Hannes Richter

First U.S.-Austrian Journalist Exchange

Hannes Richter

For the first time, two Austrian and two American journalists were awarded the opportunity to spend six weeks during February-March in each other’s countries and gather experience on media reporting as part of a U.S.-Austrian Journalism Exchange Fellowship. The newly created program offers both print and broadcast journalists the chance to share professional journalistic expertise with their colleagues from across the Atlantic while working as foreign correspondents for their hometown news organizations. Such exchanges are thought to help overcome stereotypes and political misperceptions as well as promote U.S.-Austrian and transatlantic understanding by fostering a spirit of community among an ever-stronger network of journalists from both sides.

(left) Meinrad Rahofer, Sheila Lalwani, Jacob Resneck, Michaela Roithmayr, Christoph Prantner, Mario Scherhaufer

Initiated by Mario Scherhaufer (Program Director of the International Center for Journalists in Washington), Meinrad Rahofer (Director of the Kuratorium für Journalistenausbildung in Salzburg) and Waltraud Kaserer (former Burns Fellow in 2003 and Editor-in-Chief of Format), the program was modeled after a similar, very successful exchange program created in 1988 for German and American journalists under the auspices of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.

The four journalists at Albert Einstein Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Each of the four participants, chosen from approximately sixty highly qualified applicants between the ages of 21 and 37, has provided the AI with his/her comments on the exchange program by highlighting their particular personal and professional experiences and impressions with the media in their host country.

Christoph Pranter (Der Standard) hosted by USA Today
“Welcome,” says Chet Czarniak. “Nice that we see each other. So! It seems as if we are so-called distant cousins.” Journalists usually have a very relaxed style when speaking with one another. But the reception at the USA Today main office in McLean, Virginia, is particularly warm. Czarniak is Managing Editor there for usatoday.com and I have been assigned to him during the time of my fellowship. And for my purposes, I couldn’t have been any luckier.

After a number of challenging years in Vienna, I wanted simply to step down for awhile from the treadmill of the media. The announcement of the U.S.-Austrian Exchange Fellowship couldn’t have come at a better time - also, because I wanted to go into greater depth with various models involving media convergence. The question was: How can one integrate print and the internet in a newspaper so that it also journalistically makes sense?

There is perhaps no place better than in the U.S. to find that out. I visited the New York Times, the Washington Post as well as politico.com. I spent altogether six full weeks at USA Today. The newspaper with the largest circulation in the U.S. is well ahead in that area. Some one and a half years ago, USA Today merged their print and online newsrooms. In March, the website was relaunched, including many more interactive features. In times of limited resources, even in a huge establishment such as USA Today, production using convergence is absolutely necessary for survival.

In terms of USA Today’s strategy, content plays a main role. In times of the web, newspapers are no longer limited by print or sales and marketing. In the unlimited world of the internet, they differ instead mainly by researching and presenting content as best as possible, which is provided for in the U.S. by a large system of personnel made up of editors and reporters. Such a strict division of labor among journalists doesn’t exist in Austria. The motto runs: Only by incorporating both print and online can we guarantee a high quality of news gathering.

I was very surprised how much access I had at USA Today also to sensitive information. The colleagues as well as the people in Washington D.C. are very approachable and curious about everything that comes from the outside. There is no problem in getting an appointment. The same goes for making contacts. But also when one thinks that he knows a lot about Washington from TV and films, the perspective is still very different when directly experiencing the city and its people. Chet Czarniak would say: “You have to feel it.” And he’s right. Together with knowledge, I am taking a lot of feeling back with me to Vienna - as well as great respect for our distant cousins in the U.S.

Michaela Roithmayr (Life Radio Linz) hosted by WCBS Radio in New York City
Seven weeks in New York, not as a tourist but actually living and working there for a radio station, made two dreams come true at once. As I studied English, I always dreamed of working for an American radio station. And what city could be more exciting to live in than New York. But there was more that made me so much look forward to this. After a couple of years with the same radio station, I found it sometimes hard to leave long-standing work patterns. That’s why this fellowship gave me the chance to get rid of the blinders of the daily grind and get to know new ideas. Moreover, this also was an amazing opportunity to forge interesting links.

Already during the orientation phase it became obvious that division of responsibilities in the U.S. is a lot different; that also proved true during my work with WCBS. While the topics reported about are very similar, except that coverage includes more ‘latest hearsay,’ the jobs are not. News anchors present the work of a lot of people on air, the work of the editors, writers, producers, reporters and all the other new staff. In Austria, these people do everything from start to finish. Still, I am unable to say one way is better than the other. On the one hand, division of responsibilities in the U.S. allows people to concentrate more on their field. On the other hand, the Austrian system keeps people integrated into the whole journalistic process.

New York itself exceeded all my expectations. Within no time I felt at home in this vibrant, exciting and diverse city. Trying to take advantage, however, of the uncountable cultural, culinary and entertaining offers next to work turned out to be extremely exhausting. These seven weeks were the time of my life. And I dare to say that after these weeks in the exchange program, I come back to Austria not only more expert, cosmopolitan and interested, but also with a number of new friends and another home.

Sheila Lalwani (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) hosted by Die Presse
Years ago I came to Vienna on a whim. I was studying abroad in Greece, and I decided to travel with friends around Europe during our break. From the moment I got off the plane in Vienna, I knew I would want to return to Austria one day. The International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. afforded me that opportunity.

The program was very well thought out and well organized. In Washington,D.C., the ICFJ focused on giving the American fellows the ABCs of life in Austria, i.e., government, politics, contemporary issues and history. When we came to Austria, the Kuratorium für Journalistenausbildung in Salzburg helped get us acclimated to the program and served as a constant resource throughout the fellowship.

For my home newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, many of the stories I covered focused on religion, immigration and minorities. In Vienna, I wanted to write about the challenges to immigration from a program and policy perspective. It helped that I speak German, Arabic, Hindi and some Urdu. During my six weeks, I filed stories for my home newspaper and researched other story ideas. Being at Die Presse gave me that freedom. It was rewarding to collaborate with colleagues who have a strong grounding in media and international affairs.

I noticed immediately that the Austrian media tend to have a greater world perspective. Stories are  published from around the world. On the other hand, the U.S. media offered longer, more in-depth stories. I was glad to see that journalists on both sides felt a sense of civic duty and responsibility. In the case of both Austrian and American journalists, many of the journalists are young and believe that journalism is a vital part of a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of a democracy is eternal vigilance.”

Vienna was just as beautiful as I remember. This time, I had a greater opportunity to see things, meet with people and got a real feel for the place. I received the opportunity to travel around the area, toured Salzburg and Mariazell. People often asked me, “Aren’t you homesick?” Not really, I replied. I just wished I could stay at Die Presse and Vienna longer; every moment here was well spent.

Jacob Resneck (Adirondack Daily Enterprise) hosted by the Salzburger Nachrichten
The first thing that struck me was the absence of the traditional divide between reporters and editors. Rather, Austrian journalists pull double duty as both. In the U.S., editors function as office managers as well as journalists but few do any primary reporting, leaving that to the reporters. In Austria, there is less of a traditional hierarchy, though the Editor-in-Chief has the final say on what stories are assigned and how they appear in the paper. At my host paper in Salzburg, the journalists would hold news meetings and decide which stories would run and where, rather than one or two editors deciding.

This consensus approach seemed to be more democratic than what I was used to and I found the absence of a rigid hierarchy interesting. In the U.S., writers often pitch their own stories, but it’s almost always at the blessing of the editor supervising the reporter. There does not appear to be assignment editors in Austrian newspapers. Also, the editors in Austria, since they do double duty as reporters, are most likely to get out of the office. I find this refreshing, as deskbound editors can become myopic due to lack of natural sunlight.

On a humorous side note, I noticed that European journalists are often lavished with meals and gifts at press conferences. In the U.S., we are often told never to accept a gift, meal, etc.; and to always pay for our own coffee at an interview. My Austrian colleagues seemed surprised by this. This really hit home when I presented my credentials to the Salzburg 2014 Olympic Bid Committee. I was handed a gift bag with a baseball cap, Sachertorte, bath salts and other knickknacks with the Salzburg 2014 logo. I looked at the schedule: Half the events scheduled for the press involved some sort of solid or liquid refreshment. The bid committee wasn’t about to let their international press corps go hungry - and the reporters didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

The similarities of course don’t stand out as much as the differences and many are unconscious. Whenever I meet journalists - no matter what country they are from - I am always struck by the familiar sardonic humor that we almost always share. Reporters have to be serious, yes. But they don’t always have to take themselves too seriously - and the best ones rarely do. Humility is an asset in this profession and a universal trait I see in good journalists. Austria was no different.

For more information, see websites: www.kfj.at (Kuratorium fuer Journalistenausbildung) and www.icfj.org (International Center for Journalists)