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.

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