September 5, 2007

The greatest human rights paper that never was...

I knew something was up when Howard, one of The Advocate's marketing foot soldiers, showed up to my place early on a Saturday morning with an odd request.

Despite having put the paper to bed the previous evening and supposedly sending it off for printing, he wanted all of the original materials: articles, photos and ads. Assuring me that he just needed them for a donor's website, I warily gave him the files and we both went about our weekends.

It never really occurred to me that the editor had secretly planned to redesign the entire paper without my knowledge. Throughout the torturously glacial process of getting the content together for The Advocate's first issue, he had always liked my design, even if we disagreed on everything else.

As the newly 'hired' production manager and human rights consultant, it was my job to make sure the paper looked good and that it stuck to its mandate: the voice of the voiceless. The editor seemed to have other ideas, though, as he wanted his own self-promoting story to run on the cover and, most worryingly, a half-page photo collage of his wedding day. After explaining I wouldn't be able to volunteer my time if the paper didn't amplify unheard voices and promote development dialogue, we agreed to give legitimate content higher priority.

Slowly, better stories filtered in from the paper's remarkably committed journalists. Spending their own time and money in the field doing interviews and internet cafes typing articles, they tirelessly worked the human rights beat to the best of their ability. They talked to kids who had been illegally kicked out of orphanages; subsistence farmers affected by drought; activists shut out of protesting during the SADC summit; people making illegal charcoal because they had no electricity to cook with. It was raw, ragged and a copy editor's nightmare, but had real potential.

Having a drink with two of the reporters after thinking we had finished the paper, we had a laugh at all the fuss over wedding photos and story placement. "We're glad you put your foot down," one tells me, "but now you know how Zambians operate: they get money to do something and promote all their friends and family. Nothing on merit." Satisfied from a job well done, we went our separate ways, looking forward to seeing the paper on the streets.

Half-expecting to see hawkers selling The Advocate at the traffic lights over the weekend, the paper, and its editor, went missing for the next three days. Repeated calls, text messages and emails didn't elicit a response.

Finally, on the following Tuesday I received a SMS from the editor saying the paper was being redesigned because I "hadn't followed instructions"and that I had been relieved of my duties because "I was impossible to work with." According to the message, the paper would be released the following day. As frustrated and angry as I was, I decided to wait until the paper came out to respond.

So I waited. And waited. Finally, ten days later I caught wind that the paper was being officially launched. Having been fired, I wasn't there to witness the fiasco that ensued, but the staff told me there was an insurrection against the editor for, indeed, running his story on the cover and publishing a half-page wedding collage. Worse, most of the human rights content had been either buried or completely omitted. Apparently they berated him into accepting shared decision-making responsibility for editorial placement. "We're so embarassed we can't move in public," one of the staff confessed.

The reporters want me to come back and patch things up with the newly-humbled editor. Others say he didn't really fire me, but gave me more of an indefinite leave. What I'd really like to do is apply for a media grant and start my own nepotism-free human rights teaching newspaper.


Bryn said...

ahahah - I'm having some mixed feelings right now. For one I sympathize with that poor editor and his 'you're impossible to work with' line - but the published navel gazing? I never remember you shying away from that concept before ahahah.

Also, nice touch with the National Post orange along the bottom and what's with this grey screen jazz - I distinctly remember that being verboten during your reign of terror...

Good luck pulling the Advocate back up though, seriously. I looks good.

Scott said...

Sounds like the "Shout Outs" section from your Cord days blown out into a full length paper.

Emilie said...

Is that Myriad Pro Semi Bold?

April said...

Wedding photos on the front page! Glorious! Why didn't I think of that?!

hee hee, j/k