Some nagging questions

One of the most nagging questions for a taxpayer in any country usually is, “Where does the money I pay in taxes go?”

If the roads are clean, smooth and wide, the water mains full of clean water, the power lines crackling with electricity most of the time and the schools running well and the teachers not complaining, that question is easily answered. My tax money is being put to good and proper use.

But that is often not the case in many countries, Kenya included, and the press in such countries needs to keep an extra vigilant eye on the government and its spending.

The press in the U.S. is at an advantage when it comes to this because of the ease with which it can access documents and records on their government. The Kenyan press and the government can learn from this.

Often, when we in the Kenyan press suspect or even know that a Government official has had a hand in the tax cookie jar, we lack access to the records that would help establish the truth. It means you have to rely on sources, most of whom will insist on anonymity to keep their jobs, documents that are often incomplete or which have been taken away from the records without the permission of those who keep them. It creates a perfect environment for corruption and cover-up.

We need a Freedom of Information Act in Kenya. Government officials have said in the past they are preparing a bill to make that possible but it has mostly been all talk and no show. One reason the bill has been late is the fact that we are still in the process of implementing the new Constitution. With Parliament’s agenda crowded by the mass of new bills and not forgetting good old politicking, the Freedom of Information Act somehow gets thrown to the bottom of the in-tray.

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One of the most nagging questions for newspaper men in the United States over the past three or four years has been; what can we do to keep the business going? How can we avoid the imminent collapse of this wonderful and important line of work?

There is little doubt the business is on the decline and most newspapers seem to be headed down the digital path. It could lead to massive losses of jobs because you need fewer people to put a paper online than you need to print and distribute a newspaper.

News outlets have found an increasing need to have a presence on social media, with online editors encouraging reporters to direct followers and friends to their websites. Reporters also find that readers have more access to them, and they can respond to queries faster than ever.

I have not noticed much difference between the use of social media here and back home. Reporters are generally encouraged to report breaking news on social media, to treat online sources as they would tips from any other source of information and to be careful what they say on Facebook and Twitter.

It has also become necessary to come up with a social media policy in newsrooms.

News is doubtless headed the digital way and the least we can all do is adjust to it.

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We start the final month of this fellowship in a few hours. The end is a few weeks away. At this point, most of my colleagues at The Star ask what I have enjoyed doing, which section I liked working in more and where I want to spend the final days of the fellowship.

Reporting and writing is almost the same all over the world, so that while there were differences in the subjects and the style, it was basically the same thing I do in Nairobi. If anything, the pace here is slower but the quality of the final product better and better planned.

That said, the most enlightening place I worked so far was in the video department, where I was shooting video for the website.

Although I have been on assignment with TV reporters before, it made me realize that half the time I was in the dark about what they were doing.

This has changed due to the training with Reuben Stern at the University of Missouri and the practical work with Monty Davis, Todd Feeback and Mike Ransdell at The Star.

Monty is the video editor and he allowed me to go out by myself with a camera and shoot and do interviews for several stories. I accompanied Todd and Mike on assignment and got a working introduction to the video process. They have been extremely helpful and I look forward to applying all the skills I gathered in the two weeks I worked with them.

I should be headed to the Sports Department for the next three weeks. It should be Olympics-size fun.

 

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Opinion and a look at the future

One of the main differences between The Kansas City Star and most other newspapers I know is the existence of an Editorial Page department here.

At the Daily Nation, there is an Associate Editor in charge of the opinion pages-that’s the page on which there is the cartoon of the day, the paper’s editorial and the other where Letters to the Editor are published. This section is managed by at most two people on a day-to-day basis.

At The Star, there’s five people doing the same job, among them Miriam Pepper, the Vice President Editorial Page, who also happens to be one of my mentors.

I have been learning the ropes here too. Unlike the metro, features and business desks, this was completely new ground for me. Reporters report; they are not in the habit of giving their opinions on what they write.

It thus necessitated a switch from a reporting mentality to an editorial-writing mood.

Although the expectation to know everything about Africa had informally been suggested before, it was more pronounced here. My arrival also coincided with the announcement of a new strategy on Sub-Saharan Africa by the Obama administration.

I had a look at the document, found that it sounded like a good declaration of intent but was also generally vague and saying little beyond the current engagement of the United States with Africa, and hopefully managed to put all that here.

Let me enter the caveat here that I lean more on the skepticism side as far as the strategy is concerned.

It was also around the same time the elections in Egypt were coming to an end, and I also wrote an editorial about the expectations from the Tahrir Square revolution. With the distance between Kansas City and Egypt and the fact that this is a local paper, I felt that that was enough editorial writing about Africa.

Working here has also helped me learn much about planning and some newsroom management.

The Editorial Board does not work weekends, meaning the pages have to be prepared in advance. Thursday and Friday are thus very busy days as the pages are laid out and the columns prepared and edited. Advance planning enabled the paper to have an editorial out on the Obamacare decision by the Supreme Court within minutes of the announcement.

I have always enjoyed editing and there have been plenty of opportunities here to practice. Some of the headlines I wrote were unchanged.

The blog on MidWest Voices has also given me a chance to practice some opinion writing.

That’s that, and we move on.

One of my goals for the fellowship is video-editing and script-writing. This is to get on the path journalism is said to be headed; where reporters are not merely writers but all-rounded  and can produce stories in several formats.

The 24-hour news cycle and the increasing ease with which people get news, courtesy of the internet, means even newspaper journalists like myself will need to provide more than copy in the newsrooms of the future.

I thus jumped when James “JW” Edwards, a photographer at Fox 4 TV, a Kansas City station associated with the national Fox TV offered to have me spend a day with him.

We met at a gathering hosted by the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists.

Glenn E. Rice (right), JW and I at the KCABJ gathering in May.

We had had to postpone this plan when JW was called in to work at 3 am on the Monday we had initially scheduled for this.

I took a break from The Star to do this.

We started by having a look at the studio, where the morning news show was going on, an introduction to the staff, where we chatted with one of the online editors in Swahili and sitting in at the morning planning meeting.

Things move much faster at a TV station so we were soon in the sweltering heat in a van rushing over to the local headquarters of the American Red Cross to do a live shot for the midday news bulletin.

JW and Katie Ferrell from Fox 4

JW taught me the basics on how to handle the camera, focus and shoot steady pictures.

It was the beginning of the current heat wave and later that afternoon we went out to Northeast Kansas City and shot a gymnasium run by the police whose air-conditioning had broken down.

Most of the work at Fox 4 is still done the traditional way- with a photographer and reporter- but there is also a video-journalist, Terra Hall.

She goes out, shoots the video, does the interviews and then gets back to the office and edits the video, writes the script and prepares the final product. All she requires is a camera and a MacBook with Final Cut Pro software for the editing. She made it look easy- and that was encouraging- but it requires a bit of training plus the good old storytelling.

It was exciting to see that it can be done. There are numerous opportunities to tell stories this way- that unique feature, that breaking news story, that other exclusive…

The Star has some excellent videographers and I have been informed that I shall be spending next week with them. Very timely plan, isn’t it?

The studio at Fox 4. Camera robotics and just one guy to watch over them as the anchors do their thing.