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What would Melvin Mencher teach the Kenyan news reporter?

By Kodi Barth

Does Kenya have a mainstay textbook for news reporters? Just asking. The United States has several, the foremost being News Reporting and Writing by the celebrated Melvin Mencher.

According to a June 1990 profile of him by the Los Angels Times, Mencher was a boot camp drill sergeant, a tyrant in a news-reporting classroom.

For 28 years at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City where he taught from 1963 to 1990, the L. A. Times wrote that Mencher often welcomed fresh classes of student reporters this way:

“It’s amazing how much power all of you people will have in five years or so,” he would say in a flat, nasal voice, his steel-blue eyes sweeping the room. “It’s also amazing to realise that 90 per cent of you aren’t worth a damn. “

Hate him or love him, Mencher would write the textbook by which many US trained reporters, this writer included, continue to swear by, for eternity.

Poynter.org in October 2015 published “30 cranky bits of wisdom on the craft of journalism” by Mencher. Here, sample them; see how they’d relate to journalism practice in Kenya:

  1. Make journalism out of your experience.
  2. Use your moral outrage.
  3. Get a good quote up high.
  4. Follow the money.
  5. Don’t miss a deadline.
  6. Be a self-starter. Devise your story ideas.
  7. Be counter-phobic: do what you fear or dislike doing.
  8. Work seven days a week, 19 hours a day.
  9. If they like you, you’re doing something wrong.
  10. Misspell a word and the reader presumes you’re stupid. You are.
  11. Don’t trust an expert.
  12. Keep your opinions to yourself.
  13. Check the numbers.
  14. Don’t report from the office chair.
  15. Follow the facts wherever they take you.
  16. Read your copy closely before turning it in.
  17. Know everything.
  18. Put human interest in your copy.
  19. Good writers abound. Be a good reporter.
  20. Don’t fear using the word, ‘said.’
  21. Write tightly.
  22. Get the details.
  23. Dig, dig, dig.
  24. Don’t’ tell us when you can show us.
  25. You can always get a job if you know how to write a lead.
  26. Don’t fear telling the truth.
  27. When in doubt, check it out.
  28. Don’t’ take the easy way out.
  29. Follow your hunches and your hormones.
  30. It is immoral not to be excellent in your craft.

Dear Kenyan reporters, which of these 30 quotes strike you the most? As we close 2023 and gear up for 2024, ask:

What will you start?

What will you stop?

What will you continue?

See you the other side. Someone please switch off the lights on your way out.

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