Thursday, October 21, 2010

Andrew Doughman: Writing and Sharing are All Part of the Picture

The subject of this post is Andrew Doughman, a young journalist I met recently in Nairobi. Andrew's work has made quite an impression on me and some of my friends in the community.

Andrew is finishing up his studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he has been in Kenya to work as an intern for the East African, one of the most important and popular newspapers in the area. He has had several valuable internships, including a three-month reporting internship at the news desk of the Seattle Times and a stint in legislative reporting at the state capitol in Olympia, where he wrote for the Skagit Valley Herald.

I didn't get to read any of his work for those assignments, but if the articles he wrote are as impressive as what I've read in Kenya, Andrew Doughman is moving into a solid career as a writer.

He has always loved to write, he tells me, and we got together recently to speak about journalism and how journalism and writing connect - in my mind - with knowledge development and knowledge sharing, what we in the field like to call "KD/KS." As Andrew and I spoke, it became clear that journalists and strategic knowledge professionals are very much on the same page (excuse the pun).

For one thing, both fields bring out one's passion for sharing. In Andrew's case, as he said, he has always loved to write, and when he arrived at university as a freshman - even before he had gone to his first class - he had managed to get into a meeting at the student newspaper and land a freshman job writing for the paper.

Why did he take on such demanding work? Because he wanted to learn, to work for an editor who would - simply in the editor's role of providing Andrew with what he calls "institutionalized feedback" - provide Andrew with critical feedback (and, as Andrew noted with a laugh, force him to learn to meet deadlines).
"I want to work with people who know more than I do," Andrew says, "and then I can share what I know later on."

It's a fine goal, and as he describes it, he's making it clear that as he pursues his own career, he would be able to work from one of his basic beliefs, that "it's better to be a coach than a boss."

Well said, Andrew, and it's a principle that - for most professional strategic knowledge workers - provides the foundation for success as a knowledge thought leader, no matter what kind of organization you work for.

Another connection between writing and KD/KS has to do with delivery, and I wanted to pursue some thoughts with Andrew about the differences between writing for print journalism and online content delivery. These are media formats that strategic knowledge professionals think much about, and my conversation with Andrew seemed like a perfect opportunity to hear what someone on the other side of the desk thinks about what's happening as we seek to deal with print and digitized content.

"There is no distinction," Andrew says quickly, and I'm impressed. This man is confident in his opinions on this subject.

"If there is a difference," Andrew continues, "it is with breaking news. Online reporting is fast, and as a writer you are required to get your story up fast, to provide a glimpse of what's happening. Then, as the day goes on, the story gets filled in, fleshed out, and by the time the print story is ready, it's a fuller version of what you started out with in the beginning.

"But the rules are the same. Good writing, whether it is for print or online, must be clean, it must be clear, and you have to write to very high standards. The rules don't change. Only the format changes."

And dear to the hearts of those of us who think in terms of legacy content, of professions like librarianship, archives, records management, and the like, Andrew made another point that resonates.

"Well, there is another difference," he said. "With online writing you're creating a permanent archive, an opportunity to come back and review something that's been written on your subject before, and to do it very easily, right at the desktop."

The example Andrew gave, of following what had been previously written on a subject that interested him in a recent magazine story, made his point, but I could not resist raising the issue of quantity vs. quality.

"But what about all that's out there, all that's available in digitized copy?" I had to ask. "Isn't there a lot of just bad writing out there? What about that? How do we deal with that?"

"We don't," Andrew said. "Good writing, copy coming from someone who has something to say will bubble up, and it will be read."

So now it was becoming clear that Andrew isn't too concerned about bad writing. His focus is on good writing, on following those rules of writing that don't change (except for social networking media, he points out, where the same rules are still valid but "the tone changes").

So we return to what good writing is, and the example from Andrew Doughman's work that so impressed me in the first place. Since I've been in Kenya (actually since before, from when I had visited South Africa several years ago), I had been aware of the tremendous focus on slums, those urban spaces where so many poor people live. Slums and sub-standard housing are a critical challenge for society, and since my work in Kenya is with the development of knowledge strategy for dealing with sustainable urbanization, I've read and seen a lot about slums.

But nothing has impressed me like Andrew's article in the East African, published a couple of weeks ago. In the article, "An American in Kibera," Andrew takes a different look at Africa's slums and the citizens who live there. Instead of going as a "slum tourist" - an unfortunate direction now being provided as an attraction for some visitors to Kenya - Andrew went into the community to visit, to get to know people, and to write about them. He lived in Kibera for four days and four nights, collecting knowledge to share, to enable people to understand what life is like in the slums. It was  remarkable experience for Andrew Doughman and - we're very grateful - for the rest of us as well.

Read the story, and send your comments to SMR International. Or if you want to contact Andrew Doughman

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