Wojciech Jagielski was in town for the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City and to promote Night Wanderers, his most recent book in English. The book tells the story of the journalist’s experiences in Uganda covering the 2011 presidential elections and the children-cum-soldiers who are victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Jagielski, a longtime foreign correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading independent newspaper, and now a writer for the Polish Press Agency (PAP), is the author of five books, two of which, Towers of Stone and Night Wanderers, have been published in English by Seven Stories Press.

Ostap Kin, a Ukrainian-born journalist and translator living in New York City, and I sat down for a conversation with Jagielski at the offices of the Polish Cultural Institute, in the Empire State Building. With the Manhattan skyline seemingly close enough to grab, the three of us discussed some of the highlights and developments of Mister Jagielski’s career and how journalism has changed over the last three decades.

Ostap Kin: Could you specify the literary genre you are writing in?

Wojciech Jagielski: In Poland it’s called literary reportage, but I don’t really know what that means. It’s my way of narrating, of talking, of reporting. I started as a news reporter and then it just happened. I never thought that I would be writing books. I just wanted to be a journalist. I started at a news agency [Polish Press Agency] then I switched to a newspaper [Gazeta Wyborcza], and I was lucky because this newspaper was the first independent newspaper, not only in Poland but in the whole Eastern Europe. The newspaper had great ambitions; we wanted to compete with such great titles like The Guardian and Le Monde. They were our competition, not the local newspapers and not the newspapers in communist Europe. I joined the foreign desk. The main interest was the Soviet Union, which was collapsing, and I was an envoy; a correspondent covering the southern part of the Soviet Union — the Caucuses, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia.

I spent about five years there but I wasn’t based anywhere — I was just traveling. There were very important political issues, civil wars that started immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed; small wars of course, but important local ones. I was reporting and reporting and then I found that these news reports [were] not enough. They did not tell the whole picture. It was difficult to write in a small piece, a news report about the civilians who were the main victims of all these processes. So, I tried to write something bigger and step-by-step, one day, they told me that I wrote [what is called] reportage. I gathered these reportages from Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan — they were the first countries I covered, with the Caucasus and Chechnya — and I found out that even if reportage was bigger than a news report, it was still only seed; it wasn’t the whole picture. And that’s how my first book appeared. It was a collection of stories from the Trans-Caucasus.

The subject of the stories was civil war, but not only. Even more, it was expectations and hopes. What did freedom mean to these people? Because, you know, it was a crazy thing to imagine. [I wrote about] what the people expected from freedom, and the disappointments. Because freedom meant that you had to take care of yourself. There was no state that would tell you what to do and what not to do. Before, it was the state that was paying your salaries, which were small, but still. When you are free, you have to take care of everyone’s salary. And there was also poverty. The whole world collapsed for all these people. Such a thing is not for reportage; it’s for a book.

GALO: When you were speaking at the Brooklyn Library, you said that when you were young, you thought the job of a journalist was to be a messenger. Now, you feel the job of a journalist is to select material from a river of information. What has changed? Is it just the advent of the Internet?

WJ: It’s the availability of information. I’ll tell you, when I started to work as a journalist in Poland, I started with the Polish Press Agency. It was the only source of information for all the newspapers, TV stations and radio, who were not allowed to buy directly [from the] Reuters Service. They could only buy from us. So, they didn’t have any choice. Then, after 1989, everybody was free to buy Reuters, but then it wasn’t only Reuters.

If you visited my newspaper in the ’90s, in the middle of the day, you would have seen an empty newsroom, because all the people would be in the city, talking, searching for people to talk to. Now it’s a big change, because they don’t need to hunt for politicians to talk with them; they don’t even need to call them on their mobiles. They look at what they’re writing on their blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook. This is the [new] way of communicating. I cannot understand my son who is 14-years-old; he spends so many hours on the computer and at home. I ask him, “Why don’t you go [out] to meet your friends?” He says, “But I am meeting my friends. I’m talking with them.” This revolution happened in front of my eyes and I’m lost many times.

If you can communicate, you can send information. Before, it was us, the journalists, who were messengers. I was going to Afghanistan and I had to come back and tell what was going on in Afghanistan. Now, there is no need to have me in Afghanistan to know what is going on. Today, the people who are there, they can not only tell you the story, they can show you the story, because they can film [it] with their cell phones. We’re always late as journalists, but now there’s an almost live report.

GALO: So, in your opinion, is journalism going to look a lot more like this — a book like Night Wanderers?

WJ: That’s what is happening in Poland. When I thought about my first book, I had big problems finding a publisher. They were afraid. There were not too many nonfiction books in Poland. They used to publish only literature, not literary reportage. Today, I would say there are hundreds of these nonfiction books published. I’m so surprised, and I think that people in Poland prefer to read these kinds of books. And because journalism is changing for us, for people like me, this is the only way to write: bigger and deeper stories.

I know one thing. Complaining that the world is changing is stupid. I would prefer to be 30 now, but I’m 52. What can I do?

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