Feet-to-ground, pen-to-paper

By Stephany Tlalka

Kroners fly out of my pocket and into a muddy puddle near the trams. I pick them up and jam them into the phone. Looks like I am one kroner short of making a phone call to an interviewee to let him know that I’ll be late. I fish around for another coin, but alas, the puddle heeds no more money. Luckily, my direction skills have improved enough that I know I won’t miss the interview altogether this time. Not like the one I just missed with an important Czech artist, who told me that I wrecked his day.

You might not think it, but I’m actually having a good time.

I’ve taken a nine-day journalism course from Transitions Online (TOL), along with thirty or so other aspiring journalists. The TOL program is a combination of daily lectures, reporting and writing your own story. Lectures span from radio reporting with Rob Cameron (BBC) to war correspondent reporting with Aernout van Lynden and David Rennie (The Economist). There is, of course, modest time to be a tourist. Since the entire course took place in central Prague, I was in a state of constant sight-seeing. On a deeper level, the topics of the students’ stories gave them access to things a tourist might not see, like the orphanage for Roma Children, the U.S. foreign embassy, or the offices of Prague officials in Prague Castle.

Lectures were oriented to breaking into the business and how journalism is changing. Van Lynden talked about his experiences as a war correspondent in a great staff position, at a time when heaps of money went towards the creation of foreign bureaus. David Rennie picked up from there, as a journalist currently posted in Brussels, stringing his way to a weekly column at The Economist via years of building a reputation and surviving off of pasta. His advice: Just get out there and do it while you’re young. So you may come back with some intestinal disorder from all that pasta you’ve been eating, but you’ll have the time of your life.

Listening to these speakers really defogs any misconceptions you might have about being a foreign correspondent. You’re working feet-to-ground and pen-to-paper, sometimes at unimaginable hours for a meagre and occasionally non-existent pay, especially when trying to establish your reputation. The upside: fascinating people, places, and getting the stories that can only be told from being there.

The lectures complemented the work I was doing out in the field. My story was about the Stalin Monument site on Letna Hill, and the ongoing talks about building something new on the site. As part of my story, I tried to find a plaque of some sort that would speak to the history of the spot. I found some words, they just happened to be swinging to and fro on a metronome. Under normal conditions I could’ve easily copied them down, but this metronome was as tall as an apartment building, the words were in a foreign language and my bad vision didn’t help.

Recalling the gut of my superiors, I willed my short legs over the railing beside the metronome. Notepad in hand, I hunched on the ledge (generous by a rock climbers’ standards) and began scribbling the words in Czech as they swung by.

Back at the university, I had them translated. They became important for my background material, and helped me show how little information there was about Stalin at the monument site. 

Overall, writing and reporting in Prague was stressful, but rewarding: I made amends over beers with the disgruntled Czech artist, and came out with a decent story. While I made a few mistakes along the way, perhaps risked my life for a sentence, in the end I was satisfied with myself — and confident that I have a lot more to learn.

Stephany Tlalka is a student at University of King’s College and a contributing editor to the Students’ Lounge of J-Source.