A Day In The Life Of The Star’s Page One
In my last column I criticised the Star for having underplayed the Moi Avenue bombing. Sometimes, in contrast, readers complain about what they regard as the opposite: overplaying an incident. One such case involved a story that ran several weeks ago at the bottom of page one: 'Mwau kills pedestrian in accident'. Reader Fred Okono said he felt the headline was “misleading, and unnecessarily sensational”.
Initially I was only able to read the story online. After doing so I told Okono (and still believe) that both the story and the headline were fair. However, when I saw the actual paper copy, I was struck by how much force they gained from where they appeared. The same headline on page 10 would have looked much less “sensational” than it did on page one.
The two incidents led me to reflect on the importance of page one, and to wonder just how decisions are made about what goes there. So I asked the Star’s editors if I could spend a day—I arbitrarily picked June 26— following them through the process. They agreed.
The day began with the 9am news meeting, attended by the editors. The meeting is usually held in the boardroom, whose most notable feature is a bank of windows that look out on noisy Waiyaki Way. On this day, however, it was being held in an adjacent room that offers better acoustics but less space.
Deputy Editor Charles Kerich led off with a run-down on events that he was already aware of—usually things like pre-planned press conferences. Today these included a gay pride parade and the opening of an investigation into the helicopter crash that claimed the life of Internal Security minister George Saitoti.
Next up was a report from the political desk on stories they were working on, including a security meeting, the vetting of judges, and a possible falling out between two top politicians. A similar report from business followed.
Nothing jumped out at me as 'hot news', and the meeting finished by 9.30am. Some mornings “there is an obvious possibility for page one,” the Star's Managing Director William Pike said afterward, but more often it takes several hours before front-runners emerge. He and Editor Catherine Gicheru cite similar criteria in terms of what they look for in a lead story: how interesting it is, whether it’s likely to have a significant impact on readers, and how much people will care about it.
As the editors returned to their desks, photographer Jack Owuor, who was sitting in for the photo editor, was already busy acting on what he’s heard. “The morning meeting helps me to understand what are the important stories of the day,” he said. His best guesses at this point, he said, were the security meeting, the gay pride parade, and a speech by the Chief Justice. He was making assignments on that basis and also putting together file photos of various politicians.
The photo editor sits at one end of a long, two-sided desk that is the heart of the newsroom operation. To his left sits the revise editor and next to him the news editor, while across from him is the chief sub (subs being the people who check all stories for spelling and grammar and who rewrite them as necessary), and to her left Gicheru and Kerich. The cavernous room, which also houses many staffers who work for Radio Africa’s radio stations, is always warm because of the heat generated by the computers, and is so crowded that a long bank of work stations—known familiarly as the cyber café—has been constructed along one wall.
As Owuor worked on photos, Joseph Olweny, the regional news editor, was touching base with the Star correspondents. “If I think something could make a page one story I’ll quickly bring that to the attention of Charles [Kerich] or, if it’s a political story, Paul [Ilado, the political editor],” he explained. By mid-morning, he has a list of everything he expects that day, and sends that to all the other editors. The reason, he says, is that one of them might spot some aspect that, with further work, could turn a regional report into a national story.
Ilado was also busy, talking with the political reporters about how to develop the ideas they’d come up with in early morning discussions and put forward at the 9am meeting. In addition, he said, he normally uses the morning to contact sources of his own. “During this time,” he said, “I’m either firming up ideas already out there or looking for something new.”
The lead story chosen the day before ('NCIC probes 3 Kikuyu musicians', June 26) is a good example of how a page one story can emerge in unexpected ways. It began when a correspondent phoned in to say that while he was waiting for a matatu, he saw a truck with loudspeakers playing some heavily political Kikuyu music and several young men selling CDs. After a potential page one lead fizzled, and with no new angles on the Coast bombing, the music story suddenly vaulted to the front of the queue.
But that was yesterday’s saga. Today was now all that mattered. It was now a little after noon, and Kerich, who serves as the focal point for page one, still didn’t have a clear contender for the lead spot—typical of most days, he said. He thought the Saitoti inquiry was a possibility, and also that there might be a good political story. By this time of day, he said, he makes sure he has one or two backup plans. “We always have to be ready to change everything,” he said, but at the same time, “It’s suicide not to plan ahead.”
I went out for lunch with two of the subs. By the time we came back, the noise level in the newsroom had risen perceptibly. A television set was blaring the live proceedings from Parliament, and everywhere people were earnestly consulting, talking on the phone, or typing. At 2.30pm, the editors again convened.
Olweny began by listing the lead stories on each regional page, starting from the end of the section and moving forward. At that point Kerich took over, working through the national news and court pages. He noted that the gay pride parade had turned out to be just a gathering, thus reducing it to an inside story. He also noted a new entrant, a court story about the ongoing divorce proceedings of Philip Moi.
Then he came to page one. At this point, he said, he saw three possibilities for the lead (usually called the ‘splash’): the Saitoti investigation, a possible late story from Parliament on reaction to President Kibaki’s decision to reject a bill passed a few days before, and a response from State House to claims by MP Cyrus Jirongo that it is funding six political parties.
The liveliest discussion was about the Jirongo story, and I sensed that the general opinion was moving in that direction. But even that conversation was not particularly animated, and after a few minutes Kerich rapped the table and the meeting was over.
I stayed behind to talk to Lucky Galdino, the deputy circulation manager. Every day one member of the circulation team sits in on the afternoon meeting and sometimes offers an opinion on what lead is likeliest to sell well. Thanks to their contact with vendors, Galdino said, his team is in close touch with what interests ordinary readers. Today, he said, his preferred candidate was the State House ‘projects’ story.
By 5pm, after ongoing consultations among the editors, the decision on the page one lead had been made: it would be the Jirongo story. The Saitoti story would also be on page one, but since fresh photos from the crash site offered nothing new, the page would feature headshots of the politicians involved in the main piece. An hour later, after the story has been subbed, the lead designer placed it on the page (all done on computer), with the Moi and Saitoti stories down the left side.
At that point Gicheru, Pike and a couple other editors gathered around the designer’s desk to discuss possible headlines. The first version started with Jirongo, but that was quickly replaced with Kibaki; the final version read "Kibaki denies Jirongo’s ‘projects’”. The other two headlines took hardly any longer, and the page was done, apart from laying out the other two stories and correcting any minor errors.
By now it was about 6.30pm. The newsroom was emptying out, and the hectic hum of earlier in the day was giving way to quiet good-nights. I turned to Paul, who was standing behind me, and we chatted for a few minutes. “We’re done,” he said. “And now I’m worrying about tomorrow’s headline.”
Note to readers: I will be away for the next few weeks but will continue to respond to email. Prof Joe Kadhi will write occasionally on media topics during that time. Send comments and criticisms to email@example.com.