Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Great Editors Were Mythbusters

A question whose answer has eluded PHILIP MATHEWS even after having spent three decades in journalism is: Are great editors born or evolved?

DURING MY TIME, I have been privileged to have worked with some really great wordsmiths whose force, abilities, commitment, analytical skills and insights gave them and their newspapers an influence hitherto unequalled. They played a significant role in shaping and directing the opinions of the man-in-the-street long before the advent of the social media which made instant experts of the same man-in-the-same-street.

None of the editors however were the product of journalism schools, for indeed there were none in those days; nor had they any special calling or proven writing skills. Some of them just strayed into the world of newspapering, coming as they did from the most unlikely of backgrounds.

Moving from Cecil Street to Pudu Road and later to Jalan Bangsar, the New Straits Times (then known as Straits Times) where I had worked, was literally home to reporters, sub-editors and senior editors who came to take refuge from their previous incarnations as engineers, teachers, teleprinter operators, failed politicians and reformed Communists—people whose past sometimes made better stories than the assignments they covered.

They added colour to the newsroom and used profanity as a tool to drive hapless rookies to greater performance. Sexual harassment in the workplace was then not yet an offence in the statute books but the women gave back as good as they nearly got.

Those were the days when words in print were more powerful than the digital word despite the lengthy and time-consuming process of the former—from typewriters to linotype (line of type) machines, flongs (papier mache), metal stereos and rotary printing machines that made impressions on rolling newsprint which were mechanically folded to give the reader the newspaper feel.

You took down notes in real notebooks before computers offered their digital versions; you recorded interviews with ballpoint pens before Sony and others offered their digital voice recorders; you typed your reports on trusty typewriters before Microsoft introduced their digital word processors. Then, with expletives undeleted, irate editors tore up your copy written on real paper, unlike today’s news executives who quietly drag yours to the trash bin digitally.

Then the real newspaper was delivered to the door of the readers (which they still do but in dwindling numbers) while the Internet opened the door for the emergence of full newspaper online in digital format to convince you that nothing has really changed.

It was a sad day in the newsroom when we witnessed the passing of the era of faithful typewriters giving way to the snooty and fastidious computerised system that came with one large drawback—it could not be upended or thrown on the floor in exasperation like a typewriter could—and sometimes was.

Journalists also quietly lamented the disappearance of the small but necessary non-editorial duties like changing typewriter ink ribbon, a task which provided a moment’s relief from the overbearing editor who kept one eye on the clock and the other on you, impatiently waiting for you to hand in the masterpiece you had promised him a minute ago but which never materialised.

To the newspaper reader, a journalist who gets a regular byline in his newspaper soon became a semi-legend. But to the reporter, it was only fleeting glory that was not reflected in his salary which was a paltry sum made twice a month.

That also ensured you lived a spartan existence, surviving on sandwiches and black coffee for lunch and free beer from your bosses after work at a favourite pub in Brickfields.

The work day started at 10am and ended when it ended, time unspecified. The long hours were compensated by the weekly two off-days which came in handy to catch up on lost sleep.

Waiting for your assignments was sometimes as dreaded as Treasure Island’s Long John Silver receiving the black spot or receiving a weak hand at cards. You could be put down for night duty (11pm to 7am) for six months at a stretch, putting a damper on the carefully laid plans of mice and men.

But we had our compensations, too. Some of us were up to harmless mischief especially during slack periods during night duty, appropriately called the graveyard shift. They pulled off pranks that make some Malaysian radio deejays today look tame in comparison.

Once, our chief resident prankster picked a random phone number and called the home. He told the houseowner that he could talk to pets, and could he please bring his dog to the phone. A few moments of silence followed, and there was much noise in the background, similar to the sound of toppling chairs and tables. After a while, the incredulous person came back to the phone and said: “The stupid dog won’t come to the phone.”

Luckily, in those days, there were no pedigreed animal rights activists lurking in newsrooms or eavesdropping at the manual switchboards which were brought to their ignominious end in the mid-1970s.

We laboured under no delusions then of such movements as press freedom and rights of speech. We knew where we stood and we accepted the fact that that was the way it was and that was the way it was going to stay.

We were the original Mythbusters. We accepted the realities and lived by them.
I remember once seeing a bumper sticker which said: Editors have the last word. Not so, we knew our limitations, despite what proponents of press freedom said. In a news organisation, press freedom was limited, not by external forces, but by internal constraints.

For instance, we were held to ransom by: 
  • The advertising department which dictated how much space was available for editorial content in a newspaper on a daily basis;
  • The production department which stipulated the ‘offstone’ times, meaning when the last story can be accepted for print; and
  • The circulation department which decided the hour when the newspaper was to hit the streets, thus further limiting the time to accept and process news stories.
I suppose it does not matter if one was destined at birth to be great or had so evolved. The important thing is to arrive. And to leave a lasting legacy.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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