Photo credit: Michela Wrong
By Rodney Muhumuza
The phrase “baying for blood” had appeared in one political reporter’s stories three or four times when Susan Linnee saw it one morning. It was an anachronism reminiscent of wolves, she told the young journalist, urging him to be direct next time. Then she moved on, looking for other reporters whose stories were now covered in the red ink of her exacting pen.
The American journalist Linnee, who died on Monday aged 75 after suffering from a cancerous brain tumor, was a mentor to many journalists in the East African newsrooms where she worked after her retirement in 2004 as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press news agency. In her new role as a Nairobi-based consultant for the Nation Media Group, many times she visited the group’s other newsrooms in the region, including Uganda’s Daily Monitor, where the product of the day often left her impressed and exasperated at once.
Even if Linnee was compensated for her services, it was tough trying to improve the work of editors and reporters with wildly varying skills. Many senior journalists resisted her and others less experienced wanted to avoid her. And yet, despite the hostility she sometimes faced at the Daily Monitor, Linnee made many trips to Uganda in the years between 2006 and 2009. That may have been partly because there were some who embraced her and took her guidance seriously, so that over the years she was a sort of mother figure to many African journalists and novelists.
Recalling Linnee’s criticism of his work that morning in 2008, Emmanuel Gyezaho said: “My initial reaction was, ‘Is this woman crazy?’ But then I listened to her. In my writing after that, I never used ‘baying for blood’ again. I took very good note.”
Linnee “had a clear eye and ultimately she helped us churn out clean copy,” he said.
Mentors are increasingly rare in a world where newsrooms are shrinking and journalists still with jobs have to improve their productivity. In African newsrooms populated by fresh-faced sub-editors and even younger reporters gathering front-page news, the mistakes they make can be rather embarrassing: an absurd idiom, a misplaced comma, an imprecise headline, a misspelled name, everything and anything.
The bespectacled Linnee saw the errors and demanded accountability, and she hoped against the prevailing trend that the mistakes of yesterday would not surface in tomorrow’s paper. She was also genuinely interested in the professional growth of those journalists to whom she took a shine, sending them books and exemplary news articles to read. She became so influential in my career that I think of Linnee sometimes when I sit down to write: Is this sentence too long? Is this paragraph opinionated? Did I bury some interesting fact further down the story?
Linnee taught us to give a damn for all of that. And so I was taken aback, and slightly amused, when one evening in 2012 she turned to me while we ate dinner at her Nairobi residence and said: “By the way, I wanted to tell you that Siad Barre wasn’t overthrown in 1993.” Amid the merriment, she had remembered to rebuke me over a fundamental error in a story published several weeks earlier.
“She was a very, very good editor,” said David Kaiza, a writer whose arts reportage Linnee once edited. “She would always find some wayward word that needed to be corrected.”
A native of Minnesota, Susan Linnee grew up in Minneapolis, graduating in 1962 from the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science. She became a journalist in 1973 after responding to an ad in a local English newspaper in Argentina looking for a “girl Friday” for NBC News Correspondent Tom Streithorst, who was in failing health.
Linnee filled in with live radio reports on NBC and later, in 1976, joined the AP in Mississippi. Stints in New Orleans and Houston followed, and then a job with the International Herald Tribune in Paris before she returned to the AP.
“Linnee became a one-person correspondent for the AP in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1980. The territory included about 22 countries, from Mauritania to Zaire, which Linnee said in an AP World article she covered by “plane, but also by car, bush taxi and dugout canoe,” the AP obituary said.
In the course of her career she rose to the rank of bureau chief for the AP, first in Madrid and then in Nairobi, where she served from 1996 until her retirement eight years later.
In 2015, after nearly two decades spent in Africa, she overcame her obvious sentimental ties to the continent and made a permanent move back to the U.S.
“I have been in Minneapolis for about a month now; it is still very warm, but the cool weather will begin soon,” she said in an e-mail. “I am slowly settling in; it is both easy and difficult.”
Linnee is survived by her brother and his family.
Muhumuza is a correspondent in Uganda for The Associated Press.