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08.02.2009 Feature Article

Sikaman Palava: Lessons in practical journalism

There are many lessons in practical journalism.

The first lesson I learnt effectively was from the then deputy editor of the Spectator, Joseph Dominic Andoh-Kesson. The name sounds like that of a Catholic priest. J. D. was a practising Catholic and now lies smiling in the bosom of the Lord.

J.D. was once planning a page on which I had a story and he felt the story was too long. He called me to say he was going to cut the story and I felt that was sacrilege! My story was too good to be cut just to fit into the space available. I just did not think that was possible. I disagreed but he was insistent.

"Should I cut the story or will you cut it yourself?" he asked patiently.

"Whoever cuts this story will make it disjointed. It is well researched with facts and figures. To cut it will spoil the entire story."

"I understand you," the deputy editor said. "However, in journalism every story is like the male organ."

I didn't quite get the drift. Journalism vis-a-vis the male organ! Of course, J.D. was always cracking one joke or another. But the reference to the human anatomy was a trifle bewildering.
"What do you mean, JD?"

"Yes!" he said. "What I mean is that every story can be cut. In other words, every story can be circumcised. Do you know who a wanzam is?"

"Yes sir."
"Good!" he said. "Go with this story and pretend to be a wanzam and circumcise it. Read through carefully and delete the irrelevant parts."

"There is nothing irrelevant in the story," I asserted. "That is what you think," he said with a sly grin. "If you can't circumcise the story, amputate it!"

The man was now talking about amputation. Quite frightening! My story was not injured in a motor accident as far as I was aware. Yet I was supposed to amputate it, for goodness sake.

Well, I had to take the story back, read through carefully and realised it was 'circumcisable' after all. Some sentences were merely emphasising those earlier penned and could be dispensed with.

So I ended up doubling as a wanzam to do the bid of the deputy editor.

I was then a young columnist, fresh from university and hoping to make it in journalism, a field I felt needed idealistic writers who could fire the imagination of readers and not the old-fashioned pen-masters who merely pandered to the whims of intellectualism and the small class of the litterati, with their drab presentations and somewhat stereotypical phrases.

In contrast, the likes of 'Kwatriot' and 'Carl Mutt' were inspirational.

The 'Kwatriot' had just been upgraded from 'Abosam Fireman' which dealt lethal blows to the likes of Alhaji Blanket and Kung Fu.

It was delightful reading those days and people still miss the wordsmiths that have unfortunately faded from the media terrain.

After 20 solid years in journalism, I have learnt many lessons. When I finally retire from journalism I shall write that book I have always dreamt about. It will be titled 'Behind the Newsroom'.

One of the lessons in journalism is that people create news from their harmless utterances. When a man speaks, no matter what he says, a smart journalist can grab a lead. The problem with reporters is that they cannot process words with presence of mind.

I recently spoke to a student journalist who said something innocuous about what a school master said to her fellow' student, and I picked it out easily that a scandal was at hand. When I probed further, there was indeed a big scandal my reporters are going to investigate.

It is one that is quite juicy and readers better look out for it.

You can even catch a scoop from a friend abroad. A female friend called me from London and said her husband had had a crush on a university student who was holidaying in London and her marriage was crumbling piecemeal.

In the course of the conversation, I picked a scent like a bloodhound and followed it to one of the communities in Tema, where I stumbled upon a scandalous case in one of the universities. The story appeared on the front page of the Spectator - VARSITY GIRLS HUNTING FOR MEN.

Since I became acting editor of the Spectator, people have asked me why I sometimes report for the paper, and I ask them whether I should call a reporter who is about 20 miles away to rush over to cover a story when I am right on the spot?

In any case, there is no law against an editor writing a report if he has one. It is even inspirational to his staff and they learn from the way he noses for news and how he presents them.

There are many lessons in journalism, very interesting ones I would like to write about in due course.

I would have liked to continue writing but I'm reminded of the first lesson I learnt in practical journalism. Every story is 'circumcisable' so this story is going under the knife.

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MyjoyOnline, © 2009

This author has authored 338 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: myjoyonline

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