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Fellow reflects on the year

By Chris King

It seems like I have always been running away to join one complicated, collective circus or another: the U.S. Navy, a traveling rock band, a documentary collective, a revolution in the Niger Delta, a barnstorming barehanded baseball team - and, now, a journalism fellowship in its inaugural year.

A year-long fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists might sound like a nerdy anti-climax to this list of itinerant collective experiences, but that's not the way I lived it. It was as vivid, in its own way, as all the rest. Our fellowship took us to our respective state houses, our nation's capital, a top-notch J-school (at Mizzou), two fine Midwestern cities (Columbia and Kansas City, Mo.) and two sites of world-class medical pilgrimage: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

And, importantly, it took us to these places together. We were a varied, storied, memorable crew, we Midwest Health Journalism Fellows. I think of us, mostly, in pairs.

Chris King, a 2007-08 Midwest Health Journalism Program Fellow, directs a question to a panelist at Health Journalism 2008 in Washington, D.C.

Chris King, a 2007-08 Midwest Health Journalism Program Fellow, directs a question to a panelist at Health Journalism 2008 in Washington, D.C.

There were the metro daily beat writers, Julius Karash of The Kansas City Star and Karen Shideler of the Wichita Eagle. There were the heretofore exotic (to me) television creatures, the news anchors, Joy Robertson Fountain of KOLR in Springfield, Mo., and Teresa Snow of KRCG in Jefferson City, Mo. There were the salty print veterans who had manned newspapers at every post, from reporter to editor to publisher, and now found themselves in unaccustomed places, a business journal (Rob Roberts of the Kansas City Business Journal) and a Web site (Dave Ranney of the Kansas Health Institute News Service). There were the public radio reporters, Bryan Thompson of Kansas Public Radio (an NPR affiliate) and Kelley Weiss of KCUR (also an NPR affiliate). And there were the community newspaper people, Betsy Lee-Frye of the St. Joseph News-Press, and me.

As one might expect, the youngest of us – who came to our fellowship group already inseparable friends – changed the most, over the course of the year that we were, intermittently, together.

Betsy conceived, quit her day job, got hitched, went freelance, added a hyphen and a new tail to her last name ("-Frye"), and had a beautiful baby boy, Jonah Lee Frye, who became something of an honorary fellow, popping up in Atlanta and Washington, absorbing God knows what of all the rarefied and important things going on around him.

Then Kelley climbed the vine of a job posting on the AHCJ Web site and went AWOL, absconding to Sacramento, Calif., and a terribly enviable position at California Public Radio, where she quickly turned a soft community news feature about a do-gooder public-health collective into an expose of its spokesman, a serial felon (it turns out) with major drug busts and child endangerment on his rap sheet.

Together, we learned how to bring down a dangerous hospital, one multi-sourced report at a time, from Charlie Ornstein of the Los Angeles Times. We learned how to untangle the forbidding thickets of Medicare financing from Trudy Lieberman (who went from Consumers Union to some sweet spot in the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York while we were in her care). Karl Stark of The Philadelphia Inquirer showed us where health care honchos hide their financial secrets. Ivan Oransky (who switched spiffy national magazine gigs on us, as well) and independent journalist Andrew Holtz taught us the difference between a statistically significant medical study and a bunch of hooey. And AHCJ staffer Jeff Porter sold us a really cheap but effective secret decoder ring that makes Excel spreadsheets tabulate data and spit them out as exploding pie charts.

It was really, really, really cool. We learned a lot. Far more than I could ever say, of course, in this small space. It didn't cost any of us a dime (other than that $15 secret decoder ring, and a nightcap or two in four or five states). Most importantly, to me – the kind of guy who likes to join the circus, who craves complicated and collective things – we did it all together.

Chris King is editorial director of the St. Louis American, a 70,000-circulation newsweekly, who has worked as a magazine travel editor and covered Connecticut for The New York Times.