The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part 4

“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part Four: “Editorial? What Do You Mean Editorial?”

When Namo Kaftan was nine years old, his father, a biomedical engineer, brought a laptop from work to the family’s home in Sulaimani.  For Kaftan, now 21, it was love at first start-up.  As he recalled, “I was really amazed to see a new advanced technology like that.  I guess at that time nobody even knew what it was called in my city. . . . That night I stayed up very late to see and figure out, what was that thing?”

He said he tinkered for hours, until the device popped.  A pop-up error message on screen led to a frantic troubleshooting plea to his uncle, one Kaftan swore would be his last.  “Thank God my uncle was around and he kind of knew a little bit about it and he could read English, so he helped me to get it fixed,” he said.  “From that day, I vowed to myself not to tell anyone to fix anything for me about computer-related things in order not to be embarrassed in front of anyone.”

In the decade that followed, he became a self-proclaimed, self-taught computer geek interested in pursuing an IT career.  Yet, even with his high-tech passions and online experience, when an e-mail arrived in his inbox naming him Web editor of the new AUI-S student newspaper, he described his initial reaction in two words: excitement and confusion.

“For the first moment, no, I didn’t know what to do,” he said.  “They told me I am online editor.  I didn’t know what was an online editor, so Jackie [Spinner, the paper’s adviser] explained to me that I am responsible for the Web version and act as an administrator.  I searched a lot in Google about what an online editor should do and what are his responsibilities. . . . I know computers, but this was journalism, this was new to me.”

Student staffers engage in discussion during the first Voice editorial board meeting, in Spinner's office.

From the beginning, Spinner’s new newspaper venture elicited similar excitement and confusion among students.  Almost immediately, 55 of the schools’ 321 students (now 375) told Spinner they wanted to get involved.

Editors said the spate of sign-ups was due in part to Spinner’s idealism at an early recruitment meeting.  “We had a meeting, Jackie and all the students who were interested in journalism,” Kaftan said.  “She told us ‘If other countries can do it, why can’t we do it?’  She really impressed us and really inspired us. . . . We wanted to get started right away.  But, well, we were not sure really what it is we should do.”

For example, Baker Alhashimi remembers asking himself after being named editorial page editor, “Editorial.  What does that mean, editorial?”  In his words, “I had a dictionary in my cell phone and I put it between my legs and I was looking up the word ‘editorial’ in the dictionary, from English to Arabic.  It was really, really funny.  When the meeting finished, I went to Dana [Jaff, the paper’s first editor in chief] and asked him, ‘What does an editorial page editor do?  What’s my job?  What should I write?’”

Jaff answered his questions at the time, with Spinner’s help, but had previously gone through his own researching and soul-searching about the editor in chief position.  “I didn’t just know what an editor in chief would do,” he said.  “I’m really concerned with my responsibilities.  I don’t like names, fake names, titles that do not mean anything.  I told Jackie if editor in chief doesn’t mean anything, I can’t do it.”

He said he initially misunderstood the nature and extent of the top editor’s power, something Spinner also recalled.  “One of the things he was initially concerned about was that specifically while editors would all debate topics he wanted to ultimately make the decision on what an editorial would say.  He said, ‘I’m the editor in chief.’  I said, ‘That title isn’t good enough.  You have to earn the title.  And if you believe your opinion is the correct one, then it’s up to you to convince the other four editors that you are right.  If you fail to do that, then your opinion does not win just because you are editor in chief.’”

Ultimately, the handbook Spinner created for the newspaper explained the nuances of Jaff’s new role and helped him grasp the larger task at hand.  “I am trying to make all editors, and through them the reporters, the chance to feel as if they have a stake in this project,” he said during his EIC tenure.  “We are the start of something.  This is bigger, bigger than just ourselves.  In the end, we are all in this together.”

They are alone in their togetherness.  Journalism education does not yet exist at AUI-S.  “Journalism 101 is not taught here,” said Spinner.  “It’s taught on the job, through the student newspaper we’ve started.”

As her sister Jenny shared from the states, “Jackie is the adviser and the classroom, too.  I mean, our students [at Saint Joseph’s University] come and we hope they have at least a general understanding of how to put together a newspaper story or that they’ll be able to differentiate between news and opinions.  [By comparison] she’s having to teach them the process of actually having to put together a paper.  She has to start from scratch.”

Student editors literally arrived in Spinner’s office for the first editorial meeting without the slightest understanding of how to create a hard news lede.  She also had to patiently temper editors’ initial desires to place the staff editorial on the front page, a normal practice in Iraqi newspapers.  Her admonition, “This is a newspaper, not an opinion paper.”  As she said separately, “The idea of an objective press is new to them.  So when I say, ‘No, you don’t want to do that.  That’s not the way it’s done.’  They say, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s done here.’  And I say ‘Yes, but nobody respects your newspapers.’”

An editorial cartoon in the Voice’s first issue perfectly symbolized staffers’ reactions to having their news media notions turned upside down.  Within the simple hand-drawn image, a mustachioed man with Einstein-ish wild hair strokes his chin thoughtfully while staring at a mathematical formula on a blackboard reading 1 + 0 = 2.  The onlooker’s response, stammered out in excited confusion, “According … to … this … equation … everything … that … I’ve … done … until … now … is … wrong!!!”

Among the rules Spinner enacted that at first did not add up for student staffers: Opinion writers cannot be news reporters.  Staff cannot be fans of politicians’ Facebook pages.  And no political advertising will be accepted, at this point leaving the newspaper entirely reliant on the university for financial support.

Spinner has even vetoed political content from appearing in early issues and selected a printing press without political ties, ensuring the public perception of the paper’s political independence matched its reality.  “It all seems very draconian, I know,” Spinner said.  “I like to think of it as just old-fashioned journalism.  We have to start at the basics here.  I’ve always taught student journalists that you have to know the rules before you can break them.”

The main rule Spinner, and AUI-S faculty, are already pushing the students to break relates to the rigidity of the country’s classroom culture.  As editors confirm, the Iraqi education model is built atop the three-word mantra, memorize, recite, repeat.

Prior to enrollment at AUI-S, discussion, free thinking, and questioning authority was as foreign to Voice staffers as the inverted pyramid.  In the words of university provost John Agresto, “Unlike all other universities in Iraq, with my great respect . . . [w]e are looking to turn up people who are more broadly educated . . . people who do not just memorize, who can make an argument on their own.  Who will say, ‘Wait a minute.  I need to think about that.  I am not so sure about what you have just said.’”

Spinner has similarly pushed students to intellectually argue, think critically, and open up as much as possible– to the point that a spirited debate during the paper’s first editorial meeting became a transcendent experience that multiple editors say they will remember for a long time.  As she shared in an e-mail,

We had a sign on our Editorial office door when I was at SIU.  It said: A newspaper’s success is measured by the number of people pissed off at it.  My students [at AUI-S] would be horrified if I put such a sign up in their newsroom.  Right now most of them believe that a newspaper’s success is measured by the number of people who praise it.  My biggest challenge is getting them to understand that yes, it’s important to have school spirit and to support this American venture in Iraq, but they won’t be penalized in the classroom if they are critical.  At some point, I will want them to write critical accounts of the administration.  I don’t want a newspaper that reads like a pom-pon squad.  How do I get them to ask critical, tough questions and not compromise their sense of nationalism, which, for many of them, has been a source of survival in a war-torn country?  That is my challenge.

One editor especially up for the challenge is Hazha A. Abdullah.  She is a longtime artist and photographer and the paper’s photo editor, the only female on the Voice editorial board.  And more than her artistic passions or journalistic skills, it is her gender that serves as the lens through which she is viewed most often in her home country.  “In our culture, especially in Iraq, when a woman, a girl, a female, they start doing something, they face the most difficult challenges in being respected for their decisions,” said Abdullah.  “They think that they make their decisions just because they feel emotional and they can’t take care of the actions [associated with their decisions].”

Hazha A. Abdullah, Voice photo editor (back left)

In a photo of the original Voice editorial board taken in Spinner’s office, the bespectacled Abdullah stands in the back dressed almost all in black, slightly apart from the others.  She stares directly into the camera, her arms folded almost defiantly across her chest.  She is clearly ready to get back to work.  “According to my colleagues, my work can make a big difference for the future,” she said, “hopefully encouraging other girls like me who want to participate in a newspaper or an organization or anything. . . . I call it ‘the first step,’ taking the first steps to make a difference in my culture.”

To Be Continued||| Part Five: “Thank God We Clashed It Together”

Just In Case||| Part One ||| Part Two ||| Part Three

Comments
12 Responses to “The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part 4”
  1. Alexavia says:

    That’s cleared my thoughts. Thanks for contirbutnig.

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