “My role has changed – I’m much more advising and consulting. And I’m comfortable with that.”
As far as his company is concerned he’s on vacation when he conducts a seminar. He’s accumulated a lot of time off in his years at The Commercial Review and doesn’t take many days off.
The Afghanistan seminar was his first that wasn’t in the former Soviet Union.
Afghan media face the same self-sufficiency problems as former Soviet countries, but it’s a different climate because of the weak central government and strong regional rulers, he said.
“That means journalism is more dangerous – real journalism is more dangerous,” he said.
People working in radio dominated the Mazar-e Sharif seminar. The 14-person class was about half men and half women, most in their 20s and 30s. Ronald’s list of teaching topics included strategic planning, advertising sales, how to read a profit-loss statement and marketing.
About 85 percent of Afghans are illiterate, so print media faces a limited clientele. Ronald offered suggestions for areas of newspaper coverage that aren’t common in the country, such as obituaries and birth announcements.
“I’d see faces light up,” he said, with students commenting, “Oh, that would be interesting to know in my town.”
The notion that every life matters, not just those of powerful people, is something we take for granted in the Unites States, Ronald said.
Ronald admires his Afghan counterparts for their commitment to an independent press.
“People who are there practicing journalism are courageous people and are at risk because of the nature of the work that they’re doing,” he said.
Ronald said funding for international media seminars is likely to be tighter in the future.
Governments like the United States, Britain and Sweden subsidize most of them, he said. The countries work through nongovernment organizations to award grants, and those outfits hire trainers like Ronald and a few dozen others around the world to lead the sessions.
Ronald doesn’t know if another international assignment will come.
“Every time I do one of these I sort of assume it’s the last one,” he said. “Those types of opportunities to make a difference are pretty extraordinary.”