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Visitors inspire columnist (June 9, 2009)

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, IA)
Posted on June 9, 2009

By   Todd Dorman

Sometimes, you get a dose of perspective and inspiration when you least expect it. Mine came Friday afternoon. My boss asked me to sit in on a visit by a pair of journalists from Azerbaijan. I'd like to say I was enthused, but hey, it was Friday afternoon.

I had to hit Google to figure out exactly where Azerbaijan is. As it turns out, it's on a very important piece of real estate bordering Iran, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and the Caspian Sea.

The journalists, including a young columnist, were curious about how an American newspaper operates. They asked a lot of questions through an interpreter about how many employees we have, how many papers we print and so on. They were especially curious about our advertising, who buys it and how much we sell.

This didn't seem like exciting stuff. I admit checking the clock a couple of times. But then, the young columnist turned to the interpreter and spoke for quite awhile. Then the interpreter explained.

The columnist was sorry for asking questions that might seem simplistic, but they are journalists who work or have worked for opposition newspapers that stand up to the nation's oppressive government. They're interested in advertising because it's very difficult for their publications to sell ads. Businesses are afraid to buy them for fear the government will retaliate.

They then went on to talk about journalists who have been beaten, stabbed and jailed in Azerbaijan with either the direct involvement or tacit approval of the government. Others have been silenced through trumped-up lawsuits. Newspapers have been shuttered by a government frightened that its citizens will learn the truth. The columnist said her pieces have been altered by those fearful of retribution.

In short, these young writers are risking much to speak truth to power. I felt a mixture of inspiration and embarrassment.

While I worry over whether I'm using Twitter enough and obsess over blog hits, there are journalists out there taking real hits. I'm concerned about the future of print. They're concerned about a future in prison.

But meeting them was also a much-needed reminder of why I got into this business, and why I'll never regret choosing this vocation, even if it does go the way of the rotary dial phone.

Who knows how long I'll get to do this. But I do know the next time I'm reluctant to write what I think because I'm afraid of nasty e-mail, I'm scared to ask a question that might offend or I'm skittish about tackling a touchy subject, I'll think about our visitors from Azerbaijan.

[Reprinted with Permission]

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