A month later, more stories and more learning

Managing newsrooms almost always seems to be about holding planning meetings. They can both be long and boring and not make much progress or short and efficient and not a pain to attend.

Newsroom management is one of my goals for this fellowship and I have come to admire the efficient way these meetings are held at The Kansas City Star.

Sometimes I ask to attend the meetings in the morning where the day’s work is planned.

The managing editor takes control, everybody present sticks to their subject, meaning there is not too much talking and absolutely no time wasted.

Last Monday, one of the editors said he had been in South Kansas over the weekend and had noticed that the wheat appears to be growing faster than usual this year.

Craig, the editor in charge of the metro department, was asked to look into any possible stories on that.

A few minutes after getting back to my desk, Jesse Barker, the assistant city editor sent me that assignment.

I was to get some contacts and possible leads from Judy Thomas, who has written about the subject before.

There are wheat farms in Kenya but I had never written about it. They are in the Rift Valley and I’m based in Nairobi.

But farming, like reporting, is the same all over the world. The circumstances vary from one place to another, though, as I wrote a relatively big story without once seeing a grain of wheat.

It involved doing a lot of research online. First I had a look at the weekly farming report put out by the Kansas Department of Agriculture. These reports are regular and reliable.

It was important to look up the department’s reports. We were working with a theory based on one person’s observations. If the hypothesis that the mild winter and warm spring was to be proven correct, it had to be supported by facts. That report had the facts we needed.

I then looked up the agricultural extension agents and called those in the southern parts of the state to get an idea of what was going on.

There were also farmers to be interviewed and they spoke of the current conditions and their outlook on possible harvest dates.

A man who co-owns a harvesting firm also confirmed he has had to begin preparations to travel south earlier than usual. You can find the story here on  the business page  Thursday morning.

Looking at it and the process through which it was developed, I realized I had also been gaining skills in computer-assisted research and reporting, another one of my goals.

Mara’ Williams and I had also worked on a story about high school students who take college courses while in high school.

Mara’ showed me how to localize a national issue.

Once the national figures are published, she talks to government officials in the local offices. We then looked for and found people who have been involved in the programs and they became the anchors for the story.

This involved a combination of online research as well as the development of a feature based on a national subject. The story was on Page One on Monday, April 22.

It combined computer-assisted research and reporting with the development of feature stories, all of which are in my training plan.

I also managed to squeeze in a happy story about a former cancer patient who made a record and travels around the country singing to cancer patients. He was supposed to go to Nairobi in February but then there was a terror alert and the concert was cancelled.

The pace here is slower than I had expected. This is probably because the newspaper is smaller than it was and there is not a lot of space. It also means reporters have a longer time to prepare and develop their stories and file them.

I have just finished writing a story about a Kenyan in KC. She is a nursing student at a college here and is taking on a project most 23 years old would not.

Her name is Grace Mbuthia and she is fundraising to go hold a medical camp in her village in the Rift Valley in Kenya. When she contacted Jesse, I had thought hers would be a small story.

But Jesse, Mara’ and others in the newsroom told me that people here view charity very positively.

Donald Bradley, one of the reporters, once wrote about a donkey that was unwell and needed treatment.

People called and offered to help.

The Donkey Fund eventually swelled to $10,000. That is about 832,000 Kenyan shillings.

Enough to put up a decent house with all the utilities in.

That said I have just migrated to the business section at The Kansas City Star and had an introduction to the Bloomberg Machine.

That’s a story for another day.

 

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Two weeks at The Kansas City Star, two good features and lessons.

The newsroom at The Kansas City Star is more quiet and relaxed than I am used to.
The editor does not summon the reporters with a shout, the television is not set at a high volume, and one can barely feel the ground move when a big story lands.
Sometimes the loudest sound in the room comes from the men doing the renovations on the other side of the plastic sheeting that cuts the space in half.
But there are similarities with what I am used to. The reporter’s desks piled with paper; reporters on the phone being very polite and then very hard with sources and the familiar sound of typing as copy is fed into the system.
The first week was supposed to be dedicated to training in using the complex system used to file stories. It was thankfully compressed to about 45 minutes. Some of the reporters suggested I train them on using it after the training. They had gone through similar training for two weeks when the new system was introduced but are yet to grasp it fully.
I was immediately immersed into the familiar world of reporting by Mara’ Williams, a higher education writer who is also one of my mentors here.
It was for a story about the improvement in employment rates that has come with the revival of the economy since the infamous slump of 2008.
We called up universities around Kansas City and spoke with the managers of career services. Most confirmed the hypothesis that was the basis for story. Mara’ had researched on the matter, and the people we spoke to reinforced the theory.
Since they could not give us contacts for students who are soon to graduate and had already gotten jobs, we asked that they pass our contacts to them.
I discovered on that assignment that Americans generally respond to emails and voicemail. I was pleasantly surprised every time someone called back.
There was a limitation. The newsroom staff has been trimmed in recent years. This means that to get a photographer assigned, the editors require that an appointment be made at least 24 hours earlier. The student I had talked to on phone was heading home for Easter, and we couldn’t get her photo taken.
The story,  here , was still a success, and was on the front page the next Monday. My byline was thus on page one two days before I was introduced at a reception  two days later. I had imagined it would take three months.

The next assignment was much tougher. It involved attending a meeting where awards were to be handed out. Although the editor, Jesse Barker, had said it would be a short story, and not about the award-winners, I just couldn’t make head or tail of it. All I knew was that it was about cultural diversity and universities.
It was one of those instances where the reporter goes back to the newsroom without an inkling of what to put in the story and a mass of notes.
I put something together, handed it in and waited for a response. Jesse later showed me his edit and said writing on such a subject requires one to find the most interesting thing and put it in the story. It is all that matters, he said, because sometimes, the subjects are just sitting there shooting the breeze and not everything they say is well thought out or necessary in a story. It did turn out well, as you can see here.
That was Tuesday, and my mind was also on another, albeit more interesting story I had been assigned the previous day. I call it The Curious Case of Jesus Torres Salayandia.
Jesus was destined for deportation the following Friday. He was brought to the United States at the age of six when his parents illegally crossed the border and settled in Kansas City.
He went to school here and all he knew about life he learnt in the United States. Jesus’ illegal status was discovered when he was 14 and he left the US of his own volition three years later. He re-entered the country illegally three weeks later and finished high school. He is now 21 in college and engaged to an American girl.
He was put on the deportation list for Friday after getting pulled over for a minor traffic offence 11 months ago. Interestingly, he works part-time at his dad’s garage, from which the Internal Revenue Service gets taxes.
I went over later Tuesday, interviewed him, and arranged to have his photo taken the following day.
When I texted him on Wednesday, Jesus said the Immigration officials told him he had been granted an additional year. The editor wanted the story for the following day.
It was on Page One Thursday.
I have had four stories published so far, the last one about kids and drugs and a new idea to have parents involved.
Two have been straight features. I have learnt that with every story you write, feature or news, having a person on the front makes it more real and interesting. It’s a good way to make news less boring than it usually is.