Thursday September 6 2012

Monitor@20: Why I have not yet traded the newsroom for anything

By Margaret Vuchiri

When I walked into The Monitor offices 10 years ago, I did not really know what to expect. I was a young journalist, fresh from university, eager to experience the real world and overly excited about sharing a newsroom with Charles Onyango Obbo (COO) and Ogen Kevin Aliro (RIP). Along the way, I met some of the best journalists in the land, interacted with brilliant men and women, learnt a great deal and looking back, I’m glad I went through Aliro’s torturous interview process.

And what a journey it has been; and how this great newspaper has evolved over the years. My initial years at The Monitor were some of the best in my career and yet I, together with my friend and colleague Carol Beyanga, worked virtually for free. The pay was so negligable I used to joke that I was working for a few earrings (how I love those things).

In retrospect, I would not trade that experience for anything, even though I thought my first few days at this newspaper were almost life-threatening! I dreaded the congested newsroom and detested the old computers—some of which took over 30 minutes to start!

Soon, Aliro (God bless his kind soul) became my enemy number one and best friend—all in one. The man hovered over us with his cup of coffee, scanning every word you typed. He was a colourful character, extravagant with words. At first I found his style irritating. One time I lost my cool and strongly advised him not to parade behind me when I’m working. A sports journalist pulled me aside and asked where I got the courage to speak to Kevin, a shareholder, that way.

But Kevin soon became my mentor and friend. He once told me that when he insulted me or any other person, it was because he expected better from us; he never ‘wasted’ his insults on people he had written off. That is why, as this newspaper marks 20 years, I often wonder how it would be like if Aliro were still here, hovering over today’s young journalists (in the Daily Monitor or The Observer which he founded).

It is still great to work for Monitor. But it is different—in a pleasant kind of way—for a young journalist to walk into a newsroom that has a rich collection like Wafula Oguttu, COO, David Ouma Balikowa, Kevin Aliro, Bernard Tabaire, Joseph Were, Odoobo Bichachi, Lindah Nabusayi, Loy Nabeta, Matsiko wa Mucoori, Robert Mukasa, Simwogerere Kyazze, Andrew Mwenda, Sarah Namulondo, Richard Kavuma, Badru Mulumba, another intelligent colleague I’ll only refer to as our newsroom’s living dictionary and Daniel Kalinaki who taught me everything in the newsroom, including being patient with those tired computers! I was also privileged to later work with Peter Mwesige, William Tayeebwa, Joachim Buwembo, JB Waswa, Tim Kalyegira, Julius Mucunguzi and David Sseppuuya.

Each of these distinguished journalists inspired me in ways they would never know. But 10 years is a really long time in Monitor. That is why I look back at those years with nostalgia. From COO’s loud laughter, DOB’s remarkable calmness, Waf’s sobering wisdom, Loy’s unparalleled dedication, Lindah’s admirable personality, James Tumusiime’s stellar performance, Daniel’s quick wit and ability to handle any section, Bernard’s impeccable attention to detail, to Kevin’s hilarious jabs. Even the most turbulent years offered life-long lessons. There were temptations to quit but I’m glad I stayed because I love this job.

In my current role, I interact a lot with the public. I gladly receive praise on behalf of the newspaper and, as graciously as possible, take complaints, insults, even. I have received hostile and crude messages from people I would ordinarily respect. I have received lovely messages and postcards (yes, some readers actually send them). Most of these messages have been safely stored.

It would, however, be pretentious to say everything has been perfect. Monitor has had some difficult times. One of the key issues to me, however, is maintaining the character of the newspaper- precisely because many people are attracted to a newspaper by one or two things that must be sustained. To maintain that character, institutional memory is vital. Even when a newspaper is redesigned, the editors should strive to maintain certain aspects that define the publication—and I’m glad we have, modifications aside, kept the good old Monitor Lizard.

Some of us may not be here to mark another milestone but even with significant challenges, I’m confident about the bright future of this newspaper. I hope the younger journalists-- like the brilliant John Abimanyi, Edgar Batte and many others will hold onto the founding principles and the editorial guidelines that govern this great publication by upholding its core values.

Ms Vuchiri is the Public Affairs Editor of Daily Monitor.