On October 23rd 2008, One Caribbean Media honored three distinguished journalists in a recognition function appropriately billed as “A Salute to Excellence”. The honorees were (1) David Renwick, a pioneer in an area of energy journalism which he learned on the job and came to be respected by specialist practitioners and general public alike; (2) Davan Maharaj who has earned local and international awards for his investigative pieces and for his human interest stories and is now the Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times, and (3) Keith Smith, who over a career at the Express spanning over 30 years has the unique skill of expressing the heart and soul of the average Trinidadian, whether captured in a conversation in the dialect or the expansive prose of his editorial and commentary pieces.
The event was enhanced by the presence of His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago as well as Mr. Ken Gordon and Mrs. Gordon and several directors of One Caribbean Media. The function was addressed by Sir Fred Gollop, chairman of the OCM board of directors, Dr. Terrence W. Farrell, Group CEO, and by Mr. Davan Maharaj. Keith Subero, himself a former journalist with the Express spoke on the career of David Renwick, while Sunity Maharaj eloquently outlined the signal contributions of Davan Maharaj and Keith Smith.
Thank you very much. I'm honored to be here. And I want to thank Sunity, Dr. Farrell and the good people at One Caribbean Media for inviting me.
I'm humbled. This is a homecoming I never imagined. When I left the Express more than 20 years ago, I had no inkling that I would end up at the Los Angeles Times, that I'd serve as a foreign correspondent in Africa, or even managing editor of one of the largest, albeit shrinking, newsrooms in the world. Without a doubt, the Express-its people and the world around it--prepared me for that future.
I still recall my first story at the paper-back in 1980. I was just out of high school, only 18. On my second day in the Express' South office, Mr. Harry Partap, the chief reporter there, sent me to the San Fernando King's Wharf, where he had heard that the fishermen were up in arms over their broken cold storage facilities. I walked down to the area and after mustering some courage, began to interview a boisterous bunch of fishermen. Then I walked over to the town hall, where a gracious Town Clerk, Carl Hinds, answered my questions.
I wrote my story in the office, but the telex machine wasn't working. So we used the next best form of communication: the Port-of-Spain taxi. In those days, that was our information superhighway.
We would stick our stories in a manila envelope and entrust it with a taxi driver who would get an extra fare from the guard when he dropped it off at Independence Square. Many times, we would tell the driver: Don't let it ride. Because sometimes the drivers would deliver the envelopes a few days later. Talk about stale news.
Anyway, my first story didn't suffer that fate. When it appeared the next day, I opened the paper, read it with glee and said to myself; "They pay you for this!"
The fellas on my cricket team were less impressed. When I told them that Sunday what I had done, and what I planned to do for the rest of my life, one of them raised his eyebrows and said: " Oh, so you mean you're going to be a professional maco."
Being a professional maco, if you can call it that, has given me the ultimate passport into people's lives. With that passport, you could be lunching at a presidential palace or hanging out with some of the poorest people on Earth. And most of all, this passport permits you to tell stories that would otherwise go untold.
Stories are the connective tissue of the human race. To quote one of my colleagues: Thank god for stories, for those who have them, for those who devour them as the soul sustenance that they are. Stories give shape to experience and allow us to go through life unblind. Without them, everything that happens would float around, undifferentiated. None of it would mean anything. Once you have a version of what happened, all the good stuff about being human comes into play. You can laugh, feel awe, commit a passionate act, get fired up, and want to change things.
Changing things was the sole reason I got into this business. Journalism gave me the opportunity, to use the old cliché, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable-to hold powerful people accountable by telling compelling stories.
As I stand before you today, I have to say that these are sobering times for newsgathering operations. The state of the news business, especially in North America, is in turmoil. My company, the Washington Post, and the New York Times and other news operations are eliminating jobs in newsrooms to survive. Journalists who once won Pulitzer prizes and other scrolls are being given pink slips.
Now I know the economy here is in better shape than many others, but we can't ignore the old saying: When Uncle Sam sneezes, this region catches the cold....
In the United States, and less so here, though I don't think the trend can be ignored, The Internet is wrecking the old newspaper business model in two ways. It is moving information with zero variable cost, which means it has no barriers to growth, unlike a newspaper, which has to pay for paper, ink and transportation.
The question is increasingly being asked: in a time-obsessed society, and with news habits of the younger generations changing, can journalism continue to connect people to immediate events, powerful trends and to each other. More important, can it continue to flourish so it can continue to do what it does best: tell stories no one ever would and right wrongs.
I want to try to answer these questions-especially in the Trinidad context. I want to show why you here are even better prepared to handle and stave off these challenges.
I was fortunate to have come from a long tradition of storytelling. I was also fortunate to work in a newsroom with giants of Trinidad journalism: George John; David Renwick, Owen Baptiste, Keith Smith, Raoul Pantin, Leslie Brunton, Sunity, Kitty Hannays, Andy Johnson and others. Anyone of these people could have gone on to work -and excel-in any newsroom in the world, if they had chosen to. And these were people who took the time to teach me their craft, knowing that they were investing in the next generation.
In hindsight, I realized that these were people who understood how people, the island and the world worked -who could navigate the world, even though they might not have been all around the world.
Why was this possible? In the last decade, we've heard a lot about the wonders of globalization. But many of us here know that long before globalization became vogue, it was having its first run in small theaters like Trinidad. People of the various continents were learning to live, negotiate and work out their differences.
I recently picked up a travel book on Trinidad, published in 1975, and stumbled upon an essay by Derek Walcott, extolling the cosmopolitan nature of Port-of-Spain. He talked about coming out of a Satyajit Ray movie in New York, and I quote, simply because no one in his right mind should attempt to paraphrase Derek Walcott:
" The sitar's sinuous whine entered me one morning in New York when I came out of the Fifth Avenue Cinema have seen Pather Panchali, realizing as I walked down the blurred sidewalk that it was not merely the music that had finally brought tears but a nostalgia for the Caroni plain which Bengal had so startlingly resembled; telephone poles; whitening tall grasses, canes in arrow, highways, buffalos carts, and perspectives of cabbage palms, the dark, oiled sadness in the stares of Apu, the poverty, the beauty wildly, plaintively scored by the hysterical wires of Ravi Shankar, raga on raga weaving. It was not yet my country, nor were they my race. It was not the kind of art I particularly liked, excessive sweet and self-pitying, but it confirmed my exile, and my adoption, I was adrift, I had my own loss, but this homesickness for Trinidad anchored me. And since then I have preserved a nostalgia for the loss of my own India, and I wish it will widen towards all those who begin here, Portugese, Jew, Chinese and Levantine..."
With that as a backdrop, it is easy to see why when the British newspapers wanted to know what was happening in the United States in the 1930s, it would publish the dispatches of CLR James, when they wanted a special take on the Peron regime in Argentina, they would commission V.S. Naipaul, or when the New Yorker or the New York Times magazine wants a unique look at a subject or place, they might call Derek Walcott.
In this age of globalization, where news travel at the speed of Internet and CNN, the world has been flattened. I would argue that there are people in this room who consume more American news and popular culture than me, and I work in a big newspaper. (I don't mean my father).
How then do journalists here meet the challenges which I described earlier. I think one solution lies in what I hinted to earlier.
The media here must continue to be relevant to its people. Trinidadians are fiercely curious people and no one -not CNN, not Google, not Yahoo--can tell their stories better than the journalists in this room.
And we have an audience that now spans the globe. I don't know this for certain, but I'm willing to take a bet that a significant number, if not the majority of people who read trinidadexpress.com live in places like London, New York, Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles. I'm one of them.
At the end of the day, journalists in Trinidad must provide stories that these readers cannot get from CNN, Google or Yahoo. That is why I think journalists in Trinidad--- to differentiate their coverage--- could borrow a few tricks from some of the most accomplished storytellers in our midst: calypsonians.
I always thought that the most difficult assignment in Trinidad journalism would be to be an editorial writer. Pity the editorial writer who has to write a piece on a new tax regime. Even if he does a decent job, few people would read it. (Put TAXES in a headline and people run for the hills).
Then a few days later, that editorial writer might turn on the radio and hear something like this: "The Doctor say to pay as you earn, but Sparrow say you paying to learn, Mih father say he sharpening he axe, so when the collector come to chip up he income tax."
Not only is it concise, to the point, but it is told in a language, a language, everyone can understand. And it has the added benefit of sticking in people's head and making them dance too. Making people dance with a story about a tax regime? Beat that!
CLR James wrote ( way back in the 1950s) that what attracted him about that storyteller, Sparrow, is his social and political sense and his independence and fearlessness, two words that journalists and media companies in TnT must hew to.At critical moments, he can say to the people or on their behalf, what should be said.
That is the the role of the press, here __ to hold up a mirror to society, to moderate a constructive discussion of race, and above all, to speak truth to power. We all know the pressures that are brought to bear on the media, especially in smaller societies. But for society to progress, we need to keep cultivating a media that is interested solely in truth telling, not a media that supports in some politicians' words "my kind" of truth.
For many of these things to happen, the owners of the media must invest in professional training. There is a huge payoff for this. In the age of the Internet where rumors and mauvais langue pass for news, you want to stand out as a place where people can trust that what they read is unvarnished. Indeed, some proper training can mean the difference between a professional journalist---and a maco.
For journalists to have to achieve that stature, they have to employ that independence and fearlessness: the wisdom, commitment and language of someone like Stalin, the performer, who over the years have been unwavering in fulfilling what he sees as his role in society. I want to argue that there should be a significant place in newspapers for the rich Trinidadian/Caribbean language. If we are in the business of communication here, what better way to communicate.....
Because of the competition I mention earlier, Trinidadian journalists have to be word performers....like the kind of stuff Keith Smith brings to the table day after day. We should teach that.
Standing here tonight, you might be asking yourself: How did this guy become managing editor of the LA Times. Believe me, I hear that a lot especially when I dole out assignments to some of my reporters and editors.
I have to admit that I'm not your typical news executive. Simply because you cant take the Caribbean out of me. And during tough times, I like to employ what I call Trini management style. That means working the newsroom, playing some practical jokes, doing a lot of talking and laughing, and yes, breaking out the fine rum when I need to.
Journalism is a tough business, particularly the high end journalism that we do at The Times---trying to cover two wars, the devastating economic meltdown and the most interesting presidential election campaign in anyone's memory. But rule one of the Trini management book is it must be fun. And most of all, it's got to be meaningful and in the public service. One of my editors jokes that she needs subtitles to understand me . (I remind her that we live in a state with a Governor named Arnold Scharwenegger and a state that's about to vote overwhelmingly for a guy with the name Barrack Obama). But one thing, she and my entire staff understand are my values and beliefs in quality jopurnalism.
Again, I have to say that I'm humbled to address you today. Anyone who receives any of these awards --including my fellow awardees-- will tell you that when you walk up here, you're really standing on the shoulders of those who got you here. I've already mentioned the journalists here who nurtured me and there are many people in this room who played a a hand in that.
But I want you to indulge me as I mention three other people: my father, Sam, who taught me to fight for the little guy; my Mom, Dolly, who never taught, but showed through action, how to do a good deed (and I did learn a thing or two from wife about how to maco); and my wife Abby, the best soulmate and editor that anyone could hope for. And if any one of you doubt her credentials, ask all the Trinis in Los Angeles whom she beat to become the Calypso Monarch of LA.
Again I want to thank One Caribbean Media --and all of you for attending. Let's continue to support a robust media so they can continue to tell our stories, check abusive power and shine a light where it needs to be shined.
I thank you all for coming.
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