Dispatched to Ukraine, I found a home

The man at the airport baggage check couldn't believe it, and either could the woman at the gate leading to the plane.

"You're going to Ukraine?" they asked. "Why?"

"It's a business trip," I responded.

I went for work, but I talk about it now because of the unforgettable experience.

Daily Press Digital Producer Julie Sanchez and I recently spent five days in Zaporizhia, a city of about 670,000 located in south central Ukraine along the Dnieper River. The city might be a world away, but its residents share interests similar to those of our readers in the Historic Triangle. Archaeologists are trying to preserve the region's history, reenactors entertain and educate tourists and public officials are looking for new and interesting ways to use the water to draw businesses.

Does some of that sound familiar? It should.

Many of Ukraine's challenges are familiar to Americans, the free press in Ukraine, however, has a much different feel than in coastal Virginia. Ukraine became a democratic country just 25 years ago, after the Soviet Union collapsed. The existing government still largely consists of powerful and rich oligarchs who yield influence over regular citizens. It's not an ideal situation.

Because many of them live on meager salaries, Ukrainians are well behind America's technological standards. Newsprint is still alive and well, although online news is available to those who can afford a cell phone or internet connection.

Ukrainian news organizations can learn from the successes and challenges of the American media market. So building a dialogue between journalists in Ukraine and America seems to make sense.

IREX International, a nonprofit group that promotes the exchange of ideas and knowledge in many subject areas around the world, organizes partnerships between American and Ukrainian media organizations through its Ukraine Media Partnership Program. In the past five years, the Daily Press has paired with several Ukrainian newspapers, including Subbota Plus. We've sent our people there, and they have visited our region.

It's a learning experience for both sets of journalists.

The goal for both groups, is to foster a long-term relationship in which the newsrooms continue their conversation about democracy and a free press despite the physical distance between us.

At Subbota Plus, reporters track down leads while pursuing a range of stories that appeal to young and old alike. Reporters are poorly paid compared to American standards and many of them do not own cars (too expensive). Still, quality journalism is pursued daily.

During this trip, it became clear that some tenants of journalism are evident, no matter which country you call home:

•Credibility is journalism's true currency. Just like money, credibility is painstakingly hard to earn and easy to lose.

•Reporters must hold public officials to higher standards. Democracy doesn't evolve unless someone is pushing. With a democracy that's just 25 years old, Ukrainian journalists will have to continue to beat a steady drum for improvements to the country's government.

•Journalists must take the high road. Reporters need to travel down some dusty roads burning shoe leather to pursue stories. That doesn't mean newspapers' political coverage need to devolve into mud slinging and name calling.

•Find the facts and don't publish rumors. In the internet age, reporters are often too concerned about scooping the competition, then finding truth. Without facts, reporters' credibility can easily evaporate.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted. I had managed to learn a few key phrases that helped me in my day-to-day interactions: "Hello," "thank you" and "until we meet again." I learned the latter phrase, because in my heart, I know journalism binds us all, regardless of our physical location. And I'm sure we'll meet again.

Brauchle is deputy editor of the Virginia Gazette. You can reach him at rbrauchle@vagazette.com or at 757-846-4361.

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