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In Conversation with Kim Hjelmgaard

Kim Hjelmgaard showing a side of Iran that Western audiences don’t often get to see

Viewpoint Editor, Laura Beveridge, talks to USA Today International Correspondent and St Andrews Alumni, Kim Hjelmgaard, about his time spent in Iran, the impact of Trump, and the 2015 Refugee Crisis - amongst other things - as they sit down to discuss his career.

Kim Hjelmgaard is an esteemed international journalist. Since 2017, he has been the International Correspondent for the American internationally distributed newspaper, USA Today. His reportage has taken him across the globe: from reporting in Iran, a rarity amongst Western journalists; to spending time in Ukraine; to following the path of refugees as they travelled across Europe during the 2015 Refugee Crisis, to name but a few examples.

He has also held the title of USA Today’s European Correspondent, London Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, and English Literature student at the University of St Andrews, where he gained his master’s degree in 2000.

When he’s not reporting from one of the four corners of the world, he calls London home, which is where he spoke from when I called him from my own home in Fife.

A relaxed American accent greets me on the other end of the phone. After pleasantries are exchanged, the question of coronavirus seems to loom over the conversation as it so often does these days. He speaks of how it has impacted his own reporting and the challenges it has presented to journalists more generally:

“Like most journalists, I’ve been stuck at home”. Despite this, he states that great, on location reporting has continued: from within small locked down towns in Italy to UK hospitals.

However, he reiterates: “In general, most media have been stuck at home, following along with news conferences or events remotely, doing individual interviews over the phone or through Zoom and Skype.”

Of his own situation, he states: “I’m an international correspondent, so while I’m based in the UK, my day-to-day job is not to cover UK politics in the same way that someone working for a domestic outlet here might. Instead, I move around quite a lot. I had a number of different trips that I was planning and hoping to get going with, but those have all been put on hold. Rather, I’ve had to phone into different countries around the world for information, to speak to people, to get to sources, and that is always trickier than being somewhere: being able to hunt down information; and to meet people; and to see, and taste, and hear, first hand.”

“In the most general sense, the trail brake has forced me, like many others, to have to reach people remotely, and that’s frustrating, often.”

The challenges presented by the virus and the uncertainty that it brings, reminds me of the challenges and uncertainty that will come with studying at St Andrews next year. I mention how this has made me feel reminiscent towards the time that I’ve spent there and wonder what his memories of St Andrews are:

“I studied in the English Department with Douglas Dunn and Robert Crawford. I don’t even know if they’re both still there, hope so.” They are.

“One of my most memorable moments was actually my first day, because Douglas Dunn, who lead the English Department at the time, gathered our little group – 15 or 20 master’s students – into a circle and asked us to have a good look at one and other because he said that approximately 50% of us will end up marrying one and other. As it happened, I was married going into the programme, but it proved true for many of the friends that I made on the course – well, at least for a while it did.”

He mentions that he wrote for one of the student papers in St Andrews but can’t remember which now. He does, however, remember that he wrote some “really loathsome opinion pieces” for them.

“I have really fond memories of St Andrews,” he continues. “It has a lot going on. It felt quite cosmopolitan, despite being a country town. I’ve been back to visit once or twice. It’s a grand place,” he concludes.

Despite partaking in some student journalism during his time in St Andrews, he states that upon graduating St Andrews he hadn’t really considered a career in journalism at all:

“I was more interested in book publishing. I found the whole process quite fascinating and I spent the next seven years in various book publishing roles in the US and UK. But, I kind of reached a point where I was getting tired of the industry. I fell out of love with it a little bit and was looking around for things to do and ended up taking a journalism course a couple of nights a week. At the same time, I was doing some pretty minor kind of freelancing for a couple of different publications; the odd book review…”

“Eventually, I managed to get an entry level spot at Dow Jones, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. I started at the bottom, on the news desk. I had some great mentors who helped me learn on the job and I spent 5 or 6 years there before moving over to USA Today. My boss at the time had just become Editor-in-Chief there. He asked me to join him and has become a career-long mentor to me.”

At USA Today, in 2015, Hjelmgaard published an article under the title “Reporter’s Notebook: Walking with Migrants” in which he followed migrants as they made the taxing 9-day journey from Greece to Germany. Throughout the 9-days, he provided constant updates and details of his encounters with migrants, refugees, and state authorities on his Twitter account:

“Social media, every couple of years, seems to be reassessed in terms of its value, impact, and utility for and to journalism. At the time, it was being used by journalists as a place to look for information that media or officials were broadcasting, and not so much as a place to show the “behind the scenes” of a story, you know.”

He wanted to use Twitter as a way to show the process behind the reporting:

“It was about trying to highlight experiences in real time; to show the difficulties of portraying an experience. Social media is a tool to give an audience a little bit more about the news gathering process and through that about the people, the subjects. I wasn’t the only one using social media this way then, but today, this use of Twitter has become very much part and parcel of reporting.”

I ask him why he felt it was important to make the journey himself and why he chose to report his experiences in the first person.

“We made the decision to make the journey because, at the time, as far as we’re aware, journalists had only been parachuted in to report from particular spots along the route, say the Greek-Macedonian border crossing, but no journalist had followed the route the whole way from Greece to Germany. So, we thought that this was a new way of reporting the story for folks to be able to see the whole experience.”

“When I first set out, I wasn’t expecting to use the first person. Journalists, as a rule of thumb, are not trying to be part of the story. But, as soon as I got to Greece and started speaking to people; watching children show up on the beaches; engaging with families, it just became apparent that the first person was the most intimate and compelling way of telling the story. It brings people closer to the topic.”

In the article, he details some pretty emotional stories. One in particular, the story of 12-year-old Mohammad, who was travelling through Serbia with his family after fleeing from Syria, particularly stood out.

“I’m still in touch with them [Mohammad’s family] today. I’ve visited them two or three times in Austria where they currently live. When I first met them, my oldest son was about the same age as Mohammed and, as a parent, in my head, I was drawing comparisons between their circumstances and my own. You can’t help but be caught up in the emotion of a family who are struggling and it’s tricky to always know how to approach such situations. I don’t have a formula, but I did have some basic parameters about what I was prepared to do and what I wasn’t. You’re always trying to balance keeping your distance and being able to participate in a setting without dominating it.”

“I’ve always tried to be empathetic, though not necessarily taking a side. There’s a belief in journalism that you should try to be “neutral”. But I don’t like that word. I think it’s more about being truthful. There are differences between those two words. This applies to any setting whether your covering a political event or a humanitarian crisis: you’re trying to be truthful, not neutral.”

As well as his time spent on the migrant path, Hjelmgaard was one of the few Western journalists to be granted a visa to report from inside Iran.

Ever self-effacing, he begins: “I should mention that there are many, many dual citizenship and Iranian journalists that report about Iran all the time under difficult and trying circumstances. They bear the brunt of the difficulties of reporting from Iran because they’re much more likely to be observed or arbitrarily detained for faults that are not necessarily their own.”

“The risk of reporting from Iran is not like the risk of reporting from a war-zone, where there’s potential physical harm to your person. In Iran, it’s a psychological risk you’re dealing with because authorities there, although they deny this, detain journalists who haven’t necessarily done anything apart from being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, asking the wrong question. They’ll look at your documents and decide that there’s something wrong with them. Eventually, it snowballs and you find yourself in a situation where they don’t want to let you go and you have no diplomatic representations.”

“I had a very thorough security plan put together with my editors and the leadership at USA Today. I had to check in a couple of times a day and there was a plan for what to do if I didn’t check in. But the reality is that I was told by the Danish diplomatic presence in Tehran (I have a Danish passport) that if I did run into trouble with the authorities, there’s essentially nothing that they could do to get me out. It’s like a tough mental game played with yourself: you have to do everything right, you have to have a security plan, and you have to hope that nothing goes wrong.”

He goes on to talk about the challenges more broadly of international correspondence:

“The challenges change over time. For now, and I hate to bring this back to the Trump Administration, the biggest challenge for international correspondents has been to convince editors that stories need to be covered even when there’s no blatant connecting tissue back to Trump policy or the latest Trump meltdown on Twitter. Some stories are just about a place, just about a particular set of circumstances. It’s become difficult to report these stories because the appetite is for articles that are connected to Trump’s rhetoric.”

Aside from this, he states that: “In mainstream media, the numbers around supporting foreign trips have become harder and harder to justify. Doing foreign correspondence involves spending a lot of time on the ground, talking to people, understanding context. It’s expensive. Across the board, I think you could say with confidence, that international coverage is becoming harder to justify and being cut back.”

Finally, he offers some advice to aspiring journalists.

“First of all, it’s about having perseverance. If you’re determined to do it, keep on fighting to get your foot in the door and there’s many different ways and methods to do this. Be prepared to have to take other jobs – that’s what I did. I took a series of crazy, bizarre jobs while I was trying to get into journalism.”

“Perseverance is far more useful than inherent talent. People think that they can get by with talent alone, and, of course, there are some who can, but that didn’t apply to me. I got here with perseverance and dedication.”

“Then, there are those lucky few who will gain experience in a newsroom every year, but those are like winning the lottery as there are so few spots available and competition is intense. Set yourself up as a freelancer and send your best pitches around to different editors and publications, getting published though is again a bit like winning the lottery.”

In regard to international correspondence:

“One thing that helps is setting yourself up in a foreign place, particularly in a foreign place where there are not a lot of correspondents currently. This is a relatively tried and tested route into foreign correspondence. For some people moving abroad is the motivation for getting into international correspondence anyway, and for others I understand that this is completely unfeasible.”

More often than not though, he states:

“You also need luck, and this is something that you can’t legislate for. But if you persevere, and network, and set yourself up as a freelancer, and have a little luck on top of that, that should hopefully get you there.”

“I hope that’s not discouraging,” he finishes, “but it is realistic”.

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