Newsroom trauma and other stories

Business at The Star

It’s not as messy as we are used to but we are getting there.

A lot of my colleagues at The Kansas City Star have been going off on furlough.

Furlough basically involves taking unpaid leave. The company demands that the employees do it and it is part of a strategy to cut its cost.

So they take off for a week, are not allowed to do anything work-related, like finish a story, talk to sources or call the editor on a lead.

When your employer demands that you don’t show up at the office and is emphatic that he does not want to see or pay you for a length of time, it can be depressing.

It doesn’t mean that he does not need your services. It means that he cannot afford to pay for them.

It is a sign that the newspaper world in the United States is traumatized.

Newspapers are doing badly for two reasons; the economy is not doing very well and every little piece of news you need is available online and on TV.

Who needs a paper to tell them what happened yesterday when a Twitter search or a news feed on a website can provide all that?

It is part of the reason there were massive layoffs here some time back. I’m told two thirds of the staff left.

Unemployment is a national issue. While the economy is certainly doing better than it was two or three years ago, things are still not looking up for a lot of people.

This was the subject of the biggest story I participated in writing on my second week at the business desk. It involved going out with photographer Jim Barcus and talking to people looking for employment.

Diane Stafford, a colleague, had done the basic research and identified a person I was to speak to. She had a bunch of statistics from a recent research on jobs.

These were national figures. It does not make much sense to throw statistics at readers. It’s more sensible to break it down and then weave them into a story.

It has been one of the best lessons I have learnt about the development of feature stories, which is one of my goals for this fellowship.

The story was on Page One on Friday May 11.

One of the big stories the previous week was also about jobs, this time based on numbers released by the Department of Labour, the American equivalent of the Labour ministry.

It happened to be the same day a Kansas City organization that caters for self-employed freelancers was holding a sort of expo down the street from The Star.

It was, once again, one of those places where I went in with a sort of blank slate, had a chat with a few people and then developed the story idea.

I would talk with someone who has been a freelancer for long, before the economy tanked and one who was forced to strike out on their own after the economy tanked.

Both happened to be photographers. The experienced one was leaning on a counter next to his display, sipping on a Coke and rum and the less experienced was standing behind her table, smiling at the people who came by.

The idea worked well and fitted with the main story on jobs by Diane. It was a short sort of news feature. I learnt that sometime, luck is a big part of the process with journalism.

Luck was also a big part of another job I handled over the past week.

They called it the International Food Aid and Development Conference and it was being held in Kansas City this year, not for the first time.

We had several offers to interview some of the main speakers at this annual meeting and I took up that to speak with Michael Scuse, an under-secretary at the United States Department of Agriculture.

It made a good local story since a lot of farmers and businesspeople in Kansas and Missouri are involved in either growing or handling the food that eventually ends up feeding those facing famine in various parts of the world.

There were reminisces of home here because a part of Kenya was affected by the drought that ravaged the Horn of Africa last year. Having also been in Somalia before I came here, it was also interesting to see and listen to another perspective of the story.

Most of you have also probably heard about tornadoes. They are a big part of life here in the MidWest and there was the mother of all tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri last year.

As a result, more people have been buying shelters-small, hardy rooms that are safe havens in times of severe weather. It was a business story at heart but a great feature that taught me how to humanize the dry-sounding stuff of business and pass on useful information to consumers.

Also, the story about the Kenyan nursing student I mentioned in the last posting did finally run. There was also a book review on a new title, Running with the Kenyans.

Happy stories.

I’m sitting close to the Features section, where I’m headed next Monday. There are no clear boundaries. Perhaps that’s why the editors there are already suggesting stories I can do- one has just handed me a report on TV sales and another has suggested I start researching on ballet for a story.

It is also perhaps the reason I have never gone back to the Bloomberg Machine.

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