The effect of democracy on journalists

Confidence and digital cameras have replaced hesitancy and unheated classrooms.

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The black-and-white photograph has frayed a bit over 13 years. It shows eight Romanian students and me smiling, glasses raised in celebration of the end of our month-long odyssey to produce the first student newspaper at the University of Bucharest's Faculty of Journalism.

The year was 1992. Those students, now in their early 30s, are no longer "emerging adults," as I often call students. Now they're accomplished professionals in a variety of fields, from journalism to marketing and advertising; one is a member of the Romanian Parliament. I keep that picture of my early days in Romania in my office at the University of Connecticut and look at it often. It is a snapshot, in both the literal and figurative sense, of lives impacted by democracy and the value of engaging the world.

I returned to the Faculty of Journalism in June 2005 as a short-term Fulbright scholar to teach a 10-day seminar to current students. Best of all, I would help celebrate a reunion with that first class of 50 students. Since my arrival in Romania in the fall of 1991, I have returned a half dozen or more times as a reporter, teacher, and foundation executive. I have kept in touch over the years with many of my former Romanian students as they made their way to American grad schools, were awarded Fulbright fellowships, found jobs in Western Europe and worked their way up the ladder in Romanian journalism and public life.

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But it was clear at our reunion - held at an expensive restaurant that could not have existed when I first arrived in Bucharest - that my former students' lives were now filled with the worries of adulthood: spouses, babies, buying and repairing homes and cars and, of course, finding better jobs.

Their success was what I imagined hard work would bring. Many of them, as I recall, were less optimistic about the future in 1991. We had no textbooks or computers at school. We wore coats in our unheated classrooms.

At our reunion, my former students recalled a journalistic lesson they learned about reporting. When a gasoline price hike was about to take effect in Bucharest, the streets surrounding nearby Cotroceni Palace were filled with long lines of impatient drivers hoping to buy benzina for their cars before prices skyrocketed the next day. I ordered my students out of the classroom to interview drivers about the problem.

The students complained long and loud about the assignment. They worried that no one would talk to them, that people would laugh at them because they were only students and not real reporters; besides, many said, that was not how journalism was done in Romania. "I know," I replied. "That's the point. Go report." So they went out and got quotes and wrote stories and remembered at our reunion 13 years later the value of what they, too, now call "legwork."

Much is different in today's cleaner, more prosperous Romania, heading toward European Union membership in 2007. More of today's Romanian students speak English, and speak it better, than in 1991. In my 2005 Bucharest summer school class, all 16 students carried cellphones and used computers; most seemed more sophisticated about using computer programs than many American journalism students.

Four of the Romanians in last summer's class owned digital cameras. All had cable or satellite TV at home and used the Internet to e-mail friends in Romania and around the world. And while students from that first class have carved out successful lives in a variety of careers, last summer's class of 19-year-olds has just begun that process. They have easier lives in many ways than those in my first class, whom I taught not long after Romania's 1989 Christmas revolution.

The life views of today's students reflect the optimism of a Romania that boasts progressive political leadership and an improving economy. Pensioners can still be seen begging on Bucharest's streets and barefoot children prowl the metro stations in search of handouts. But life is visibly better in the capital and other cities. Unemployment is just over 6 percent and inflation has dropped from 40.7 percent in 2000 to 8.9 percent in January 2006.

Today's students are also a far cry from the "citizen journalists" who emerged throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Like their colleagues from the early 1990s, today's Romanian journalists often find work in professional news outlets while they're still in school, confident that their journalistic tools - as competent and fair-minded as those we use in the US - will carry them as far as their ambitions will allow.

Life is changing rapidly for Romanians, especially young people with brains, education, and a willingness to work.

That first class no longer needs a mentor, but the second one might. There are bright possibilities ahead; I'd like to see what that second group of students will do with their lives. Their accomplishments and values - built on the hard work of the students from the class of 1991 - will make an important difference in what Romania becomes over the next 20 years.

Timothy Kenny, a former journalist, nonprofit foundation executive, and Fulbright scholar, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.

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