I became a news editor entirely by accident. I applied for a job, knowing I’d be good enough to be interviewed but certain that I didn’t have the experience needed to go all the way. My plan was to do the interview and then ask for feedback once someone else got the job.
Then they offered me the job and my life was both totally ruined and absolutely changed. I was 27 and had no idea what I was doing, really. My shifts started at 5am, and for the first few weeks I’d lie in bed staring at the ceiling in the dark after my alarm started shrieking around 3.45am. I was most terrified of the older journalists; the seniors who’d been doing this job since before I was born; when I was just a twinkle of ink in my parents’ eyes.One of the people I was most intimidated by was a man named John Yeld. Not that he’s a nasty or unpleasant man at all, but he’s…John Yeld.
I’d been reading his byline in the Cape Argus for as long as I could remember. He was an environmental and science journalist, though he also took beautiful photographs and had reported on pretty much every beat you can imagine at a daily big city newspaper. This was a man who’d actually been on the Grand Parade when Nelson Mandela appeared before a roaring, heaving crowd of people who’d gathered to welcome him back from nearly three decades in prison. I was in awe of John’s history and of his storytelling chops.
As it turned out, the journalists closer to my age were far tougher to deal with. Some didn’t mind who occupied the news editor’s chair, as long as he or she was competent. Others openly sneered and resented me – interloper from another title, shaggy haired and slope-shouldered and clearly very young. The older, more experienced reporters and editorial team were the ones who made me feel most welcome. Especially John and Michael Morris, who last time I checked was the Argus’ opinions editor.
They took in the slouch and the ridiculous out-of-control hair and probably the naked terror in my eyes and they said, “What can we do to make you happy here?” No defiance, no defence. Old fashioned journalists who knew what it meant to be loyal to a title and to respect the chain of command even if it was a 27-year-old with occasionally poor social skills hanging out near the top of that chain.John has just left the Argus after 30 years.
He is one of the cleanest, most joyful writers I’ve ever met – the sort of journalist who loves and respects and lives his craft and who gives long-suffering news editors a chance just to sit back and read something wonderful or something smart or something important without having to completely overhaul the whole thing. His intros are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes I’d walk past his desk on my way to do something else and get sucked into a deranged exchange of puns that made us both laugh like drains.
He reminded me every day of a lesson I first learned from my parents, personally and professionally: you are never too old to learn. He taught, and he learned, and he could gain as much for a much younger colleague as he could teach. An important chunk of Independent Newspapers’ institutional memory walks out of the door with John and I can’t imagine who will occupy his corner next, or decorate it with pictures of whales and polar bears and pile it with interesting books.
Rock on, John – and thanks for unreservedly supporting a young, ill-prepared news editor all those years ago. Five years on, I still snort with laughter when I think about our stupid punny battles (Re: trees, for instance – “We should branch out”; “It’s time for me to leaf now” and so on). I’ve got a good few years left in newsrooms, I hope, and if I can help out just one young journalist half as much as I watched you help scores over the years, I’ll know I did good.
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