The International Institute of Buffalo made last Friday a very memorable day in my journalism career.
Five men and women from Russia visited Bee Group Newspapers as part of a program organized by the Open World Leadership Center. I had been contacted earlier by Emily Korona, international exchanges program coordinator, about a visit to discuss “the operation of a local American newspaper and its relations with various government bodies.” I accepted in a heartbeat.
The visitors were from Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, the third-largest city in Russia. It is just about in the middle of the sprawling country, not on the Pacific Ocean or abutting Alaska as one might think.
The point man of the delegation was Artem Demchenko, a local newspaper editor as well as chairman of the Novosibirsk Region Homeowners Association.
He was serious and studious, asking questions about our circulation figures, advertising rates and overall news operations.
The biography he provided for the visit stated, “I wish to get to know the nitty-gritty of a typical local American newspaper and to learn more about local newspapers’ relations with various government bodies.”
I could not help but think that 50 years ago, a visit such as this would have been impossible. I told Demchenko that in 1962, many Americans were building bomb shelters in their homes out of fear that the Russians would attack us. The lack of animosity Friday afternoon was palpable.
Admittedly, I know very little about modern Russia and still find it difficult to avoid calling it the Soviet Union. This knowledge is rooted in historical figures ranging from cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. My guests seemed to have little interest in either.
Yet Aleksey Tvorogov, manager of “Revival of Siberia,” a youth charitable foundation, knew who Spiderman is. Plus, he likes the Blues. In looking at newspapers from 1962, he said John F. Kennedy was his favorite American president.
Facilitator Olga Pastushenko had the advantage of having previously visited the United States. Her English was fairly good, and she knew the major landmarks in New York City and Washington, D.C., where the delegation’s American experience began. She is in charge of the Moscow office of Kidsave International, another charity.
Someone in the group asked if our newspapers are independent from local governments. They seemed surprised that there is a free flow of information between the town hall and the newsroom. They also wanted to know if the average resident was permitted to submit stories for publication, or if the staff wrote all of the content. They do not print obituaries.
The publication Tvorogov runs began as a newsletter, then grew to a conventional newspaper. But now that outside funding has evaporated, he is contemplating going to strictly a digital version since nearly all the households in his community have computers. However, the technology at his disposal for such an effort is limited - as proved by throwing up his hands in an “I don’t know what to do” gesture.
Clearly, the members of the delegation have a passion for their community. They are seeking ways to improve life in Novosibirsk both by working within the city and learning from people in other countries. They are committed journalists, scientists and advocates for the young.
We did not talk about the G20 Summit taking place this week in Mexico. We did not talk about the alleged sale of arms by Russia to Syria. We did not talk about the trustworthiness of President Vladimir Putin. We just talked. Like friends.
Ever since I learned I would be meeting these people, the lyrics to an ‘80s song by the recording artist Sting has filled my head: “We share the same biology. Regardless of ideology. What might save us, me, and you is that the Russians love their children too.”(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)