Thursday, 24 April 2014

My journalism mentors before the Internet

The letter from AP's Beirut Bureau Chief Tom Masterson
(The following is the second of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

The Arabic word for hero is “batal.”
The saga of my journalism and publishing journey began at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
It started long before the revolutions in communication, i.e. with no photocomposition or “cold” type to replace cumbersome and expensive Linotype systems, no digital photocopying, no fax, no mobile phone, no computer, no TV news, no Internet or Google, no email, no electronic publishing technology, no print-on-demand, no social media…
A visiting U.S. Lecturer in Journalism whose forefathers came from Zahlé, Lebanon's "city of wine and poetry" sitting in the Bekaa Valley, launched me into the profession there.
He was James Batal, an Amherst College graduate and a Neiman Fellow in Journalism from Harvard University.
I took all three elective courses in journalism Batal was offering over two academic years. He also served as advisor to Outlook, the student weekly newspaper of which my classmates elected me editor-in-chief.
Batal made it compulsory for me to go with him every week to the printing press. There, he taught me all about the Linotype machine used in printing at the time and the art of picking headline fonts and sizes manually.
He also explained the need to cut stories to fit into layout spaces, the importance of correcting galley proofs and the responsibility of giving an "OK to print."
His focus in the classroom was on such classics as “dog bites man versus man bites dog,” the Five Ws in newsgathering and the difference between objective news and personal opinion.
Editing, investigative journalism and news and human-interest features… were at the core of another of his courses.
His preferred description of a news reporter: the sole watcher of a play whose task is to relay events unfolding on stage to an audience waiting outside the theater.
A student asked Batal in class one day, “Why do Arabs get such a bad press in the U.S.?” Chiefly because most Arab officials are ignorant of the workings of the mass media and the role they play in shaping public opinion, he replied.
For example, he said, when an Arab delegate addresses the United Nations General Assembly, he usually delivers an unending speech in literary Arabic. Reporters in the press gallery are baffled by his tough talk. In contrast, an Israel diplomat’s speech is precise, concise and in English. An aide makes a summary of his address available to reporters in the press gallery immediately. As public opinion shapers, the reporters and the media they represent have their jobs cut out for them. “Arab diplomats should realize this.”
Batal knew I was struggling financially and on the lookout for a scholarship to cover the tuition fees of my junior and senior years at university.
He not only guided me through the search for one, but also encouraged me to apply for a part-time job vacancy with The Associated Press (AP) that could earn me decent pocket money.
I did as told and was called in within days for an interview with AP’s Beirut Bureau Chief Tom Masterson. A taxi fare to AP offices in Kantari was obviously beyond my means, so I made my way there on foot, but armed with a reference letter from Batal.
The interview with Masterson was tough but professional. He quizzed me hard on my reliability and willingness to work six days a week against the clock and at odd hours.
On the six workdays, he explained, the job is to produce in-house by 6:30 in the morning some 80 copies of a 12-page “AP News Bulletin.”
The copies are then sent to Beirut airport, where they are air couriered at 8:00 a.m. by Middle East Airlines (MEA) to ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) headquarters in Dhahran.
My duty is to report to work at 4:00 a.m., pick up the overnight news roll from the ticker, quickly do the “copy tasting” and editing, and ready the news items for sequential typing.
A skilled typist comes in before 5:00 a.m. and keys in the copy on 12 consecutive stencil-typing sheets. I proofread these then turn them over, one sheet at a time, to the office assistant. He uses the stencil duplicator to produce 80 copies of each before stapling, packaging and taking the lot to the airport.
Masterson explained that Bulletin content was aimed at American executives.
The audience, he said, was the top brass of ARAMCO who had little, if any, access to fresh home news.
So when “copy-tasting,” he instructed me, concentrate on U.S. national news (both hard and light), Elvis Presley, American football, basketball and baseball, the Wall Street roundup and closing stock prices.
Oh, and my job title and salary?
Masterson said the monthly salary for “Editor of the AP News Bulletin” is 160 Lebanese pounds, or about $80. I accepted the job offer and the proposed starting date right away.
I was ecstatic at the prospect of serving as editor with The Associated Press for serious pocket money while still an undergraduate.
I swiftly worked out a schedule for getting to work on time, meeting the deadline for producing the bulletin, and then arriving at AUB before the start of my first course.
Our home being in Ras el-Nabeh, I could only walk to work in Kantari. There was no tramway or servees (shared taxi) at 3:00-3:30 in the morning. Making the journey by private taxi six mornings a week was too expensive.
Hence my definitive timetable:
-- Wake up at 3:00 a.m.
-- Set out on foot to Kantari at 3:15
-- Be at my desk around 3:50
-- Finish the day’s job and leave AP’s premises shortly after 6:30
-- Walk to the bakery opposite the AUB Main Gate to pick up a mankoushe (Lebanese pizza topped with thyme, sesame and olive oil) for breakfast at 7:10
-- Enter the classroom at 7:30
I happily kept up this schedule for 14 consecutive months, after which I resigned carrying an admirable reference from Masterson to take up a fulltime journalistic challenge elsewhere.