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.