Before the digital boom swept the newsroom | Daily News

Before the digital boom swept the newsroom

I was ushered into the newsroom of the Daily News in the mid-1960’s by D. J. (Ira) Ameresekere, the then Chief Administrative Officer, (CAO) of Lake House. I had faced a panel of journalistic heavyweights only two days before. The panel included the chain-smoking CAO Ira Ameresekere, Bonny Fernando; his deputy, Ernest Corea, the Daily News editor; and Denzil Peiris, the mercurial editor of the Observer and Sunday Observer—all living legends in the realm of the printing word.

The avuncular CAO virtually handed me over to the charge of the editor Ernest Corea, who promptly assigned me to the news and sports desks. Newsrooms in their heyday were rough and ready places, and the Daily News editorial was no exception. I was fortunate in that I had had a short stint as a free-lancer on the rival newspaper the

Daily Mirror, so the rowdy ambience did not hold any sort of culture shock as far as I was concerned.

The Daily News, when I joined it half a century ago, was what could aptly be described as a staid old maid, because of its traditionally remarkable and often stifling structure, with neither much latitude nor encouragement for creativity. Reporters and feature writers were seldom rewarded with by-lines and its headlines were unexcitingly bland. The writing style and page make-up were lacklustre, but it was a paper read and consulted by decision-makers in government and merchant princes in the private commercial sector. Styling itself on the ultra-conservative London Times, it was the diametrically opposite of its sister paper, The Observer, an afternoon broadsheet which gave its writers frequent by-lines and was bright, breezy, and audacious in comparison.

But all that was to change almost a decade later in the 70’s when bolder and visionary editors took charge of the morning daily and gave it a more spirited character in format, headlines, and writing style. In those early days, everybody, well, almost everyone, was a man—journalism was basically a male preserve. Sub-editors handling general news worked with pencil and paper. Their desk was horseshoe-shaped and occupied by older fogeys, rim men who sat around the outside. The guy in charge, the crusty old chief-sub, sat in the

slot so he could reach all the rim guys when he needed to hand out stories to work on. Many of them were stodgy veterans of their craft who did not take kindly to females on the desk. Nor were they tolerant of cheeky young male recruits. There were few women on the roll when I was assigned soon after my stints on the news and sports departments to the foreign desk.

I recall vividly, some of them including Vijita Fernando, who edited the women’s pages. Vijita was a sister confessor of sorts who always lent a willing ear to those troubled colleagues who sought her advice. Her memorable acts of kindness will never be forgotten by those who sought her out during times of distress. I recall some of the other attractive feminine colleagues, draped in sarees, who lit up the editorial landscape by their mere presence. They include Mallika Wanigasundera, Yogarani Devadason, and Indres Alalasunderam, attached to the features department, all very competent journos who were aces at their demanding craft. Others who stood out for their beauty and intellect, who worked alongside me on the Foreign Desk, were Rosemary Moonemalle and Swarnapali Wijesiri—two of the most loyal and vivacious colleagues. It had been my good fortune to have known them in my long and varied journalistic career. Rosemary, as a gorgeous young undergrad at Peradeniya University, had been once deservingly crowned Campus Queen.

In those heady days of journalism, the paper was populated by a tribe of information hunters looking askance at the rest of the world. And very often, the culture of that tribe was literally funny, because the mostly eccentric scribblers loved to laugh. We are among some of the last surviving links of that gloriously brave era.

Humour is both a weapon and a tool in the newsroom. If you did not have a sense of humour at the time, you would have been given a by-pass to set it flowing like a faucet.The newsroom was largely about momentum and conflict, and what environment presents more opportunities for both than a buzzing media centre where everyone was chasing down stories, conjuring up headlines, rewriting copy, making phone calls, and having loud opinionated conversations? The newspaper then had its own stable of colourful characters who enlivened and adorned the atmosphere with professional panache. As one who has had a merry run in a varied and unrestrained journalistic career, both here and overseas, I have encountered my share of the most improbable personalities who ever put pen to paper.

But for sheer audacity, ebullience, and charm, none could have matched the irreverent bunch of newspapermen who strode the expansive corridors of Lake House with a haughty vivacity. But that was in the mid-60’s and late 70’s, a phase in the profession which many regard as the Golden Age of Sri Lanka journalism.

The newsrooms then were a citadel of power and a sanctuary for madcap antics.

They were also a bundle of contradictions, full of noise and bursting with mayhem. Their denizens were swaggering with certitude, yet sometimes endearingly insecure, cynical, but inextinguishably idealistic. Many were loud, cocky, and rowdy. Typewriters clattered, teletype machines buzzed, and phones rang incessantly.

Reporters badgered sources over heavy, old-fashioned rotary dialling phones with hopelessly twisted cords. Editors and desk heads yelled expletives. Liquor bottles leaked from desk drawers as cigarette butts smouldered in ash trays. Everything happened at a hectic pace. Pranksters letting off steam and the duelling of witty repartee were the order of the day. They say it’s the adrenaline that kept it all going. Every day, this place called a newsroom brought together the thrill of the hunt and a race against time.

The editorial was a study in personalities. It was full of diverse faces, old faces and young, but all exuding character. All around you were both enemies and friends. Usually, we worked together for the common end. No one came into journalism or a newsroom in those days unless they had enough of an ego to fend for themselves and to fight battles. Shrinking violets in this game got trod upon.

As a stripling, I did my share as an all-round journalist in those hallowed journals. I was privileged to have worked with some of the greats of the era. For that I am grateful, because the experience has served me in good stead in the newsrooms of a diversity of capitals in the Asian region.

It was a time when the massive presses rumbled beneath the editorial floor competing with the maddening din of the newsroom with the steady beat of the afternoon edition, giving a sense of ominous doom to the fast approaching late-night deadline for the morning paper. Today, the deadline is 24/7. What is a deadline, you may ask? Unless you still work in a daily newspaper you probably don’t have one.

Noisy mechanical typewriters created a racket, while staffers bellowed into bulky black Bakelite telephones with short cords anchoring them to their wooden desks and a haze of cigarette smoke filled every corner of the room. The newsroom was crowded with journos frantically scribbling or hammering away at stories, frantic sub-editors conjuring up headlines, teletype machines click-clacking away, copyboys—we called them peons then—running here, there and everywhere to carry stories to the printer and do odd jobs.

There is a wide streak of sentimentality running through old journalists. We tend to go all misty-eyed when they describe the Linotype machines in the printing room spewing out their slugs of hot metal and the building shuddering slightly when the presses started up. While longing for the rollicking flavour of old newspapering, I consider myself fortunate in having straddled the decades of change for the system to move from hot metal to cold type, and on to the manual cutting and pasting, to be finally eliminated in favour of digital pagination. Through it all, with drunks not being tolerated anymore and smoking disallowed on the premises, it still remains the same game in so many ways. The method may be cleaner and more efficient, but the deadlines, the breaking news, the front page felonies, and the banner headlines have not changed.

As the media landscape evolves with bewildering rapidity, only one thing is certain for newspaper editors and all journalists: journalism is changing, and they must change with it if they are to successfully confront the new challenges. But don’t forget—it doesn’t matter how good the technology is, you still need to find and tell a good story. The technology is helpful but you have to have the mind of a reporter. You have to understand how to tell a story.


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