Gerry Kreibich: ‘Still a journalist’.
I am delighted to introduce, as a ‘Visitor’ to writersend a formidable octogenarian, Gerry Kreibich: ‘Still a Journalist’ and full of energy and enthusiasm. He kindly took time out of his holiday in Lanzarote to come along and speak to my writing group and has generously sent us the following article which I have so much enjoyed reading. Thank you Gerry, and I love the poem!
When my wife tells people I used to be a journalist, I correct her. ‘I still am a journalist,’ say I. My wife raises her eyebrows and smiles. I smile too. I’m 80 now, and it’s 63 years since I joined the local paper in my native Lancashire. I must have written millions of words since then. But I still love the whole magical business of newspapers and magazines.
Life still throws up the odd experience that has me turning out an article, and when I stumble across a good news story I still can’t resist phoning up a news desk and saying ‘You may already have heard this, but . . .’ (I don’t actually chase fire engines any more though. I suppose I’m slowing down. My wife may have a point.)
After 20 years in provincial newspapers – general newsman, court reporter in Manchester, sub-editor, roving Peak District man in Derbyshire and then editor of a weekly – I became a journalism lecturer in Sheffield. What a wonderful move that turned out to be. Armed with their National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency certificates, our bright and ambitious youngsters spread out across the UK and abroad in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television, and I am still in regular contact with many of them. Some are household names, indeed. I am delighted, every few weeks or so, to get an out-of-the-blue e-mail from some far-off place that says ‘Gerry, I’ve just spotted your website. You won’t remember me, but . . .’ Remarkably often, I do remember them. (Have a peep yourself – www.teachingjournos.webeden.co.uk)
Since leaving the college I have run a few in-house training sessions for junior reporters, delivered ‘newspaper writing’ modules at the University of Derby and spent two weeks teaching news-writing techniques to African journalists in Accra, Ghana. There is something deeply satisfying about working with groups of people who are interested in putting words on paper . . . which is why I was delighted to spend a couple of hours of a Lanzarote holiday with some of the writing enthusiasts who meet regularly in Costa Teguise to share ideas.
I don’t know if I was any use to them – they simply love writing and have no desire to be newspaper reporters. But after we’d discussed poetry for a while (I write some myself) and heard about how one or two members were tackling their ‘homework’ articles, I found myself slipping back into lecturer mode on one of my favourite topics – how to trim writing down to an absolute bare-minimum word-count. I’d fished out an old college exercise for that purpose, and I was pleased to see my new writer friends slicing a 57-word news item down to the 20-or-so informative words that really mattered. And they did it pretty well!
Writing concisely to precise word-counts is important in newspapers. Readers shouldn’t have to wade through 500 words to get 200 words’ worth of information. When a news editor asks for 170 words on some subject, he really does mean 170 words, because he knows it’s destined for a single-column space that’s, say, four-and-a-half inches deep. Reporters soon get pretty good at turning out the required length without even counting.
A well-written news story can be chopped back to half its length – or even less – if necessity suddenly demands it. Juniors learn that every paragraph must be slightly less important than the one that precedes it. This great tradition goes back, of course, to the ‘hot metal’ days when cutting a story’s length actually involved removing lines of type with a pair of tweezers. I’m old enough to remember working on that sort of page lay-out, and it was a great comfort to know that because a story had been well written I could safely throw the last three or four paragraphs away, if I had to, without ruining it.
We all have our pet hates when it comes to language. Some people get really cross about split infinitives, or the sloppy use of ‘literally’ , or sentences that start with ‘and’ or ‘but’ – that sort of thing. Me, I’ve become a campaigner for the thoughtful use of multiple hyphens! For example – a chap who used to play for Manchester United can’t logically be described as ‘an ex-Manchester United player (that, to my mind, is someone who plays for a team called United but has left Manchester). I say that a second hyphen is called for – the fella is an ex-Manchester-United player.
And how do you describe an MP who is opposed to fox-hunting? Most newspapers would say he was an ‘anti-fox hunting MP’ – but, in my book, that means he’s against foxes and goes hunting, which is precisely the opposite of what’s intended. The chap in question is an anti-fox-hunting MP.
I read recently of a small-scale celebration on a suburban housing estate that was described as ‘a mini-street party’. That, to me, logically means a party in a small street. The proper description, surely, is ‘mini-street-party. It logically requires two hyphens. Or no hyphens at all, if it comes to that.
Now that I’ve planted this thought in your mind, you’ll start to see these things everywhere! What, for example, is ‘an ex-South African politician’? To me, he’s an African politician who’s moved up-country. Or ‘an ex-Blue Peter presenter’ (a ‘Peter presenter’ who is now some other colour, presumably.) Or ‘an ex-rock band musician? Two hyphens are needed in all these examples if they are to make sense. If one of my new writer acquaintances decides to leave Lanzarote and return to the UK, can he or she be sensibly described as ‘an ex-Canary Island resident? Or is that description reserved for an Island resident who used to be a Canary? Two hyphens would sort that one out!
At university level, books about English grammar are frighteningly – some would say ridiculously – complicated (try looking up periphrasis, binomial, replacive and the rather titillating explicit performative). But often, where the written word is concerned, it’s not knowledge of obscure grammar rules that we need but simply careful consideration of what we are actually trying to say. In my time as a journalism lecturer, the phrase I probably wrote most often on students’ work was ‘Is this what you really mean?’ We collected some hilarious examples – one court report said ‘A liar and a violent bully, the judge said Jackson must go to prison for eight years’. And how about ‘Born in Africa, his parents treated him badly as a child’. And (one of my favourites) ‘The marriage of Mr John Wells and Miss Joan Harper, announced in this paper last week, was a mistake.’ I’m afraid I’ve been carried away – I had no intention, when I started writing this stuff, of sounding off about my linguistic hang-ups at such length. But we all do it. And we’re on slippery ground when we do – it’s quite likely that when we’re heaping scorn on someone else’s solecisms we produce a few of our own. Newspapers know all about this – many an apology has gone wrong and led to further embarrassment. We had quite a collection of them at the college. One concerned a retired soldier who, simply because one letter ‘r’ was missing,, was described as a ‘battle-scared’ hero. This demanded a correction, of course. But another typo crept in , and the poor chap was referred to as a ‘bottle-scarred’ hero. Hey-ho!
I’ll just go back to poetry for a moment . . . have you ever dabbled with squeezing poems into shapes? I remember messing about with this sort of thing in my younger days, and I have just come across one of my efforts tucked into a book that’s not been opened for years. You’ll have had enough of my rambling by now, and this is as good a way as any of bringing it to a close. So here (below) is the poem, for what it’s worth. It comes with my best wishes.
Summer’s gone. The hot, sticky, too-tired-to-move days are sped.
The flowers have begun to fade, leaves on most trees are dead.
The lawn’s parched brown has turned to brittle, lifeless grey;
The birds – those that are left – sleep early in the day
The hurrying stream reflects a sky that’s overcast,
Branches point darkly . . . foliage days are past.
Grain waves a last goodbye and goes indoors.
Summer’s ash lies white on granary floors.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
High clouds gather,
Birds hurry home.
Days go shorter
Category: Visitors, Journalism. Tags: Journalism, Reporting,Observation,Language