After Berlin Wall Fell, They Led the Rise in Journalism

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

James Greenfield and Nancy Ward set up shops around the world to help people better tell and sell their stories.

They do not necessarily start newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting centers. Instead, they work with local enterprises to broaden the reach of existing news organizations.

In a world of galloping globalization where critics of America sometimes rail against perceived neocolonialism, Mr. Greenfield and Ms. Ward are careful not to be seen as exporters of American notions of good journalism. Instead, they emphasize professionalism, transparency, and fairness – values that can strengthen communications institutions anywhere, regardless of the nature of local governance.

They do not impose any particular political ideology. But each brings a sensibility of independence and ethics honed during many years spent in press and nonprofit organizations in America.

They do not iterate journalistic theorems, nor do they push theoretical mantras about good journalism. Instead, they mobilize dozens of experienced journalists to travel to various countries and spend time with local reporters and editors to help upgrade their reporting skills, technology, and business practices.

They have taught Gypsies in Hungary and Romania. They have taught Czechs and Slovaks. They have taught Cambodians and Vietnamese.

None of this would have likely happened had the Berlin Wall not been brought down in 1989 by the erupting force of grass roots democracy.

Nor would Mr. Greenfield and Ms. Ward have been able to launch their internationally acclaimed program had the Soviet Union not collapsed in 1991.

In fact, Mr. Greenfield, a famous figure in American journalism – not the least because of his long tenure as foreign editor of the New York Times – most likely would not have started the Independent Journalism Foundation had he not been attending a conference in Prague, the capital of what was then known as Czechoslovakia.

“I was at this conference at Charles University in 1991, when a dean asked me, ‘Do you know how to go about starting a journalism department?'” Mr. Greenfield said. “And I replied, ‘I don’t have a clue.'” His response may have accurately reflected the state of his technical know-how. But Mr. Greenfield was scarcely unfamiliar with what it took to produce sterling journalism.

He offered to send some books on journalism to Charles University once he’d returned to New York. His expressions of good will notwithstanding, Mr. Greenfield’s hosts weren’t particularly certain that he would come back to Prague to follow through on the idea of perhaps starting a journalism department at the university.

Not only did he return as promised, but Mr. Greenfield came armed with a $100,000 check from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with which to establish the Center for Independent Journalism in Prague.

“Our concept was simple: American and Western European journalists could best help their counterparts in post-communist societies by offering consistent, long-term training in fact-based reporting,” Mr. Greenfield said. “The training was mostly aimed at young and midcareer journalists who wanted to adapt their skills to take advantage of newfound freedoms in their society.”

These journalists were also offered “new tools of the trade that hadn’t reached them yet,” such as computers, digital equipment, and access to the Internet, according to Ms. Ward.

In addition to her, Mr. Greenfield recruited Donald Wilson, a former vice president of Time Inc. Eventually, other well-known journalists came on board on a pro bono basis, including Barbara Crossette, a veteran editor and foreign correspondent for the Times; and Richard Hornik of Time, a veteran of Asia coverage. (Early in his career, Mr. Greenfield was a foreign correspondent for Time magazine.)

Mr. Greenfield’s foundation published the first journalism review in Eastern Europe, as well as a handbook for nongovernmental organizations on dealing with the press. It developed and implemented master’s degree programs at various institutions. “Students” not only received instruction, they were also required to produce news reports in print and for broadcasting.

As Mr. Greenfield tells it, such efforts always had a larger objective.

“The function of independent journalism in countries where there hasn’t been a free press is to enable people to make better decisions about the governance and the directions of their societies,” he said. Mr. Greenfield had had experience with the closed and repressive nature of some of the Eastern European societies during the Cold War. In fact, the Czechs refused to grant him entry when he was foreign editor of the Times.

“The irony was that Czechoslovakia had a really vigorous press in the 1930s,” he said. “But the situation became really bad under communism. It was a really tough kind of communism in the country. The free press disappeared and was replaced by propaganda.”

In Czechoslovakia as elsewhere, Mr. Greenfield and his colleagues found that they had to wean local journalists away from propaganda and editorializing in news columns. But they also understood that they had to be in it for the long haul.

Indeed, one of their funders asked Mr. Greenfield, “How long is the long haul?”

Mr. Greenfield thought at the time that his foundation perhaps needed to stay in business for four or five years.

“It’s now 16 years later, and we’re still in it for the long haul,” he said.

For these 16 years, he served on an unpaid basis. “Nancy is the only paid employee in America,” Mr. Greenfield said.

They both found that the idea of instituting programs to encourage independent journalism was heavily in demand not only in former communist states but in many other developing countries.

“The idea was infectious,” Ms. Ward said. “In some countries, people would say, ‘Right now, we can’t do any of the things you’re teaching – but when the time comes, we’ll know what to do.'”

If the idea of promoting independent journalism turned out to be infectious, so was Mr. Greenfield’s enthusiasm for sharing his experience with up and coming press people in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

“Here I am, officially retired as a journalist, and I’m still hanging around journalists,” Mr. Greenfield said, with his trademark toothy smile. “What better way to continue having fun?”

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