I learned that the Saudis care deeply about journalism and want to learn how to do it better, just like those of us who care about journalism in the U.S. Among the differences: Women work at home and newspapers there are printed on glossy paper.
(May 21, 2008) — Last November, I got an email in inviting me to apply for a visiting professorship at King Saud University (KSU). I had never heard of the university nor had I ever heard of Professor Ali Alkarni, who sent the invitation email.
An internet search revealed both to be legitimate, so I applied — I am a journalism professor at Central Michigan University and a resident of Bowling Green, Ohio. — and was offered the position.
I began to prepare my major address on trends in U.S. journalism and material for my seminars with KSU students and journalists from the Al-Jazirah newspaper, a daily Arabic publication based in Riyadh and the sponsor of my visiting professorship. (By the way, the newspaper is not
affiliated with the Al-Jazeera satellite television news channel.)
My academic title, Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism, looked very nice on the banner behind me when I gave my speech on trends.
Located in the capital city of Riyadh, the King Saud University campus — for men only — is massive. It is all in sandstone and gives off a gold hue. All Saudi men wear a white robe and a headdress. Most headdresses include a
white and red scarf. Dormitories are adjacent to the campus, not part of it like most U.S. universities.
On April 26 during my first visit to King Saud University, I was given an office in a building that is not nearly as fancy inside as its exterior. But I was grateful and it has the internet. Now I could make up for my busted Blackberry and find out what had been going on in the world while I was out of touch.
The next day I gave my speech on “Trends in American Journalism.” The bad news, of course, is that young adults avoid print newspapers and are not spending enough time on newspaper websites to make up for it. More bad news is that young adults prefer to get their news, when interested, in a first person, opinionated style as one would get from TV news or bloggers. These trends do not seem so far along in Saudi Arabia.
On April 27, I conducted my first seminar on basic news writing. Male students attended in person — and female students at the Girls’ University a few miles away participated by closed circuit television.
Later in the week, I was taken to the office of the rector of King Saud University, Dr. Abdullah Al-Othman. He is the equivalent to the president of an American university. Young, energetic, in his 40s and on the job for about a year, the rector is intent upon turning King Saud University into a world class university and increasing its graduate programs to make up 40 percent of the student body.
He said KSU intends to be the equivalent of Ohio State University by 2020 and the equivalent of Harvard by 2040. “Our initials will also stand for Knowledge Society University,” he said in perfect English.
We talked about research projects of common interest, particularly those regarding youth and young adults (one of my newspaper research themes). He expressed concern about the way U.S. citizens perceive his country and
suggested research projects in that realm. He asked my views on U.S. presidential race. I said I favored Barack Obama and that I thought Obama had a more magnanimous view of the rest of the world than the incumbent and his opponents.
I added that Obama appears to inspire the younger generation in much the same way as John F. Kennedy affected my generation. I said Kennedy inspired me to want to go into public service and to want to make the world a better place. “I see my visit here as fulfilling Kennedy’s vision,” I said.
That night I went to the headquarters of the Al-Jazirah newspaper, my benefactor, to meet with chief editor Khalid Almalik. While soft-spoken, he struck me as a fierce competitor and a strong leader of the newspaper. I
later learned that he has an international reputation as a top-flight editor. He reminded me of a U.S. newspaper editor whose reporters would go all-out to get the story.
Almalik gave me two books he has written about the king. I gave him my two books about USA Today. Not sure it was a fair trade.
Saudi newspapers are printed on glossy newsprint, more like magazines in the United States. I was told it was to keep magazines from starting. Business news is surpassing sports news in reader interest, I was told.
Being driven back to the hotel through mile after of mile of bustling business districts, I learned that prime time shopping in the kingdom is the evening. Every evening. The bright lights of commerce made for a glitzy scene.
On May 1, I conducted a seminar on the effects of the internet on the newspaper business at Al-Jazirah headquarters. The audience in the seminar room was all men. Next door, the women journalists — who generally work from home – again participated by closed circuit television.
After three days of sun and heat a sandy haze covered Riyadh. It stayed that way for the rest of our visit.
We got through how to write obituaries in my news writing seminar with King Saud University students. I promised to discuss feature writing, covering speeches and meetings, and conducting interviews during a return visit.
Some Saudis are not crazy about us. In one rest room I saw the “USA”scratched out on a hand drier. They are concerned about the way Muslims are often portrayed as villains in U.S. movies and media; that women are often portrayed as sex objects in western media, which runs counter to Muslim beliefs; and that some U.S. citizens display a superior attitude toward the Saudis and other Arab people.
Yet my wife Kay and I could not have been treated better. Our hosts, journalism professor Ali Alkarni and mass communication department chair Ibrahim Al Baeyeyz, saw to all our needs.
We learned that the Saudi people we met care about the same things we do: their families, their children, their professions, their religion and their society. Yet we Americans differ greatly over the role of women in society and the limits placed on female journalists. Nonetheless, we Americans have much more in common with the Saudis than we have differences and there are hints that their
policies toward women may be gradually changing.
I learned that the Saudis care deeply about journalism and want to learn how to do it better, just like those of us who care about journalism in the U.S. I went there to tell them how we do journalism in the U.S., not to tell them how they should do journalism. Journalism practices reflect the unique history and culture of our respective countries.
On departure day, May 5, I simultaneously regretting leaving — and was anxious to get back to the States. In the words with which I concluded my
>final class, “To be continued.”
John Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and the author of two books about USA Today. His essay “Assessing USA Today As 25th Anniversary Approaches” was published by E&P on Sept. 6, 2007.