Monday, August 17, 2009

In Google's Name, For My Sake

I look forward to 9 a.m. these days. Which is a strange obsession, considering that i don't gain full sobriety until about noon, by which time my caffeine intake has driven me to torment Google with all sorts of questions.

Mr. Google isn't on the Star's editorial board, whose morning meetings i have been attending since July 27, regularly taking my seat next to the men and women who voice the paper's stand on the day's major issues. The foreigner that i am, i have been less inclined, or perhaps not qualified, to contribute greatly to the discussions, choosing intead to listen while retaining the possiblity to ask an important question or laugh at a clever joke.

Even if i have lived in Kansas City for nearly five months, and while i have been to some places of the type i would never care to visit in Kampala, Kansas City is still not my turf. I do not care whether Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be recalled for allowing his relatives to be a ubiquitous presence around City Hall, and i do not give a damn if the cash-for-clunkers program is not taken to the next level.

What i really care about, and what makes the meetings special for me, is the kind of intensity that often defines them, the question deployment that dismantles a hot topic and leaves it so exposed, even ugly. In the rare moments when there may be some disagreement among the board members, it is still not hard to see where the path leads. And almost always, i have stepped out of the meetings hungry for some answers, ready to do my endless Google searches. The lesson: It is never enough to have a debate that does not raise new questions, or at least one that does not leave room for further debate.

As newspapers go, the search for information is endless, especially as our readers become ever more sophisticated. To keep up with them, and to avoid embarrassment, we must resist the urge to think that we are always more informed than they are.

Recently, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to conclude her tour of Africa, the board decided there was an editorial to be written about her trip. I was a natural fit for penning that one. But i did so after defending the idea that she had brought a diplomatic nuance to Africa-U.S. transactions when she told Nigerians that democracy was a work in progress even in America.

My editorial said in conclusion: "As Clinton said in a major speech in Kenya, the U.S. is now seeking Africa as a partner instead of patron. Clinton seemed to read the minds of Africans who, correctly or not, believe that U.S. transactions with Africa are often disrespectful. Her candor disarmed them."

I think i got it right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Feeling Called Feedback

The messages never stopped coming. In fact, they are still trickling in, the latest from a reader who told me she'd "never taken the time to write a columnist before."

Even if it's not that good, there's something about feedback that stimulates me to reach for my cup of tea, or playfully grab the phone, as if i can't believe what i just read or heard. Trust me, it's a good feeling.

One of my recent articles for the Star, the one that's kept the messages flowing in, plumbed the subject of homelessness in America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. Recalling the plight of one homeless woman i had seen downtown, and set against the stellar fantasies of my friends in Kampala, my article was an opinionated attempt to make America look bad or less good, in the words of a Kansas Citian who called in to tell me she hoped i would have "a safe flight" back home. In reality, however, my article tried to put some of America's glory, at least in the eyes of foreigners whose only window into the country is whatever appears in the movies, in its unHollywood context. Still, the outcome was nowhere near cynical.

To be sure, the lone negative message, for all its silent rudeness, was nothing compared to tens of messages from readers who thought they had been awakened to look at a sad phenomenon in a new light, to consider being more helpful. But what they all do not know is that, in their unique ways, they left me with something to ponder, nuances no book or movie could ever lead me into. I say this because, at my newspaper (the Daily Monitor), it's not often that readers write or call to express their feelings and opinions about certain stories. Feedback is not such a thing that's practiced there, at least not in the strict sense of the word. As i see it, there's something we are missing that nothing else could ever provide.

As i spend more time on the Op-Ed section of the Star, i increasingly see why it's terrible to write an article and not expect to hear from at least one concerned reader. To the extent that i now appreciate how uncool it is to be aloof to feedback, i am going as far as saying it's high up there among my most important lessons. Valuing feedback from readers is part of the growth process for any newspaper, more so for one that's not yet 20 years old.

In Uganda, where state tyranny over the media is sometimes taken for granted, reporters know they are doing a good job when the state comes down hard on them. It has become one crucial, if painful, way of measuring influence, yet one that ultimately shows a blithe disregard for what the ordinary Ugandan thinks. If we are as good as we think we are, then our journalism should not merely aspire to draw the wrath of angry dictators. Above all, it should get the local people, the silent ones, talking.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Poynter to New Things

On the day the 2009 class of Alfred Friendly Press Fellows left Poynter, one after the other, each nostalgic from four days spent in good company, two curious things happened. Five men in crisp suits looked on intensely as one of us, an Egyptian, gave a presentation. Then, when it was time to hear from them, there seemed to be no time to ask the right -- but hard -- question: What the hell were they doing at Poynter?

The question, debated informally among the Fellows after it was revealed that we would meet a group of Egyptian professionals, would preoccupy me well into the night i left St. Petersburg, and long after my memory of the men's intense gazes had been lost to the summer heat. One of the Egpytians spoke of plans to start a program in Egypt along the lines of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, and all of them seemed to be genuinely interested in cutting-edge journalism.

Back home in Cairo, however, they are the men (there was no woman among them) who give independent editors and reporters nightmares, the censors who run the dreaded agency whose role is to crack down on the critical press. If these men allegedly worked to kill the free press in Cairo, they had no business learning the hallmarks of good journalism. Period. Yet, like us, they were at Poynter, one of several groups that visit the respected institute hoping they'll leave with something, something valuabe.

Looking back, i realize that asking the question, however good, might have been considered rude. What's more, it may not have been necessary to ask the question at all. It was a tribute to the greatness of Poynter that these men had visited the institute, perhaps the only one that might challenge them to be conflicted about the kind of work they do to muzzle the free press. It's difficult to know what effect, if any, the Poynter visit had on the Egyptians, but i hope they left feeling good like me.

In the four months since i arrived in America, one of nine international journalists on a working fellowship at various newspapers, i have not felt as comfortable as i did when i was at Poynter. The reasons for that are legion, but significant among them was the teaching style -- and affability, of course -- of Bill Mitchell and Paul Pohlman, our shepherds there. Not only were they engaging teachers, they were also brilliant exemplars of a journalistic conspiracy, only the right one: Ask questions. Listen carefully. Then ask more questions.

It was magical.

We were at Poynter to take stock of our achievements and frustrations so far, to map ways of doing things even better (and differently), and to imagine ourselves in the role of mentor or coach. It was new territory for most of us. In the end, having listened to the presentations of all the Fellows, i got the impression that i was not alone. Nearly all the Fellows had come to Poynter as stricly print journalists, a clearly dangerous attitude to have in a tough new world. In my case, that demon was exorcized at Poynter.