Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Japanese Drums and Day 1 at the Times

My life as editor at a newspaper officially began yesterday at 3pm. Knowing that the job and learning the trade most likely wouldn’t be a walk in the park, I decided to have a very low-key, restful weekend. Most of it, in fact, was spent in coffee shops, reading, or just walking around town.

But we did do something different Sunday night—and it was extraordinary. We went to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall to attend a Japanese drums concert by a troupe called Za Ondekoza (see picture). For a solid two hours we were treated to a meditative and at times hypnotic feat of taiko drumming accompanied by numerous instruments, from the flute to shakuhachi. I had heard taiko drums before, but I certainly didn’t expect a concert to be as much a feat for the eyes as it is for the ears. In fact, the whole affair had a ritualistic feel to it; every hit of the drum is preceded by kata-like posturing, as if every hit were the result of an elaborate strand of meditation on the part of the drummer. What this creates, therefore, is something that resembles a dance; when six drummers do this simultaneously, it creates a whole that cannot leave the onlooker indifferent. The tremendous concentration with which the players do their percussion is nothing less than stunning; how else could a person, standing akimbo in a position that cannot but be uncomfortable, never skip a beat for a song that lasts more than twenty minutes? The drummers are also in exceptional shape and are but muscle. Some of them beat large drums with sword-like sticks while lying on their backs and holding onto the drum with their feet. For every hit, they would do a sit-up. The play of light was also accomplished with perfection, enhancing the mood swings, which went from quiet contemplative to war-like violent.

The following day launched me into the hectic world of the newspaper. Let’s just say that the learning curve isn’t very long. After being asked to read the style guideline (proper to the Times but drawing largely from the Associated Press guide) and shown how to use certain software, I was asked to start editing two stories from international wires. Both, it turns out, were opinion pieces—one on September 11 and the other on the JonBenet media frenzy. Meanwhile, there was mild journalistic excitement surrounding one of the “big” stories of the day, the death of the famous TV “Crocodile Hunter.”

Over the next seven hours, I would ensure that information was correct, check for punctuation, and make appropriate changes to make sure that the texts reflected the style guide (changing yuan to Yuan, or American to US, for example, when referring to the country). There are hundreds of such idiosyncratic style requirements. This also means making sure that dashes and quotation marks are double ones. What surprised me was how liberal we can be in changing certain things, even when the opinion piece is by someone like, say, Joseph Nye of Harvard University. As long as the spirit of the article is maintained, we can change about anything, from headline to subhead to how the text is organized. More so, even, with news items we get off the wires (AP, CP, CNA, Reuters and sundry others). Even when a story reads “CP” and has no “author,” chances are the text will substantially differ from the information that was obtained from the wires. This, therefore, means a lot of cosmetic surgery and rewriting. Then there are the local and regional news, which are written by our own reporters and, if need be, translated from Chinese to English. These are challenging to the editors, as we oftentimes need to understand what the author of the piece meant and retranslate it into proper, publishable English. When a piece is done, it is submitted to the editor-in-chief who goes through the whole thing. After that, it is made into a proper newspaper item; pictures are added and many checks are made to ensure that there are no “bad breaks” and that everything fits the page perfectly (this I will start doing in a few weeks). Everything is checked once more, proofed, and after that the editor-in-chief signs off on that page and it is submitted for print.

Usually, every editor is assigned one or two pages. Yesterday, I had parts of page 8 and most of page 9, which are the letters and opinion sections. After I had gone through a long letter written by a university professor here in Taiwan, the editor-in-chief and I sat together and went through it together. I was surprised by how liberal he was in making changes, which sometimes meant removing whole sentences. As it turns out, even in an opinion piece, if the facts are wrong (say, “Taiwan is in chaos,” which actually was in the piece I worked on), it will be removed.

Overall, day 1 was a very interesting experience. It is hard work—harder than I have worked in a long time—but it is rewarding. Every day, I know that something I worked on, proofread, wrote or rewrote, is in the newspaper and is being read by hundreds of thousands of people. With this, of course, comes a sense of responsibility. Remaining typos will be noticed, and more importantly, factual errors can have repercussions. Never, however, will a piece be treated by one editor alone. Rather, everything comes out of an organism. It may look chaotic while it is in process, but in the end it works out. When 9pm approaches and the deadline needs to be met, things get a little heated and the editor-in-chief may raise his voice to whip his troops.

So there it is, day one at a daily.

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