Over the years, we at TOL have had to listen to “advice” that we stop covering the new member states of the EU because these countries had now become part of a united Europe and thus, the suggestion was, boring and normal. We’ve always countered that the transition hasn’t come close to ending in these countries, and even if it had, there are plenty of fascinating stories that often get ignored by the international media. With that thought in mind, I was pleased to recently meet Ian Phillips, who arrived in Prague a year ago to become AP news director for East-Central Europe, a new position created to funnel all coverage – text, TV, and photos – through one person that would be thinking “cross-format,” as Ian put it. As he recounts, he has been surprised to find enormous interest in this part of the world, and not just from neighboring countries – factors that have contributed to AP investing more, not less, in their coverage from Central Europe and the Balkans.
Also running counter-intuitive to the general 24/7 news machine mentality, AP has also been telling its reporters here to slow down and take their time on coming up with and reporting feature stories. The one editorial leader, cross-format approach has worked so well, that Ian and several others at AP just won the agency’s highest award for their coverage and the model is now being replicated in Moscow (for the former Soviet Union) and Cairo (for the Middle East) For more on those topics, please see excerpts of our interview below. And to hear more in person from Ian, join us next week in Prague for a panel discussion, “Changing Media Business Models,” that TOL is helping organize at this year’s Forum 2000 conference in Prague (and which I’ll be moderating).
But first, a bit more about Ian: Ian Phillips has reported and edited from Europe, North America, Africa, Latin America, and Asia for AP and was deputy Europe editor in London prior to moving to Prague in 2011. Before joining AP, Ian worked in Argentina for Reuters and The Buenos Aires Herald. He is British and graduated with a degree in Spanish and French from St. John’s College, Cambridge University, in 1992.
You’ve said that this region’s broadcasters have had a lot of interest in coverage from other countries from this region. What do you think the reasons are for that?
I was just in Slovakia, and one of the points of interest in Slovakia is Hungary, and they want us to produce more about Hungary. We’re doing a lot, but they want more. I think there are historical reasons. Some of these borders are recent, or not even official, or ethnic, so on the other side of the border, there is a lot of interest in the other side, perhaps? I think it stretches beyond that. I think there is genuine interest, and we’re seeing it in terms of how many channels are using our content for video. When we do a story from this part of the world, often the play is surprisingly strong, from places such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Balkans.
Can you think of any specific stories?
One was called “Search for World War II Heroes,” and we profiled someone who volunteered to go to Auschwitz as an undercover spy to sneak information to the West. Beautiful, beautiful story that hadn’t been told much, and, again, we made it work for all formats. The video journalists from Prague was at the mass grave [where the man's remains were thought to have been buried], and there were people pulling out skeletons. Very strong video. That video actually helps a bit the text story because it’s so visual and helped us zone it on what the actual storyline was going to be because of the strength of the images, which is also interesting because sometimes textual things tell a different story. Sometimes it is the photographer who provides the inch that is the overriding theme.
We did a story in Poland and in the U.S. about the Katyn massacre. In New York, we got hold of some documents that were being declassified about 75 years after the killing, and we sifted through them for weeks, and we found what we think is as strong evidence as you could get that the U.S. administration knew precisely what had happened, that the Soviets had massacred these Polish officers and covered up what was then told. We got documents of an American prisoner of war sending documents back to the U.S., going missing mysteriously. Primarily a text story. It was a powerful text story. We found a way to do it on TV. We interviewed the son of the man who was killed. We went to the ceremony in Washington, where they were declassifying documents. That, again, had a huge impact nationally in Poland itself, Russia, back in the U.S.
Some people might also be surprised to hear of such interest in the West and elsewhere for content from this part of the world, which is often considered boring these days and not worth investing in.
My personal view is that we are aided by the fact that there is no breaking news story or an economy story, which some of our competitors are having to report on every day in minutiae. We can do what our journalists want to do and have time to do it, and I think part of it is that this part of the world is less mainstream than the West. In Western Europe obviously there are some great stories that have gotten a lot of play, but it looks a little similar. I think in East/Central Europe there are stories being told, whether right now or catching up with the past. Some of our stories are being told of tragedies from the 20th century that are just now coming to light, that are still relevant to people, that happened in their lifetime.
Maybe we get lucky because people in the West are very savvy. They control what you can see, what you can’t see. There you have very loyal PR machines that want to direct you in one way. Our job is to get beyond that. In our region, and I’m certainly surprised, we get officials speaking to us on the phone, which is pretty hard in Western Europe. They have that potential downside of saying something on camera that might be controversial. People take a few more risks here, so I think that’s great for better journalism for us.
And you are even adding people these days, right?
Yes, absolutely. We have hired new people. We’ve trained photographers to do video, and we, I think, breathed new life into text reporters who felt that they had been forgotten, that there wasn’t a story. That no one really cared. We’ve just set them back in motion again. [We told them] “You have got the luxury, you have got the time to find stuff that others can’t,” and the mantra now is “don’t do what everyone else is doing, because if you don’t some of us are going to go out of business.” If it’s something original, ground-breaking, and distinctive, you will retain business, and whatever we earn we put back in the news. So, it’s vital we keep that revenue flowing. So, yeah, we’ve invested. It’s paid off.
I personally think that some of the most exciting stories in Europe are happening in this region – to my surprise, I have to admit. At the start, I was looking at the stories, thinking, “What can we do here?” But people come up with a pitch, and it always works out well. Not just here. Not just Hungarians using the Slovak coverage. We can get play in Asia. We can get play in Western capitals. A lot of the media then covers what we’ve done. They match it. Imitation is a form of flattery – isn’t that right? Isn’t that what we all strive for?
Interview transcribed by Andrew McIntyre, a TOL intern.