When I first entered the world of newspapers in the mid-eighties, it was as a cub reporter at the Express. Physically, the newsroom was quite different from what it is today. The technology and production techniques would be unrecognisable now.
In those days a large section of the newsroom was devoted to what was called the “subs desk”. This was where the sub-editors worked. Once the editor had determined what stories were going to be used and allocated them to pages, the subs would take over.
They would edit the copy, run fact checks, write headlines, select photos, design the layout of the pages (using ruled sheets) and then typeset the copy. All of this would be done manually, without the computer programs that now handle most of that. There was no Internet. You had to run down to the library to get material like photos and background information.
It was an enchanting world and I begged to be allowed to learn its marvels. It was at this desk, under the tutelage of brilliant minds and quirky personalities, I came to really understand what journalism was about. Many of those wonderful characters are no longer alive: Keith Smith, Mervyn Wells, David Chase and Gail Massy come to mind. Remembering the incorrigible Rajendra Pargass still brings a fond smile to my eyes.
Deeply etched into each was a completely different character: Keith was astonishingly eccentric, Mervyn was taciturn and dour, David was erudite, Gail was the voice of calm; and she became my closest friend. Mr Pargass liked clowning around and telling alligator stories; I’m sure he is still telling them.
Whatever their differences, they were excellent practitioners of their profession. They were fastidious and knowledgeable. Then came a time when newspaper publishers became enamoured of the technology that introduced the concept of layout and design being done through programs created especially for newspapers.
Some time in the nineties, newspapers adopted technology that led to the creation of a new category of staff: paginators. These were mostly young people who would perform the layout functions, using software. It was a cheaper, faster process. Gradually, the traditional role of the sub-editors was phased out. Editors tried to straddle the world between the paginators and what the sub-editors did—a demanding job.
Without training and mentorship, many of the skills have been lost. Errors—spelling, grammar, punctuation, fact—seep more frequently into published pages. Often newspapers have been accused of deliberately misrepresenting information, when in truth, they were inadvertent occurrences.
When I moved out of mainstream journalism—after some time at the newly formed Independent in 1996—I began mainly writing columns. In this role, I learned that the safeguard of the sub-editor was not as sound as it used to be.
I also discovered that many people assumed copy-editing was something any reasonably literate person could easily do. That is not true at all. Even if you are a competent writer, it does not automatically follow that you would be either a good editor or a good sub-editor.
I have written for many publications around the world, and I was always mortified that it was only in Trinidad that I would find such a casual approach to handling articles—rarely would anyone take the time to ask a question before making changes. Often, I have had errors introduced into my work by careless alterations. Outside of the region, there would be constant dialogue between editor and writer.
I have been fortunate. For practically all my time as a newspaper columnist, I have been privileged to work with Patrick Ifill—through the Guardian, the Independent and the Express. He belongs to the tradition under which I was mentored. Patrick is not a talkative person, but he listens intently. He is a gentle, courteous, sensitive human, as anyone who has encountered him will testify.
As a professional, he has brought the sharpness of his intellect and his broad range of knowledge to the dying art of sub-editing. Because of him, I developed a sense of reassurance that if I missed something, he would pick it up. If I was not clear in expressing something, he would contact me to clarify it. He would sometimes e-mail to ask if I was sure I wanted to say this or that—especially when I was being particularly feisty. Patrick brings all the professional skills required to be a sub-editor, and he has the additional dimension of being an exemplary human.
I had been very distressed when I learned that he was retiring as what is known now as an associate editor this year. In fact, this is the last of my columns that will experience his critical and caring eyes. I know that given his nature, he will object to me writing about him, and as he reads this, I run the risk of having some of it deleted. Yet I am also confident that he will edit it as the professional he is, knowing it is my way of saying thanks for the years of being rock and river.
It is not often that we stop to salute the people who make a quiet difference outside of the limelight, so I need to say this. Savour retirement, enjoy the dogs, the domestic hubbub; the gardening, the reading and swimming. And make sure no errors have slipped into this column, or I’ll have to eat my words!