YANGON, Myanmar — In the shadows of the ancient Buddhist shrine at the Shwedagon Pagoda, they emerged out of the sweeping monsoon rains into the faded, colonial elegance of the Savoy Hotel.
Lugging hard cases loaded down with cameras and audio gear, shouldering backpacks stuffed with laptops, notebooks and umbrellas protruding at awkward angles, they did not look much different from so many other generations of journalists drawn to this place over the decades to document Myanmar’s dramatic and still unfolding history.
They are twenty top, young reporters — nine from the United States and 11 from here in Myanmar, also known as Burma — brought together through a unique partnership between the New York-based Open Hands Initiative and GlobalPost for a reporting fellowship. Throughout the month of June, we will be dedicating the GroundTruth blog to chronicle their journey. And we invite you to join us as we set out.
The journey will take us along the Burma Road through pockets of ethnic and sectarian tension and all the way to the border with its powerful neighbor China. We’ll travel the banks of the Irrawaddy and its fertile but vulnerable Delta. We’ll search for lessons amid the remains of its ancient capitals and in the surreal architecture of a new capital built out of the jungle less than a decade ago. We will explore the bustling markets and busy ports of a booming and rapidly changing Yangon. We will plunge into the calmer waters of Inle Lake. We’ll also explore the light, shadows and driving rain of a land that served as a muse to the likes of George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling, just as it has for the newer voices of Burma’s own modern intellectuals like Thant Myint-U and now for a whole new generation of storytellers.
These 20 young journalists will participate in a series of seminars and workshops in a newsroom we have set up here at this storied hotel where they’ll come together to produce a GlobalPost Special Report. The working title is “Burma Telling Its Own Story,” and we are set to publish the series of written dispatches, photo essays, video segments and audio reports next month.
The team is bound by a very simple but transformative idea. That is, having young American journalists work together as equals with top reporters from the country they are covering can change the equation of the journalism they will produce. The Americans are more informed by learning from the local knowledge of their Burmese counterparts who work in a media landscape that is opening up in new ways here. And the journalists from Burma pick up on an aggressive American spirit of inquiry that emerges from the newsrooms, the graduate schools and the lives of struggling freelancers from which the American journalists have arrived.
In other words, there is a power of two that comes from bringing together these two cultures in the makeshift newsroom here. The journalism is better and more informed, and the team has a chance to forge bonds with colleagues and friends that we hope will grow over many years and help this country in its transition to democracy by strengthening its capacity for freedom of expression after decades of the ruling military junta’s brutal censorship and nearly absolute control over the media.
Those of you who follow this blog will remember this is not the first time we have done this partnership with the Open Hands Initiative. In late 2011, we put together a similar project in Egypt titled “Covering a Revolution.” We saw how well the concept worked in Cairo at a critical time in Egypt’s history, and we hope to be equally effective here. The partnership emerges from the core mission of the Open Hands Initiative, a non-profit organization that supports unique projects around the world that promote what its founder and chairman Jay Snyder calls “people to people diplomacy.” Snyder, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, is a passionate practitioner and generous supporter of public diplomacy and he will join us later in the journey.
The idea of “people-to-people diplomacy” might sound a bit idealistic in its approach, particularly for an old-school foreign correspondent like myself who has reported for nearly three decades in the field and fought off the creeping cynicism and the depressing culture of decline that has set in for too many traditional news organizations. Well, it is idealistic, but most importantly I have learned that it is effective in producing top quality journalism.
And it is also a hell of a lot fun to have a chance to teach and hopefully inspire a team of talented young people who we will be deploying to many corners of Burma to report on a country that lies at a crossroads in its own history.
These young journalists are gathered here to hone their skills, to take some time to develop their craft and to experiment with new ways of storytelling in the digital age. This is the mission of our new foundation-supported initiative, The GroundTruth Project, which we announced last month.
I am joined in heading up the effort by my colleague, award-winning photographer Gary Knight. He and I assembled a team of veteran journalists to help us lead the seminars and workshops. They include: NPR’s longtime Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan; documentary producer and Asia Works founder Marc Laban and producer Ratchada Chitrada; award-winning independent photographer Philip Blenkinsop; AP bureau chiefs Aye Aye Win and Denis Gray. We’re also joined by The GroundTruth Project’s own Kevin Grant, who is on hand to share lessons on writing for the web and social networking.
The team leaders are mentoring this extraordinary team of reporting fellows who were selected from a field of more than 400 applicants. Their profiles can be viewed at the Open Hands Initiative website. They are here to work together and learn from each other as they set out on this reporting journey into a rapidly changing Burma. We hope you’ll follow us along the way.
(GlobalPost co-founder and Editor-at-Large Charles M. Sennott heads up The GroundTruth Project, which is dedicated to the next generation of international correspondents by offering training and resources to carry out in-depth and investigative reporting projects in under-reported corners of the world.)