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  • Writer's picturemichellebetz

Celebrating the wins

There are moments during my work when I celebrate, realizing that sometimes the hard work pays off – that perhaps the work we do supporting media can and does make a difference. This past week I celebrated.

For the past eight months I have been working with the East-West Center (and senior program officer extraordinaire, Scott Kroeker) on a grant to provide support to the University of the South Pacific’s (USP) journalism division. The grant included numerous activities that, I hoped, would not only strengthen reporting in the Pacific but lead to partnerships between Pacific and U.S.-based journalists.

The project’s final activity was held in January: two back-to-back one-week Next Generation Radio workshops for USP students. This would be the first time Next Gen would take their intensive, hands-on digital journalism training roadshow beyond U.S. borders. It would be done virtually with most of the Next Gen mentors and tech team based in Honolulu while the students were either in Fiji or Papua New Guinea.

We thought we were ready. And then a cyclone hit Fiji the day the first workshop was due to begin. But we dove in and so did the students.

I heard later that many of the students were expecting to sit “classroom” style for a week. Instead, they found themselves out in the field chasing down their climate change story. The assignment: find an “ordinary” person that was affected by climate change and produce a non-narrated audio story. Oh, and that piece would be accompanied by a written/online piece as well as social media work, photos and a reflections piece. It was A LOT.

But wait: Throw in illnesses, a lack of equipment in Fiji and Tonga’s volcanic eruption which resulted in tsunamis in Fiji. Oh, and don’t forget the pandemic plus the complexities of working across the International Date Line.

The students proved to be amazing! Despite several of them fighting colds and some using only their mobile phones to record, they persevered and proved to be incredibly committed and passionate about telling climate change stories through voices from their communities.

I’ll not soon forget “accompanying” my mentee, Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti, as she went out to interview two long-time fishermen. Through WhatsApp, I was able to listen in to her as she interviewed.

You can find their incredible stories here.

During the Next Gen workshops, I had been harboring a hope that the students’ stories might be shared beyond the Next Gen site. That hope was in part because of one of the project’s earlier activities was a talanoa. Talanoa is a term used across the Pacific that describes a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. Our talanoa brought together representatives from media houses across the region to talk about potential content sharing and co-production opportunities in the Pacific.

One of the NextGen mentors, Claire Caulfield, took part in the talanoa. Claire works for Honolulu Civil Beat and showed how readily such content sharing and co-productions can be done when she featured the work of the USP students in a story she did for Civil Beat. Not only did she make the content digestible for a U.S. (or least a Hawaii-based) audience but added additional depth. Her work, and that of the students, is extraordinary and you can find it here.

I asked Claire what inspired her to put the Fiji stories together and tell the story of climate change for Civil Beat.

"Throughout the program I was so impressed with the students' work. Their interviews were incredibly moving and I wanted these stories to reach the widest audience possible. Even though Civil Beat mostly covers Hawaii, our readers really appreciate articles about other Pacific islands.

Climate change is a global, existential threat, but people living in the Hawaiian and Fijian islands are facing specific challenges like sea level rise, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and tropical storms. I hope this story helps remind people in Hawaii that we're not alone in the battle against climate change, and there are allies and partners throughout the Pacific."

So why am I celebrating? Because not only were we able to provide students an opportunity to learn and work alongside working journalists and media professionals and to produce important stories on one of the seminal issues of our time. Add on top of that the work Claire did to share their work with a broader audience and, well, wow!

Too often we in the media support world tend to conduct workshops that feel like box-ticking exercises. Trainers, such as I, are usually parachuted in, train for a week and then leave. If you’re lucky, there may be a bit of post-workshop mentoring but not usually. Most of the time, workshop participants leave with little other than the certificate they receive at the end. It’s unclear what they’ve learned or if and how they’ll be able to use what, if anything, they have learned.

Next Gen workshops are solidly hands-on. The reporters produce tangible results – stories in at least two different formats, three if you include their photography. Add in international content sharing and you’ve got a winning combination – not only for the students but for ensuring we have access to reportage from lesser covered regions (such as Oceania) on critical issues such as climate change.

This comes at a time when many reporters are unable to travel due to the pandemic or the high cost of traveling, particularly in the vast Oceania region. But it shows us that there is a generation of young people hungry to tell their community’s stories. These stories allow us to hear from those living on the frontlines of climate change, people who grapple with the effects of climate change every day. Finally, an opportunity to hear local stories from the people who live them and told by journalists and storytellers living in the same community. And finally, an opportunity to showcase and share these stories with a wider audience.

I’ve been wanting to get Next Gen workshops to the international level for years and have often spoken to founder/director Doug Mitchell about this. Finally, we had an opportunity and despite the odds, it was a resounding success.

So, if anyone tells you that virtual training isn’t useful, successful or hands-on, they need to keep trying – they need to innovate, to think out of the box and above all find a way to keep things hands on and to push on. Next Gen has always been hands on and that’s why it’s successful, even in the virtual world of the past two years. The student reporters not only have their mentor to guide them as needed, but a full team composed of audio engineers, a managing editor, digital editor, illustrators and more who are at their disposal not only during the week of the workshop but long after. Because it’s also about building relationships. If we only look at training as transactional, we won’t succeed. We need to continue to guide, to mentor and coach incoming reporters and to nurture those relationships. And sometimes it takes a whole team.

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