Commentary: ‘Room full of mentors’ when Khalil started career in Fort Wayne

Editor’s Note: Ash Khalil’s first job after he graduated from Indiana University was as a Neighbors reporter at The News-Sentinel in 1994, where he worked until 1997. He left Fort Wayne to report in the Middle East, based in Cairo. His work appeared in newspapers including The Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines including Time, Rolling Stone, Foreign Policy, Rolling Stone and The Economist. He also wrote “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation,” about the last days in power of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian Revolution. He is now a reporter for the Associated Press in Washington, D.C.

I showed up at the News-Sentinel fresh out of college in 1994 with no idea just where I was moving or, in retrospect, exactly what journalism meant to me and what kind of journalist I wanted to be.

What I discovered was a room full of mentors who taught me lessons about the profession that stick with me to this day.

My first editor, Connie Haas-Zuber, taught me a crucial perception shift in terms of how I regarded my role in both the profession and the community: We were storytellers.

That’s a small distinction, but a crucial one. Journalism as a word and a concept is probably something that was invented with the advent of newspapers. But STORYTELLING predates not only newspapers, but the invention of paper – dating back to the days of the town crier, Pharaonic scribes or Aesop’s fables.

It’s a crucial function, hardwired into any successful community. Technology may change the delivery systems, but the need for storytelling doesn’t change. And newspapers like The News-Sentinel serve the community on a storyteller level in a way that far outstrips just stringing together quotes.

I also had a chance to learn from some amazing storytellers at work, in particular Bob Caylor. The work of Bob and others was where I learned the value and the beauty of narrative non-fiction, combining the writing flair of fiction with a solid reportorial heart and a basis in accurate facts. I loved watching the way Bob in particular dug down deep on a profile and wrote up a factual story with all the wit and humanity of a novelist.

It’s a model that I continue to carry with me, 20 years after I left Fort Wayne to start wandering the Middle East searching for stories to tell.