Being in an African newsroom, when the big story erupts

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The view from The Standard newsroom, toward the Nakumatt blaze. Photo by Ron Reason.

[Nairobi, Kenya] There’s nothing quite like being in a newsroom when news breaks, and that’s one thing I miss about life as a full-time journalist. As a consultant, I have to take that excitement as I can get it, while on-site working with my client news organizations.

My current visit with The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, has proved to be quite a run of excitement, with several big news stories happening along the way. Corruption, famine – ongoing stories throughout the continent, and sadly, no surprise. But the biggest breaking news story, locally anyway, is the massive explosion, just a few blocks from the newsroom, of a big city supermarket. One moment I am working away in the newsroom, observing story planning meetings or perhaps conducting training for managers, copy editors or the photo staff, and the next, I notice staffers jumping out of their seats to the window of our 10th floor office.  Explosions and sirens had been heard. We could quickly see the cause of the commotion, in the form of huge plumes of smoke rising to the sky, and then flames. I grab my phone and snap the image above, showing smoke billowing from the store.

Turned out to be a real tragedy in the making. After a power outage in the Nakumatt supermarket, a generator kicked on, sparks ignited a blaze, and disaster unfolded. In all, 40 people were reported trapped in the blaze, which burned into the night. The event also caused a disruption at my hotel, The Stanley, which is catty-corner across the intersection from the site of the fire. Luckily all was safe at the hotel, but the scene was a source of interest walking to and from the hotel each day – viewing the damage, the investigators, the Red Cross tent for families of victims, and so on.

The front page the morning after follows up on a big question, “How many were trapped?” which was the big mystery at press time. (We rejected the initial headline, the traditional way of writing, “Blaze erupts at grocery store” – this is old school, I told them, and everyone in the country will know of the tragedy in its most literal terms well before breakfast time, when the paper comes out. Let’s think of a way to push the story forward. What’s the big question on everyone’s mind? The death toll. Where does it stand?)

The second day followed up with more of the human interest stories: the tragedy of personal loss, the anger at local authorities who failed to respond quickly or who overlooked safety violations in the building in the first place. Difficult decisions about photo selection were made: Some images were quite graphic, showing bodies crumpled near the exits, but it was decided this was not suitable front page fare. Three additional pages were published inside, so a large promo was added to the bottom of the front page to announce this fact, perhaps boosting sales and awareness of the severity of the tragedy. These are the kinds of conversations I love to be involved in, and help newsroom staffs negotiate as they learn to work better together to create more impact.

The fire would be a story that would dominate the news in Kenya for at least a week to come.

I advised a bit on the cover designs and headline writing, nudging and questioning here and there, but mostly I stood by to observe the good, quick collaboration of the client newsroom, fresh off of two weeks of our training programs, kicking into action – on this day and during the ensuing week of follow-up stories.

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