I walked off the rickety elevator and into the office of the Daily News Egypt.
So, this is what a newsroom looks like, I thought. Rows of cubicles with computers, a small TV mounted on the wall at the rear of the room, a whiteboard at the front. Around the room, journalists were firing up their computers and popping on their headphones– real journalists doing what real journalists do. I was giddy and trying really hard not to show it. I introduced myself to Sarah, the editor of Politics– my new boss. I could tell from the first she was a no-nonsense sort of lady: friendly, but all business. She reminded me in every way of newsroom editors from the movies: brisk, authoritative, matter-of-fact, energetic…
“Do you speak Arabic?” she asked.
“Well, yeah. Sort of,” I said. “I speak Moroccan Arabic fluently, Fousha decently and I’m learning Egyptian Arabic.”
“We don’t hire anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic,” she said.
“Well then, I definitely speak Arabic,” I replied, swallowing hard.
“Good. Then you can start today,” she turned to the rest of the room. “Time for pitches, everyone!”
Everyone gathered in a circle in front of the whiteboard and Sarah took her place at the front, wielding a dry-erase marker. It only took a few minutes for the whiteboard to fill with story ideas. I sat in dumbfounded silence, realizing I had no idea what any of these story pitches were about. I quickly realized just how big the gap is between being an avid consumer of news and a producer of it. The only “news” I could think of to contribute was what I’d read in yesterday’s paper… and the people around me wrote yesterday’s paper. And now, they were all on their smartphones, reading off intriguing tweets, sharing things they’d heard from friends– filling the whiteboard with news that wasn’t news yet.
–Lesson Number One: If you want to work for a newspaper, you can’t get your news from a newspaper. Where do you get it from, then? Twitter, apparently.
Once the stories for the day had been decided, people began picking the ones they’d like to cover. I once again sat in terrified silence as all of these looked infinitely bigger than anything I’d tackled before. My vast journalistic experience consisted of writing stories about construction and service dogs in training for my school newspaper. The stories on the board included: the death of an activist who had been jailed and tortured, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo, a protest near Tahrir square… I was in so far over my head. I almost ran right then.
I was given last pickings: coverage of a press conference about some detainees in Alexandria. I wouldn’t actually be attending the conference, but I was to write a story about it: who would be there, what it would be about, etc. Then, I was given a cubicle and told to go for it. Right, I thought. It’s the same idea as writing about Fair Trade items in the dining halls.Except the editors at my student newspaper always gave me a list of contacts and ideas for questions to ask them. All I had in front of me was my laptop.
–Lesson number two: Real journalists don’t get an email with an outline of how to write their story and a nice list of all the people they should contact.
I began frantically googling to try and learn whatever I could about these detainees, which wasn’t much. Before long, I had exhausted the information on the internet and was beginning to despair when some of my wonderful colleagues sent me the shared list of contacts and highlighted a few that would be useful. I was saved!
Until I dialed one of the numbers and the man on the other end answered in Arabic. Gulp. My Egyptian Arabic is iffy at best, and my Moroccan Arabic is useless here. I managed to stutter out my question and tried to simultaneously decipher his response and take notes on it. I was fairly certain he’d said that many of the detainees would be present at the press conference– but I wanted to be sure on that point. Accuracy is key– one thing I remembered from Journalism 101. So I passed the phone off to one of my colleagues, asking her to confirm that I’d understood him correctly. Turns out, I did– but Sarah was not pleased.
“Hend has her own pile of stories she’s working on,” she said. “If you can’t understand the people you’re talking to, you won’t be able to do this.”
I nodded and assured her I’d be fine, but I returned to my desk deflated. Maybe I’m not able to do this, I thought. Learning to do real journalism would be enough of a challenge without throwing in a complex language to boot. I could quit; the thought seemed very reasonable. I could tell Sarah I couldn’t do it, walk out and do a normal internship later, making coffee and writing obituaries at some nice newspaper in the Midwest. *sigh*
Or I could write stories about human rights violations against detainees in EGYPT. Yes. That is what I would do, or I would go down trying! I would make do with the Arabic I had, and what I didn’t know, I would learn.
–Lesson number three: Google Translate is God’s gift to those who have to do a phone interview in a language they don’t quite speak.
I whipped out Google Translate and began making a long list of words and phrases I needed to know. Then I started calling people: spokesmen for political parties and activist groups, the lawyer of two of the detainees (who are both 14 by the way… and one has cancer and hasn’t been receiving treatment since being arrested)… And slowly,sentence by shaky sentence, my story came together. It wasn’t the best piece of journalism you’ll ever read but I did it.
And this morning, I opened to the third page of the Daily News Egypt to see the headline “Alex Detainees to Testify on Human Rights Violations.”
And beneath it, those sweet, beautiful words: By Emily Crane.