Reporters in some of Europe’s smaller communities inform readers and build a tradition of journalistic independence.
Two of these journalists in Serbia come from different ethnic backgrounds but share a passion for local news.
Nikola Lazic wanted to bring a news outlet to his hometown of Bujanovac, a multiethnic and multilingual community of 40,000 people located near Kosovo.
He founded Bujanovačke, a web portal dedicated to local news such as traffic and waste management. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he hired an Albanian journalist and began to incorporate media analysis and monitoring tools to track readership habits.
“I believe in journalism for the public interest, for the interests of citizens,” Lazic said.
Bujanovačke received support from the USAID Strengthening Media Systems Project in Serbia. That project helped media companies introduce podcasting and accept online payments. The result: Audiences increased by an average of 30 percent.
USAID also helped the portal launch an Albanian language version in 2020. After the Albanian version appeared, viewership nearly tripled in one week, from 45,025 to 130,979 page views.
“Working with USAID helped us understand the power of numbers and analytics,” said Jeton Ismaili, a journalist who speaks Albanian and works on the site. “We learned how we should monitor data and numbers daily so we could understand what to do next, what works for us.”
U.S. provides training and other assistance, but the media outlets remain fully independent editorially.
Having a bilingual media outlet in this Serbian municipality is one way to rebuild the community as citizens from different backgrounds use the site. Years of conflict in Bujanovac ended in 2001 when a peace agreement halted fighting that started during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Combating corruption in Armenia
In Armenia, young journalists hold government officials accountable by exposing and tracking corruption through investigative reporting.
Ani Hovhannisyan interviewed public officials as a young student and dreamed of a reporting career. She earned a scholarship from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan to undertake a master’s degree program in media and management at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. Embassy support and a Fulbright Scholarship later enabled her to complete a second master’s degree in journalism.
After graduation, Hovhannisyan founded the Hetq (or “Trace” in Armenian) data journalism team. Together they created a USAID-supported open database in Armenian, English and Russian. It catalogs the assets and income of public officials in Armenia to provide greater transparency. The team’s research led to the dismissal of a government minister for failing to report her actual income.
The U.S. Embassy-funded Hetq Media Factory (English) (Armenian) offers journalism education and technical support for working reporters. It trains about 30 journalism students annually on fact-checking, investigative journalism, data journalism, visualization, multimedia storytelling and related fields.
One Hetq graduate reported on how gas stations allegedly violated construction and safety standards while another reported on potentially inaccurate COVID-19 reporting to the World Health Organization. Other students wrote an investigative story about reported labor violations at a restaurant.
“Our aim is to prepare quality professional investigative journalists who will fact check before publishing, and go deep on their investigations,” Hovhannisyan said.
Reaching Georgian mountainous communities
Eter Pangani, a network producer in Gurjaani in eastern Georgia, credits USAID for helping journalists build a community nationwide.
Pangani develops content for the Information Centers Network, a nonprofit media group that USAID helped purchase new equipment, set up broadcast studios and train journalists.
“I have become acquainted with many journalists in Georgia and abroad, from whom I can learn and who are always ready to help us,” she said. The network where she works includes three digital media outlets — Mtisambebi.ge, Reginfo.ge and Radio Way — that together reach 100,000 people daily in rural Georgian communities.
The outlets are participants in a $8.2 million USAID-supported project that began in 2014 to assist local media with accurate reporting, news judgment and financial management.
As part of that effort, IREX, a USAID partner, worked with 15 local media outlets to improve their content, expand their online presence and increase their revenue potential.
The 15 participating media outlets began as traditional media and transitioned into multimedia platforms. Their online audience increased by 445 percent between 2016 and 2021.
More than 1,000 students and 150 instructors worked in a multimedia education center that opened in 2011 with USAID support.
During the COVID-19 crisis, local media outlets in Georgia used multiple formats to inform their communities. Radio Atinati, for example, posted advertisements on its Facebook page for local farmers to sell their goods when local travel was limited because of health concerns.