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      Volume 11 |Issue 34| August 31, 2012 |


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The News Interpreter

Andrew Dobbie, a former chief sub - editor at the World desk of Thomson Reuters, shares his experience and views on journalism

Tamanna Khan

Sitting in the lounge of the Brac Centre, at Rajendrapur, Andrew Dobbie becomes the embodiment of a sub- editor with his soft-spoken voice, clearly pronounced and careful choice of words that are easily understood. Visiting Bangladesh to conduct a five-day long training course on Writing and Reporting News, Dobbie talks about his four-decade-long career as a journalist, almost half of which was spent working for one of the most prestigious news agencies in the world, Reuters.

“I was always interested in journalism. I don't know how it came. Because I studied languages, I thought, what could I do that involved writing and languages? So journalism seemed like a good idea,” the Scottish journalist begins in his meticulous English. Born in Glasgow, Dobbie studied modern languages, French and German, at the University of Edinburgh. His language background helped him land opportunities at different international media, including the L'Agence France-Presse (AFP). Starting his career as a reporter at The Croydon Advertiser, a local weekly newspaper from Croydon, a place just south of London, Dobbie soon shifted to editing at the Swiss Radio news room.

However, he values his experience at The Croydon Advertiser. “It is quite a famous paper for training journalists,” he says, adding how difficult it was for him to find news from the housing community that he covered. “It was quite a struggle filling a page every week in a place where nothing happens. That's where I really learned how to become a reporter, how to be creative, how to find stories, to dig and get stories.”

Andrew Dobbie, Photo courtesy: Mathieu Robbins

In Dobbie's opinion, the secret lies in developing contacts and getting to know people and “making sure that they would phone you when they were doing something, when something was happening in the area. You get to know the local council, leagues and all the people who are doing things for the community. So that they would let you know when something was happening.”

Dobbie's editing career started with Swiss Radio. “I got a job in Switzerland with the International Service of Swiss Radio, which is like a small version of the BBC World Service, broadcast in nine languages or something. But the newsroom was all in English. The resources we had, came in French or German. We had to distill all the agency stories into radio stories for the radio station and then they would be translated into other languages to be broadcast overseas,” he says.

After working there for two and half years, Dobbie moved with his family to France to work at the English desk at AFP. “It was much smaller. AFP now has quite a large English language service. All the copy was in French. So you are taking French copy, and you are translating it and rewriting it into English. It was a cultural translation as well. The French have a completely different way of presenting the news. We knew that the subscribers expected the kind of news that they needed, not the French way. So we had to translate it and turn it into a good English story – four paragraph lead, good headlines, which was a struggle because sometimes the information wasn't there in the French stories.”

From AFP's English desk in France, Dobbie moved to Montreal to work as a copy editor at the Montreal Gazette, which was the biggest English language newspaper in the city. However, he soon had to return to the UK for family reasons and tried getting a job at Reuters. But since there wasn't any vacancy, he joined the newsroom of the BBC World Service as a sub - editor in 1983. The civil service nature of the job did not suit Dobbie's taste, besides the career progression was also slow. Thus he tried his luck with Reuters again and in 1984, he got a job there as a sub-editor on the world desk, editing news from Europe, Middle-East and Africa and stayed there till his retirement last year. He was a Chief Sub - editor of the World Desk at the time of his retirement.

Speaking from his sub - editing experience, Dobbie says that the common mistakes journalists make are 'using clichés, jumping to conclusions, letting opinions wander into their story.' He says that journalists must always strive to maintain high standards and do fact - based reporting. Accuracy, speed and freedom from bias should be the three main lookouts for journalists, he asserts.

Emphasising on the sub-editor-reporter relationship, he says, “There's always tension between sub-editors and reporters. Sometimes we used to have arguments and the reporters always think that the copy editor has spoiled his/her story. But in general it is a good idea to maintain a good relation with correspondent.” He adds that today technology has made communication easier between sub-editors and reporters. However, there will always be some reporters and correspondents, who will complain if a single word in the copy is changed. “Then there are others who say, 'thank you for improving my story',” he adds.

Giving example of how one of his colleagues was fired for making up a quote at his first workplace in the early 70s, he says that the need for maintaining standards has always been there in journalism. But it has become more complicated because media today performs a different role in the society. “Because of technology, its ethics have changed and things have become more difficult. But I would not say that it got any worse or stringent from the day when I started.” Referring to Rupert Murdoch's News International phone-hacking scandal, he says, “The guys on these newspapers just did not observe any ethical standards. Some of them have actually being charged with breaking the law by hacking into people's mobile phones and Facebook pages. When I started there were no mobile phones and no Facebook. In that sense, it has become more complicated. So, standards are changing all the time.”

Dobbie, who is currently working as a freelance editor, translator and journalism trainer, says, “I have a debt to the people who helped me, when I was young; (people) who trained me, who passed on the benefit of their experience and knowledge to me. It is a way of honouring them, if I do the same thing, passing on what I have learned and what experience I have had. I do not believe in the hard school journalism, where your editor shouts at you and throws your story back and says do it again. No that's not how people learn. The way is to treat people as equals and encourage the Be free with your advice if they ask you for it. Don't talk down to them. Regard them as colleagues not as inferiors.”

When asked what makes a journalist, Dobbie says, “The first editor who offered me a job said that the main quality a journalist needs is curiosity. I don't think I disagree with that.”


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