By Abhishek Waghmare

Journalism is as multi-dimensional as a profession can be. A “news” item can add new and critical information to a developing subject that a reader wants to know about, or a news analysis can add a new perspective to her understanding.

Going deeper, a news investigation can help uncover hidden truths, giving readers and viewers a sense of freedom, as those in power are held accountable. Journalism is the running record of economics, politics, and society, in its raw form. 

This positive force pulled me from engineering to journalism, and until today convinces me that I should remain in this profession. But as they say, journalists live one day at a time. And in that lifestyle, I think journalists tend to settle into microcosms of comfort, prejudices, confirmation biases, and ultimately complacency, with varying degrees. I am no exception. 

The fellowship program of Alfred Friendly Press Partners is exactly addressing that phase in my career, and I could not be more thankful. 

In my job as a data journalist at Business Standard, a leading financial daily in the laboratory of economics and finance that is India, I uncover those insights that unfiltered data carries, but is not in a capacity to reveal to the reader by itself. 

I analyze various economic indicators of India such as inflation and the projected economic growth and tell the reader what it means for them. I dissect an economic event, such as a drop in wholesale price,  a steep rise in the retail price of a staple food product, or the cut in the policy rate by the central bank. By doing so, I contribute to the policy debate. In some cases where India does not maintain regular data, such as incomes, I use proxy data to show correlations between the economic measures taken, and the impact on incomes. 

Believe me, doing these data projects constantly is immense fun. But it is nevertheless a specialization, and every special skill, to some extent, clouds the general. The Alfred Friendly fellowship training sessions helped me go back to basics, unlearn the tendency to over-specialize, pause a step and re-learn what journalism means at the core. 

The main building of the University of Missouri shining in the fresh new sunlight of spring. The campus has largely been empty since the day we came to Columbia, except for a couple of days in the beginning when the stay-at-home order was not in place. I took this photo as part of our photojournalism training.

Whether it’s the fundamentals of business journalism class, or the advanced skills for investigative reporting sessions by the Investigative Editors and Reporters (IRE) team, I came out of every session with a new idea to pursue and present my future stories in a form that will reach more readers. The sessions encouraged me to think that there are ways to work on a story that ensures the effort put in for the story does not go in vain.  

Take the example of Ryan Takeo’s video tutorials. I have never worked on videos, though I have practiced photography on a DSLR for years. But the class gave me the confidence I needed to edit videos. Katherine Reed’s sessions on trauma journalism and solutions journalism were especially unique: while the former made me think about the importance of sensitivity while I write on crisis situations, the latter is a new form of storytelling that I became interested in. Now there’s a vacant space in my mind with these skills, that I will exploit while applying these to my upcoming stories. 

The fellowship was, however, cut short due to the health risks posed by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. A new disease has paralyzed the world, and crisis is the new normal, everywhere. Despite this, we were able to continue and complete our sessions with a fair degree of completeness.

The fellowship director David Reed, and its president, Randy Smith, diligently ensured that we don’t waste time, and make the best of what is available. They maximized what we can get from the training sessions, and even introduced new sessions so that we do not lose track. David has been helpful in almost all the things we do here, never letting us feel alone in this country which many of us are visiting for the first time. 

My solo ride on the edge of the twin lakes, which are the jewels of the MKT trail that runs through the city. 

I felt a great sense of gratitude towards David, as he offered me a classic retro style bike on my second day here in Columbia. My solo rides on the MKT bike trail—wearing a mask and taking care of social distancing—have been one of my best refreshing times that I have had in the gloom that surrounds us across the globe. 

I loved the whims that Columbia’s weather acts on (though I hate freezing cold)! The thunderstorms in the dead of the night were especially pleasing. I liked to watch my bedroom turn bright in the dark hour courtesy the lightning flash. The sound of thunder, after an absence of many years in my life, is like music to my ears.

The Moon and Venus on a solitary evening outside my apartment. On nights with clear skies, most common constellations are clearly visible in Columbia. The exuberant brightness and sharpness of celestial objects could well be observed from the outskirts. But due to the prevailing situation, we avoided trips out of Columbia. 

Another reason we had a good time here, is the cultural mingling we experienced. For the first time in my life, I made friends with six people, all from different countries, who speak varied tongues, and prefer and cook different styles of food. Further, all of us fellows have distinctly different expertise, which sometimes made me feel that together, we could be a publication in ourselves! 

The fellowship also taught me that I can manage my day’s work and cook or prepare three meals for myself daily, with a bit of smart effort. Cooking is quite practically manageable, more so than I had thought, and I plan to get better at it. 

I am now waiting for the government of India to make a safe and informed decision to begin international flight operations that would fly me back to my hometown in India. But till that time comes, I have with me a trove of resources that the program built for us. For a data journalist like me at this early stage of the career (assuming that I will work till my retirement age!), this treasure toolbox is going to be my companion. 

But what is great about AF Fellowships is that the thought-provoking training sessions are but the tip of the iceberg. The five-month stint at our host newsrooms still awaits us, clouded by a legitimate uncertainty. All of us are keeping our fingers crossed about our return to the U.S. once the program gets restarted. I look forward to coming back in good times. 

Till then, I plan to breathe the fresh air of Columbia, experience the warmth of lovely people here, and observe the global economy live through a crisis.