Monday, May 18, 2009

The Importance of Being at Large

On the afternoon of May 20, when i face Kansas City Star editorial staffers for what will be a welcome party, it will also be an opportunity for me to set the record straight on many things. It will be the first time i am doing a presentation using PowerPoint, and for many in the room it will be their first time to hear so much about Uganda in 20 minutes. In the weeks before i arrived at the Star, which has won eight Pulitzer prizes over the years, a dubious picture of me that would have made Osama bin Laden proud was pinned on several boards. The picture, a photocopy of the original, has me sporting a goatee that, as it turns out, gave everyone at the Star a very exciting (if lousy) portrait of the reporter from Uganda. For those who were hoping to meet a bearded guy with Buddy Holly glasses, i can imagine how deep the disappointment has been. Mara Williams, higher education reporter for the Star, spoke of someone asking: "How old is that guy?" Well, when other factors are not held constant, i am 27 going on 17.

And so, for good measure, i will circulate the original picture in the room where reporters and editors will converge to hear about Uganda and, yes, Idi Amin. The picture will happily send fiction to the grave, and I will undertake to bury it with the youth on my face. My time at the Star will have officially started.

Yet i have already spent well over two weeks at the Star, for the most part making independent obervations, getting situated and building rapport with reporters and editors. After all, one of my stated objectives is to observe the camaraderie and energy among reporters and editors. A former Friendly Fellow at the Star, Peter Makori, told me long before i entered America that i was lucky to be going to a newsroom that tends to be friendly and helpful to visiting journalists.

He was right. Everyone i have met at the Star has expressed a willingness to be helpful in any way they can, and some have really walked the talk. Greg Moore, Kansas City Star wire editor, has excelled in the role of mentor and friend, regularly taking me places and giving me advice as intriguing as the importance of keeping a handshake firm. On that and many other tips that, quite frankly, i find hilarious, i am a work in progress.

But the story may be quite different from my journalistic work at the Star. I took the necessary stand, in keeping with my own values (and sense of vanity), that if i was going to pen a few stories for the Star, they had better be well written and cool enough. My first story, a human-interest piece on a plumber who assumed that being fit meant being healthy until he suffered a heart attack, was important to the extent that it appealed to a wide section of people that think like Bill Torres, who, interestingly, was given the grim diagnosis during a chance converation with a photo lab supervisor at a Leavenworth CVS store. The rest, as they say, is history. Subsequently, i penned a story about a cultural exchange program that allows Kansas City area teachers to spend at least 11 days in Turkey, and will soon be interviewing two students with extraordinary survival stories. The more i venture out into Kansas City's oft-deserted streets, the more i see opportunities for fantastic human-interest stories. To do this thing, and possibly escalate it, I need to turn off the telly more often than i switch it on. I need to be out. At large.

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