At Staples High School, Toby Burns was a Renaissance Man.
He captained the 2002 baseball team (and the year before, helped them win a state championship). He starred in Players’ “Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Into the Woods.” He sang with Orphenians.
At Harvard he studied Latin and Greek literature, and performed with Hasty Pudding and the Krokodiloes. Burns imagined himself getting a Ph.D., and becoming an academician.
But his artistic impulse was strong. He spent a couple of years after college pursuing Broadway.
Burns missed studying languages though, and headed to the Monterey Institute to learn Arabic.
He also began considering a career in journalism. He calls the field “a combination of what I love. There’s the creative side of telling stories, but it involves a lot of serious research.”
His parents were journalists — his father Eric Burns is a television commentator and author; his mother Dianne Wildman is a producer/reporter/editorialist — but it took a while before Burns realized that all those dinner discussions about current events, and how to cover them with balance, had made an impact.
He went to Medill School of Journalism, where he focused on international relations, military affairs and diplomacy. He had no formal background in those areas, or even writing. But, Burns says, “I learned a ton about journalism, and how the world operates.”
“I did the least sexy stuff there: labor and taxes,” he says.
His friends were in the entertainment world. He was learning about Hollywood from many angles. Still, Burns wanted to use his Arabic skills — and get back into the international arena.
He heard of an opening for assignment editor with Al Jazeera. He interviewed by Skype. They liked him, despite his lack of TV experience.
Which is how Toby Burns is now living and working in Qatar, for one of the largest news organizations in the world.
The learning curve was steep, he admits. For 6 months, he thought he would get fired every day.
He helps run 10 hours of broadcasts a day. He has plenty of resources: Al Jazeera has 80 news bureaus around the globe, and sends teams deep in the field. “This is not like a cable channel that has panels of talking heads,” Burns notes.
“We strive to be a prestige product. We do pure, hard news. We have no sponsors, so we don’t worry about ratings. That’s a real luxury. We just focus on stories with international relevance.”
That’s everything from wars in Syria and Yemen, to Brexit, to secessionist movements like Catalonia, to turmoil in the Trump White House.
To keep up, Burns reads 20 newspapers a day. They include the New York Times, Washington Post, and the leading ones in France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, India, South America — all over the world. He follows the wires for breaking news, and talks with correspondents everywhere.
The day we spoke, he planned coverage for a major water conference in Brazil. It’s a huge issue — and Al Jazeera was sending a crew to quickly shrinking Lake Chad to illustrate it. But it’s not, Burns notes, a story the American press would cover.
The Qatar newsroom mirrors the network’s reach. It’s filled with men and women from the US, Britain, Africa, Asia, and of course the Mideast.
It’s extremely exciting — and challenging. “We have to be very sensitive to cultural differences,” Burns explains. “This has reset my objectivity button back to a new level.”
That objectivity means too that a story on foreign meddling in US elections will include Russian voices. “We have to represent the entire globe,” he says.
The biggest story he’s worked on is the Syrian war. “It’s massive. A whole generation has been devastated.” It involves not just Syrians, Americans and Russians, but Turks, Kurds and many other groups.
The geopolitical and military complexities are “staggeringly large,” says Burns. “I’m finally starting to see how to build a comprehensive narrative.”
Each night when Burns leaves the newsroom, his mind races. “There’s a real intellectual high. It’s so stimulating to hear so many different perspectives,” he says.
Plus, of course, “there’s the basic journalistic reward of being first to the story, or getting an angle no one else has.”
Burns knows that the Middle East is “massively misunderstood. There are so many misperceptions and stereotypes in the US.” In Qatar and his travels throughout the region, he’s come to appreciate that “the tapestry of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions is so much richer than we often appreciate.”
But Burns gives plenty of credit to his hometown.
“Westport is an incredibly international place,” he says. “There’s a UN Day, with flags. There are wildly diverse people there. At Staples, I saw many different cultures.
“I view this job as an extension of the values I got there. I’m very proud of the international side of the town. I’m honored to have grown up there.”
But although Burns spends much of his time working on geopolitics, the arts — another foundation of his youth in Westport — are never far from his mind.
Soon after arriving in Doha, Burns joined the Qatar Concert Choir. The high-quality group performs classic, contemporary and original music.
Toby Burns is indeed a Renaissance Man.