John K. Hartman
Author of The USA Today Way books

Crossing cultures: Local professor teaches at Saudi Arabia university

Saturday, February 21, 2009, Delaware, Ohio, Gazette


Liz Robertson
Staff Writer


Well-known within his profession, quoted as an authority on the newspaper industry and the author of two books, it is probably no surprise to many of his colleagues that John K. Hartman was selected as the Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Yet it may be a surprise that the esteemed educator currently lives in Liberty Township.

The local professor spoke to the Gazette recently about his experiences in Saudia Arabia.

“They are in the process of becoming a modern progressive society and we think them a third world country,” Hartman said.

Hartman received three degrees from Bowling Green State University — a bachelor’s in journalism, a master’s degree in broadcast news and his doctorate in communication.

“Three different degrees. Three different decades,” he said.

Working for the Ashland Times Gazette and the Toledo Blade, in public information for the state of Ohio and teaching at BGSU, Hartman worked his way up to full professor at Central Michigan University. He even found time to serve on Bowling Green’s local board of education for several years.

“It was my major public service thing,” he said.

Receiving the chair

It was in November 2007 that Hartman received an e-mail from a professor with King Saud University asking him if he would be interested in the chair at the school.

“I never knew him. I never knew the university. The only word I knew in the message was journalism,” Hartman said.

Yet the fact that there was a mass communication department piqued his interest to the point that he responded. Following a brief relationship by e-mail, Hartman ultimately applied for the position and was invited.

“This is serious,” Hartman realized, working out details on when to come and what to teach including seminars and panels. Initially to be there three weeks in March 2008, the Hartmans had tickets in hand but were advised by the State Department the day before they were to leave to not board the plane until they had the proper paperwork and visas that were slow in coming.

“We did not understand the magnitude of getting the visa. Saudi is a very controlled society,” he said. “There we were all dressed up, ready to go to the dance and everything fell apart.”

They did not make the flight. But after work on both sides and time off from work was reorganized, a couple months later the Hartmans left for Riyadh for two weeks at the end of April. The visit worked out very well and the couple returned for two more weeks in January and plan to return again in November. Hartman now has a four-year commitment to the chair.

“It was a very rigorous… ,” Hartman said; “… stimulating … ,” Kay Hartman added; “… undertaking,” Hartman concluded.

“Every promise they made to us they did — plane tickets, hotel accommodations, driver, translator, meals. We were treated like visiting dignitaries,” Hartman said, adding that the Saudis were a very hospitable, friendly people.

Saudi education

Hartman said Saudi Arabia is currently putting billions in education.

“They really believe education is the key to the future,” he said. “One of the commonalities we have with the Saudis is we both care about education. I think we have a great common interest with commitment to education.”

He found college students there not that much different from those here.

“Kids are kids. Some are very interested. Some are not,” he said.

Both the students and journalists attending Hartman’s lectures speak English at varying degrees, understanding some or all of what Hartman said before the translator spoke.

“I’ve been known to tell a joke or two at the beginning of class,” he said, adding he noticed students understanding what he said was like a wave going through the class.

With many of the students from his first visit attending the more advanced classes in journalism he presented this past month, Hartman said he had a better rapport with the students, noticing the nonverbals.

“Whether you’re getting smiles, nods or they’re looking off into space,” he said, “the second time, the nonverbals were more positive.”

Women in Saudi Arabia

Hartman’s wife, Kay, also with an extensive background in education, talked about the role of women in Saudi Arabia. In public, they wear an abaya, a long, loose robe. Women cannot drive (they have chauffeurs), leave the country without permission from a male relative and cannot have a bank account. But, she added, women are well-respected.

“It’s a difference we are not used to, but not horrid,” she said.

Visiting the girls’ university, she learned that women dressed the same as Westerners once within their compound walls.

“In here we are free,” she was told. “Women can see each other, just the men can’t see women.”

During her visit, Kay Hartman said she was whisked off and treated like she was someone important as she was provided with coffee, dates and cookies.

“They were very interested in the U.S. education system,” she said. “They value our higher education system.”

She found it interesting that they were still investing in the girls’ university, adding to the library and residence halls and adding a mini-recreation center, even though they knew in eight months they were vacating the facility.

“In the United States, if they know they are going to vacate some place, they do not continue to build,” she said.

Media, culture and misconceptions

“They consume our media,” Hartman said, adding Saudis watch American movies on the Internet and TV, yet, “we do not know them.”

Kay Hartman met one woman who had visited several cities in the U.S. but would not go to Chicago because of the gangs. The woman based her knowledge on Robert Stack in “The Untouchables,” which ran on TV in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

“Misconceptions between cultures come from a variety of places that don’t make sense,” she said.

While in the country in January, the Hartmans had hoped to travel to some of the lush areas outside the city, but because of the Gaza war were told it would not be safe to travel.

“They think the United States is too favorable to Israel,” Hartman said. “I told them every group gets portrayed as a villain at some time. We’re an equal opportunity villain portrayer. I think our journalism is pretty fair here.”

Hartman, who writes regularly for Editor & Publisher, said when an article on the Detroit Free Press cutting back on its print edition was published online, there were lots of hits, but when he wrote a column about what is going on in Saudi Arabia, there was “no traffic whatsoever. Even people in the industry are not interested.”

Hartman included questions about Saudi Arabia in a survey he conducted with students at Capital University and found out that many thought the country was a democracy.

“I learned we don’t know,” he said.

In Saudi Arabia, the broadcast media is controlled by the state while newspapers are privately owned.

“Their journalism reflects their culture. They are a kingdom. When the king does such and such it is page one, much like our president would be on page one,” Hartman said.

Interpersonal relationships are very important to the Saudis with photos a big part of the paper. Only the photos are of people at meetings and not accidents, like in the United States. The newspaper is glossy and in color; Hartman was told they are trying to keep magazines out.

“I think it’s important for people here to understand their media reflects their culture, like ours does,” he said, noting that the country is changing with more councils and talk of elections, even possibly changes in policies towards women.

Sharing knowledge

“We don’t know Saudi Arabia. I think we should be better friends. We have a lot in common. We need to get to know them better,” Hartman said. He talked briefly about student exchange programs where Saudis come here for an education, but we do not send our students there.

The State Department is pleased the Hartmans will continue their visits to the country.

“They need people to see what kind of people we are, so I feel a responsibility to our own country to be a good ambassador for our country to foster peace and understanding,” Hartman said. “In some way, I feel what I’ve done all my life has been a training ground for this. I was raised by broad-minded people … They would have felt this something worthy.”

Both Hartmans are willing to speak to area school classes and other groups about their experiences. Contact them at, or



John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.  He is the author of two books, "The USA Today Way 2: The Future" (2000) and "The USA Today Way" (1992).  He has examined much of the research done on young adult newspaper readership and is a widely quoted source on the topic.  Jacqueline Hartman provided editing assistance to the author.

In August 2008 Dr. Hartman covered and blogged the Democratic National Convention for the Mount Pleasant, Mich., Morning Sun. In 2008 Dr. Hartman was named the Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and visited the kingdom to lecture, teach and give seminars. He is scheduled to return in 2009. To learn more about King Saud University, visit

Copyright © 2009, John K. Hartman.  All Rights Reserved.