Lessons Learnt

For an internship, I was to interview the executive producer of a docudrama, “Outlaw Country.”

At the scheduled time of the interview waiting for the call, I was ready with my fully-charged phone, iPad on the side with the recording app open, ready for me to hit the record icon, charger connected to the wall socket on my left, and pen and paper in front of me.

2:15 came and went.

An email exchange later, I find out they want to postpone the interview a few minutes. No problem, as long as I get my interview.

2:45 my phone rings.

Around 3:04 I’m told there’s only time for one more question. Wait, what? I’m on a time limit and no one mentioned this before?

I think I have become complacent about how I think of time when interviewing people. For ever crime story I called the cops for, I knew I didn’t have longer than 10 minutes to talk to them. 15 minutes if I was lucky. Every time I have scheduled an interview, I would try to give my sources a ballpark of how long the interview would take. Lately, my statements have changed from “do you have about x-amount-of-time to talk?” to “do you have time now to talk?” And that, I found out the hard way, is not the best practice. Smack on the hand.

Lesson learnt: when talking to sources, ask how much time you have with them (if it has not already been predetermined).

Second lesson: always ask the most important questions first.

Again, this would seem like a no-brainer. But, if you believe you have time to talk to a source, you get to the meaty questions a few minutes into the conversation. You get the simple, one-inch-below-surface, Q&A out of the way. Then, depending on what the person has said (or hasn’t), you go for what you really came for: THE story.

I didn’t do that.

I went for the one-inch-below-surface questions, keeping the hows and whys for after I had all the bones. And now the only way I can get the meat (the part of my brain that makes snarky comments thinks it is funny how a vegetarian is seeking the meat) is to go through the PR person. And so begins my quest. Maybe I’ll get a second interview. I won’t know till I ask.

GIF source: its-leviooosa.tumblr.com

GIF source: its-leviooosa.tumblr.com

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Oman is important

Oman is this small little country on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and northern border of Yemen.

Oman

With everything going on in the Middle East, what with the new Saudi king, the embassy shutdowns in Yemen (in which Oman played a part, thank you very much), and of course the Islamic State (and everything that entails), it seems to me as if Oman is forgotten. Sure, the only crisis the country will face is the demise of its king, but we all know how much of an effect that has globally (no, I’m not being sarcastic).

In an effort to give (one of) my hometown(s) (I grew up in Muscat, and after a 4-year hiatus, my parents are based there again). some recognition, here is a paper I wrote to remind people why they need to pay attention to the health of the current sultan, and keep an eye on the next.

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His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said at the 2011 council meeting. Photo credit: EPA/Hamid Al-Qasmi

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said at the 2011 council meeting. Photo credit: EPA/Hamid Al-Qasmi

For the first time in 42 years, Omanis fear their future. Since the current ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Zayed, led a British-backed coup against his father, Sultan Taimur, in 1970, the country has not looked back. From being isolationist, Oman has transformed into a modern state, different in many aspects from its neighbouring Arab states, with a per capita GDP of $22,181. Although an Islamic country, the majority of Omani citizens are Ibadis – a distinctly different sect of Islam from Sunnis or Shi’as. Despite being a police state, the sultan rules with a looser grip on his subjects compared to the rulers of its largest neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Also unlike many of its regional neighbours, Omani citizens are in great support of their current sultan. “Where Taimur denied Omanis freedom of movement and education, Sultan Qaboos has been more palatable, both to his own people and to Western backers such as the United States and former colonial power Britain,” a Reuters article states.

Age seems to have caught up with the sultan. The 74-year-old ruler has been in Germany for medical treatment since July and his absence from Oman since has cause significant alarm in the country, particularly in the capital, Muscat. Little is known about his illness and “the royal court continues to issue statements that the sultan is in good health.” The sultan gave a televised speech to the nation on Nov. 5 ahead of the country’s national day celebrations (and his birthday) on Nov. 18. He announced he would not be returning to the country either for the celebrations or for the talks between U.S. and Iran. Following his speech, the streets of Muscat, were crowded with people waving flags, honking their horns as they drove by. To an outsider, the scene would have resembled celebrations following a win by the national football team. However, things were not all they seemed. “’ We were living in terror and fear,’ said 24-year-old onlooker Ahmed al-Harrasi to a reporter from Foreign Policy. ‘We were afraid because we don’t know, if he goes, what will happen after him.’”

 According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Oman is of particular “strategic importance” to Washington because of its “domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy.” In an interview with NPR, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, “Qaboos’ great strength has been to play the outlier.” The ruler has maintained good relations and trade with countries both in the Arabian Gulf and beyond, particularly with Saudia Arabia, Iran, Britain and the U.S. Oman also hosted and mediated talks between the U.S. and Iran in 2012 about Iran’s nuclear program.

The uncertainty about Oman’s future stems from the fact that there is no declared heir to the throne. Unlike the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, there is no crown prince to take over after the sultan’s death. Sultan Qaboos does not have any brothers or sons, neither has he named a successor. With his death, the sultan will also vacate three powerful positions: prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. After his death, locals fear royal infighting or the resurfacing of old ethnic and tribal conflicts from the southern region of Dhofar. According to the Basic Law of the country, the royal family is expected to name a successor within three days of the sultan’s death. Should they fail, a letter containing two names penned by the sultan will be opened (Reuters).

The biggest challenge the successor will face will be the issue of rising unemployment for the growing number of educated youth. Currently, the number of expatriates working in the private sector is more than the number of Omani nationals, a fact that creates resentment between the two groups. However, it must be noted that most of the senior positions within any privately owned company are held by Omanis – qualified or not. With that in mind, and taking into consideration the growing number of educated Omani youth, the current government has decided to take 100,000 jobs from expatriates and give them to Omanis. The process of increasing the number of Omanis working in the private sector is called “Omanisation.” If the next ruler decides to continue with Omanisation, the number of unemployed expatriates will increase. Many of those expatriates are also U.S. citizens. Should they lose their jobs in Oman, they would need to return to their home countries. Although it would be by a small percentage, Omanisation has the potential to increase unemployment levels in many countries of the world, particularly the U.S., U.K., Philippines, and India.

Another issue the country faces with the question of its next ruler is the religious inclination of the successor. In an interview with Reuters, an unnamed Omani historian mentioned the possibility of tribal leaders re-establishing “the Imamate the Busaidi family (current royal family) got rid of.” The establishment of an imamate (independent religious government) could lead to further religious strife within the country, especially regarding the expatriate population, which has enjoyed religious freedom thus far.

Oman and Iran share ownership of the Strait of Hormuz, which is immense geopolitical importance. While Sultan Qaboos has been instrumental in maintaining a balance between Iran and the West, his successor may not be as inclined to continue to do so, especially since the Omani government has signed a $1 billion deal with Iran to build a natural gas pipeline between the two countries, allowing Iranian gas to flow into Oman, according to a report by Yemen Times. Should the next sultan be more pro-Iran than pro-West, specifically pro-U.S., it could affect the talks about Iran and the United States about the former’s nuclear program. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a deeper tie with Iran than with the United States could also “jeopardize the significant U.S. military assets that are stationed in Oman,” which would have “major consequences for U.S. military strategy in the region.”

With the death of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the U.S. stands to lose a major ally in the Arabian peninsula. There are many possibilities that could follow the death of the sultan. Whatever the consequences for the rest of the world, it will be hardest for the people of Oman, both nationals and expatriates.

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Owl Ambassadorship

If there is someone who dreams of going around the country to talk about owls, or take people on guided tours of an owl’s nesting grounds, there is good news for them. It can be done! And you can get paid for it! By it I mean talking about owls.

But of course, you need experience.

(That seems to be the caveat for everything.)

My editor at Missouri Life magazine assigned me to interview and write a short feature on a man in St. Louis who is the area’s expert on Great Horned owls.

Enter Mark Glenshaw. He works at the Jack C. Taylor library at Fontbonne University during the day and goes on “owl prowls” in the evening. Sometimes, he leads a group of people on an owl prowl so other city slickers can see an owl. Maybe.

What had started as a desire to reconnect with the outdoors and acquaint himself with the wildlife of Forest Park, St. Louis, turned into a love affair that turned the spark into a flame. He first spotted a mated pair of Great Horned owls in the fall of 2005. Since then, he returns to the area 200-300 days in a year (his words). If he is not visiting the owls, whom he has named Charles and Sarah, he is either giving a talk about them (40 talks in 2014, mostly in Missouri) or reading about them. He has even started writing a book about everything he has learned about the couple.

The focus of his dedication is simple: he wants people to realize “owls are incredible animals.” He also wants people to go outdoors and enjoy their natural surroundings. It seems to me as if most people would go on an owl prowl mainly to get bragging rights of being to say they saw an owl in the wild. But for every one of those bragging-rights-seeker, I’m sure there is someone falls in love with the great outdoors a little bit more (and does something about it?).

Although the 1-hour, 20-minute interview gave me plenty of material, it left me with no immediate inclination to go on an owl prowl. I feel like I got a mini-talk on owls. I learned that owls are at the top of the avian food chain. I also learned that single owls (who have not mated yet) are called “floaters.” But for everything that Charles and Sarah have taught Mark Glenshaw, their age is still an elusive mystery.

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To comment or not to comment.

It would seem that in a country where the phrase “free speech” is bandied about in the same way money is, commenting on anything would be a no-brainer. But what if you wanted to say something and there was no platform for you to do so? As the Las Vegas Review Journal said, “Nowhere does the First Amendment require the media to provide a platform for your speech.”

It seems to me as if people will find a way to hate, criticize and/or incite fear regardless of the platform available to them. After all, there were no comment sections or social media pages when Jack the Ripper walked the streets of London. However, it does seem unfair that because of the words of a few bigots, those with an open mind do not have more means to communicate and learn. What, then, is a news outlet supposed to do?

Below are three ways I think a comments section can work against the narrow-minded.

1. Have a moderator.

In a decade characterized by down-sizing, creating a new job title does not make a lot of business sense. Maybe not in the short-term. But if having a full-time moderator means that comments are screened for unnecessary negativity and fear/hate/rage-mongering, does that not translate into a more diverse, loyal and appreciate audience? Such an audience is bound to grow.

2. Use a program to screen for certain keywords and/or phrases.

Much like U.S.’s NSA or UK’s GCHQ, companies can use a software built into the coding of the website that would screen submitted comments for certain words detrimental to the quality of conversation and have those comments deleted. It would remove the need for a person (sorry, as-yet-unhired moderator), but still create a relatively safer space.

3. Crowdsource and then moderate.

Much like many companies do with unpaid interns, it would be efficient to have the readers who comment to flag distasteful comments. A moderator could then look at those flagged comments every so often and then delete those that need to be deleted. Such a method would also allow a company to spot if a particular username and/or email ID is consistently flagged.

These are my ideas. What do you think?

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Reporting, Editing and Marketing of Converged Media

That’s a heavy title.

For a student more comfortable with paper and pen than with FinalCut Pro, working with multimedia should have been the last thing on my “classes to take before graduating” list. I’m not a technophobe (does Merriam-Webster or Oxford recognize that word?) by any means, but that does not mean I can build an app from scratch. I can just about build and design a basic website.

I love technology, even if I don’t always (hint: 90 percent of the time) understand it. I got very excited when I learned that drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) could be used for journalism, if only laws on their usage could be standardized. Therefore, when the opportunity came to make a love-child between print and technology, I took it.

The baby’s name: 3D Journalism.

I am very excited (and a little bit apprehensive) about working with a 3D camera and a Lytro Illum camera (maybe). As my mentor for the project said, “There is a steep learning curve involved with this project.” Part of me thinks I am more excited by the challenge than I am by working with 3D. But then I look at some of the work the other people involved with the project have already done and I am awed by their skills.

Here’s to a semester of working with brilliant minds and brilliant technology.

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Not a 180

The 180 I thought my story did was not quite such a big deal after all. The issue was one of miscommunication and jumping the gun.

The delay is getting an environmental clearance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Why the delay?

Because the two groups involved with the project thought it would be a good idea to get the groundbreaking over and done with while they wait on “paperwork that we were sure was only a matter of time.”

Welch said of the situation,” We’ve all got egg on our faces here.” I wish I could have used it in my story. It’s a quite good quote.

I also (finally) managed to get in touch with the architect. When I called him, he talked more about Sufism, Bob Dylan, and his religious experiences in New Mexico. Pretty interesting guy, from the sound of it. Except, I’m pretty sure he was hitting on me – he said (a couple of times) he wanted to meet me. But he also said he would send me (in an email) all the features of the net-zero house and plans and designs for it.

*insert happy face*

After I finished speaking to him, I told Art about the conversation. He said, “Sometimes the creepy ones give you really good information.” I agree with Art on that. The degree to which the information is “really good” varies from creepy to creepy, though.

I also told my parents about the architect hitting on me.

My mother’s response: Is he rich?

My dad’s response: Did you hit on him too?

*cue facepalm*

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