Seeing through the smoke

MEDELLÍN – January, 2013 – It was late in the day. Around 5pm. Adriaan rushed into the newsroom and exclaimed, “We just got an email from the FARC!” Several of us had been trying to get in touch with FARC delegates at the peace talks in Havana for interviews. But no luck. Then, suddenly, they reached out to us.

It wasn’t the first time Adriaan rushed into the newsroom with something important to say. One time it was about a strong article that Olle wrote that got well-read in Washington. Another time it was to ask us why the hell we fell behind our quota. We needed 20 articles. At 5pm we had 16.  Sometimes you have to kill articles. I’ve learned this the hard way. Sometimes you have to be ruthless. All the same, it was a bad day.

This time I was in the middle of my final article when Adriaan told us the news. But I quickly digested the update and went back into my trance. I was trying to meet my own personal quota for that day. Still an intern, I had to prove I could write 6 articles in 8 hours. And I hadn’t. Yet.

Half an hour later Adriaan came back into the newsroom – this time with less zeal.

“Who can stay late?” he asked sharply. “I need someone to help me.” No one raised their hand. I had just finished filing my last article. It was the end of the day, but being the eager intern I was I forced myself to express enthusiasm.

How foolish of me: I had no idea what I was raising my hand for.

Adriaan looked at me doubtfully. ‘The Intern?’… I could see the words going through his head. Did he really need me? He was probably hoping for someone else to raise their hand.

“Ok,” he said, resolving the doubt on his face. “Check your inbox right now.”

Within one or two minutes I was face to face with a 21-page typed interview with Colombia’s longest-standing rebel group’s chief negotiator: Iván Márquez.

To have a document of this magnitude sent to us was beyond precious. Why? Because the media had been scrambling to dig into what was on the table between the Colombian state and the FARC in Havana. The world still didn’t know what exactly the two sides wanted and their justification for it. There was still a lot of hot air and rhetoric flying around. This document had, well… it had meat.

But the interview I had in my hands was also extremely urgent. Adriaan told me immediately after sending it that the only other English-language media outlet he could identify who had it was the AP. And their story still hadn’t hit the screen. That meant I had no time.

It also meant this: I was scared as hell.

I asked Adriaan for advice: How do you suggest I tackle this bad boy? Any tips for how to quickly identify what’s story-worthy?

Adriaan told me I should read through it, translate it, and target what I find interesting. Choose one big thing to talk about. Then go over it again. Pull out the quotes. And you’ve got your story. But it needs to happen now!

At 9pm I was still translating.

I was exhausted. The Spanish was strong political rhetoric. It was extremely difficult to read much less translate. I emailed Adriaan and told him that I was exhausted, that I had two or three ideas, and that I wanted to sleep on them and write the story early the next morning.

I got an email back immediately.

“Stay there,” it said. “I’m coming to talk to you right now.”

Adriaan came out of his office blowing and puffing smoke all over the place. He sat down and asked me where I was with the progress. I told him. His face crossed. He sighed. Then he inhaled and blew smoke all over me. Again. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to finish the story.

Maybe the smoke had something to do with it. But Adriaan told me something that sent me burning through the night. He set to stating the facts:

“This is a 21 page interview from the FARC. No one else has this document but the AP. And they’re sitting on it. You have a huge story in your hands. This is real journalism, Wes. If you want to be a journalist, this is the challenge. These are the realities of investigative reporting in a foreign country where you have to work in a foreign language. You have 2 hours. I want a story. And I know you can get me one.”

The smoke was thick. Adriaan went back to his office.

It was 9:30pm. I went back to the document. And I set to burn against the night. I raced. I wrote. And finally I was done.

I filed sometime around midnight. I was exhausted. And nervous. This was the first time I was the proprietor of a really important figure and their words. This was the first time I was telling the side of a conflict that has ravaged a country and a people for almost half a century. This was a conflict story. And it was a peace story. It was part of a potent chapter in Colombian history. And it was a story that the FARC leader was likely going to read. And he was likely going to have an opinion about it. Probably a strong one. Lots of people were going to read it. And they would develop strong opinions around it as well.

Did I get it right?

That question plagued me through the night. I barely slept. And so at 6am I woke up, went to the office, and met Adriaan at the door. He was already up. “So?” I said. My anxiety was screaming.

“I’m publishing it right now,” he said. “I made some changes. But it’s a good story. It’s the story I would have written too. Check the site. It’s going to hit the screen in a couple minutes.”

I felt a mild sense of relief. But still exhausted as all hell. So I took a coffee. And I thought about what I had committed myself to, just then, within the last 24 hours.

I realized that journalism is a mad rush to tell history. And I love that. I thrive on it. But I also learned that you don’t get to choose when something important happens. Just as much as it is our responsibility to tell the first draft of history, we must be rigorously obedient. In journalism, the world chooses the plan and it chooses when to strike. And you’ve got to be ready – ready to blaze all the way through the night when it finally does. It’s a mad rush. And that’s just the way it is.

Read the story I wrote about the Iván Márquez and the FARC’s land reform demands at this LINK

Read more about the development of the Peace Talks at Colombia Reports’ Peace Talks news archive at this LINK

One thought on “Seeing through the smoke

  1. This really tells it so that I understood what you went through to get your story out.
    Sounds intense,,,glad you are enjoying the excitement.

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