JPost at 90: Working in the media isn't a job - it's a calling

Even after the newspaper changed its name to The Jerusalem Post in 1950, the original name was etched in my grandfather’s mind, like black printer’s ink being used by the barrel-load.

 THE WRITER at work: Endless fascination.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE WRITER at work: Endless fascination.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The feeling I get on the verge of 2023 is that it could have been only last week when, in the mid-1960s, as a young boy aged no more than seven or eight, I used to peer down through the ground-level windows on Havatzelet Street in central Jerusalem. There, I’d look at the huge printing presses in the basement of a large office building as they trundled in rotary motion, churning out bundles of newspapers.

As the son of an engineer who worked throughout his life in the textile industry in England and later in Israel, I was used to seeing complex machines at work, and they were always a source of fascination.

Seeing the printing presses in action was definitely respite from the underwhelming mornings out during school holidays, when I accompanied my grandfather to his arcane office directly across the narrow street from the newspaper building.

In the case of my maternal grandfather, the newspaper being printed so close to his office was The Palestine Post. He was a multi-generation Jerusalemite who was born in the Old City in 1900 and lived through the twilight of Ottoman rule and the entire period of the British Mandate. The Palestine Post was just one source of information enabling him to stay in the know, in addition to the Hebrew dailies and foreign publications that might have been a few days old.

Even after the newspaper changed its name to The Jerusalem Post in 1950, the original name was etched in my grandfather’s mind, like black printer’s ink being used by the barrel-load across the street. For him, it was always The Palestine Post.

 THE ORIGINAL ‘Palestine Post’ office goes up in flames after a half-ton bomb went off outside the building on Hasolel Street (now Havatzelet Street), February 1, 1948. Three employees were killed and many were wounded. (credit: Werner Braun/ Jerusalem Post archives) THE ORIGINAL ‘Palestine Post’ office goes up in flames after a half-ton bomb went off outside the building on Hasolel Street (now Havatzelet Street), February 1, 1948. Three employees were killed and many were wounded. (credit: Werner Braun/ Jerusalem Post archives)

While he sat in his squeaky, wooden swivel chair reading, I would sneak out to the street to observe the hustle and bustle among the shops and to stare through the windows at the machinery down below.

I was still too young to know that less than 20 years earlier, that same office building had been devastated by a bomb in which people had been killed and wounded. And I could never have predicted that 20 years later, my adult life would be so intertwined with that newspaper. My grandfather was certainly very proud when he heard that I worked for The Palestine Post.

TRAVEL FORWARD in time almost a decade, and this teenager, back in Israel after a long stint in his native London, also found The Jerusalem Post to be a lifeline in what felt like alien surroundings.

It must be particularly hard for younger generations these days, when information is so readily available, to fathom just how cut off we all were from the outside world. Back then, newspapers and a solitary TV channel, as well as the odd radio station, were almost the only ways to access news. And of course, the news being conveyed was fashioned by the editorial decisions made by those publishing it.

Accessing information from a country of one’s origin was far more difficult. Yes, it really is hard to grasp that this was the case such a short time ago when the computers of the day were of little benefit to any of us. And the Internet or e-mail? They were still to be devised.

As a young teenager in Israel in the early 1970s, having recently arrived from London, I was starved of my abundant staple of sports information, particularly the cricket that I loved so much and followed religiously back in the UK, so I found The Jerusalem Post a welcome and soothing source of news, particularly on Fridays. One name, Philip Gillon, stood out among the many writers. He had a weekly television review column where he pretty much wrote about whatever took his fancy.

The programs on Israel’s solitary TV channel were just a peg for him to expound his liberal views. He was a master wordsmith, never pulling his punches when expressing his opinions. At the time, most of those went right over my head because all I cared about was reading what he might have to say about whatever sporting event he had either seen on television or read about in one of the international media outlets to which he had access and I didn’t.

He also listened, as we all did, to the BBC World Service. We were clearly of a similar mind, and the sport was all I cared about.

Imagine, then, my absolute delight when I discovered that Mr. Gillon played tennis regularly at the same club where my father was a member – the Holy Land Hotel of later infamy.

The connection was soon made when I met a lumbering giant of a man with a booming voice and a self-deprecating and hugely irreverent manner. He also had an infectious sense of humor that made him and his wife, Hadassah, loved by all who met them.

The encounter with Gillon was to be career-defining for me, and it set me on my course in life. Within a couple of years, just from playing tennis, I established a connection with the newspaper. Figgy, as he was known by everybody, was, at the time, probably just a little older than I am today. He became my first mentor and guide in a career in journalism that was as unplanned for me as it probably was for him when he was a young barrister in his native Johannesburg in despised apartheid South Africa until he came to Israel in the early 1950s.

In the early 1980s, we spent many hours working together in the recently-established sports department of the newspaper. There, Figgy also worked alongside his fellow-South African Jerrold Kessel who was later to make his name as a CNN correspondent in the region, with me as their protégé. When we weren’t working in the smoke-filled noisy newsroom with the clatter of typewriters and telex machines, we were out either playing tennis, as we did for many years, or watching and discussing sports – cricket in particular. The arguments and discussions could be intense and boisterous and expletives were never spared, often aided by a cool beer or a glass of whisky. Figgy loved his liquor and I joined in. Kessel didn’t touch alcohol but was deeply passionate about news and sport and he loved horse racing.

 

AS ONE of the younger members of staff in the 1980s at the newspaper’s offices in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood that had been converted from a Tnuva abattoir, and having returned to civilian life following army service and studies, I was more attuned to using the latest technology of the day. The Jerusalem Post was one of Israel’s first publications to move from lead typesetting to more modern means of printing, and I was in the right place at the right time to be able to offer my supposed technological skills that these days are as archaic as writing with a quill and inkwell.

One of my first jobs was to operate the only fax machine the newspaper had. It was a marvel of innovation, a device that baffled some of the older journalists, but it was a doddle for a young aspiring journo like me.

On Thursday nights, I would go into the office, commandeer the fax machine after all the copy had been received, and I would work into the wee hours to transmit a copy of the Friday daily edition’s front pages to New York so that they could also front the edition that would be printed there on the same day as they would appear in Israel – how utterly remarkable!

Of course, the fax machine was too small to accommodate an entire page, so each had to be cut into strips and sent in segments to the person at the other end of the line, who would then marry them back up into a whole page.

There was also the news monitor’s position. This comprised listening to the hourly news bulletins and watching that very same singular television channel to pick up any late-breaking news. The latest developments would then be reported to the night editor.

That job also entailed being able to operate a computer that would be switched on from time to time after a reporter had called in on a rotary-dial telephone to inform that they had sent an e-mail. Some fortunate reporters actually had their own PCs at home, but they were still quite rare in the 1980s, so most journalists would have to make an in-person appearance to deliver their typed pages. Compare that to these days when reporters might be heard on the phone but rarely deign to show their faces in the office.

But the foundations for this most recent trend were already being laid in the 1980s. If a reporter with a computer had filed a story, they would pick up the phone and it would then be my job to dial in to the newspaper’s mailbox to retrieve it and print it out on paper. The print command was “hardcopy-enter.” I’d then hand it to the night desk for one of the editors to work on before they, in turn, would give it to a typist in the busy typing pool, who would have to key it back into another computer system for type-setting. So innovative, we all thought.

NOW WITH over 45 years in the news business, as well as editing in the office, there have been many memorable reporting assignments and interviews with world leaders and sports stars whom I have been fortunate to meet, both at home and in far-flung places across the world.

One of my first assignments was also one of my most memorable. In 1987, I was reporting from communist Czechoslovakia at a time when the Iron Curtain regime there was particularly unwelcoming to Israelis. It was for the Davis Cup tennis match between Israel and the heavily-favored host Czechoslovak team.

That trip had its hair-raising moments, as some of us traveling among a group of Israeli “supporters” whom the CSSR had grudgingly allowed in, were actually journalists, but we were not allowed to declare as such. When we reached our destination in snowy Prague following a long day’s bus travel from Vienna, I called the office from my quite obviously bugged foriegn-tourist hotel room to tell my colleagues back at home that I had arrived safely. The voice at the other end of the phone (not one of the people mentioned above) then asked with brisk enthusiasm: “Hey, Ori, do they know yet that you are a journalist, or do they still think that you are just a supporter?”

I was suddenly thrown into a cold sweat and was certain that within seconds, stern-faced agents from the Czechoslovak secret service would barge through the door and drag me away to a dark dungeon, never to be seen again. Thankfully, however, even the communist Czechs were warm and accommodating hosts in the minus-20-degree temperatures. And in the end, Israel even won.

 

AS I survey the newsroom in the final days of 2022, nearing half a century in the news business, now white-haired, I am clearly one of the older people around the office. The young whipper-snappers, who are about the same age as I was when I began, are mainly in charge of the far more technologically demanding Internet and social media operation. I’m one of the few “old dogs” who still work on the print edition.

What will the future hold for the young and enthusiastic bunch of budding journalists for whom the overflowing wealth of news is now so abundant, yet so much more transient, as web pages must be updated by the second?

Printed newspapers have a shelf life of about a day but the Internet is far less durable, although it reaches so many more readers.

You can’t wrap up fish and chips or line a trash can with an Internet page but the skills needed to produce a printed newspaper are still in demand even in the cut-throat news realm of the 21st century.

As I settle back into my chair to review and work on tomorrow’s printed newspaper, my parting shot comes from the non-newspaper world. It was a comment made to my young son by a friend, colleague and mentor of immense wisdom during my career away from the Post when I worked as a news correspondent with the Reuters news agency for almost 20 years. “If you want a comfortable life, never be a journalist” my friend said to my son in no uncertain terms when he was about the same age as I was when I was mesmerized by those old printing presses in the Havatzelet Street basement.

My son, shrewd and determined, has definitely heeded that advice and has taken off in a completely different direction. I, on the other hand, am now too old to be learning new tricks. I was drawn to the news business for most of my working life, and it has rewarded me with no end of fascinating experiences, many of them thanks to this newspaper. ■