Ron Burdett, who has died aged 87, excelled as a fast, meticulous and multi-talented news sub-editor for nearly two decades on the London Evening News when its circulation at one staged topped a half-a-million.
Burdett thrived in the intense atmosphere at the News during circulation wars with the Evening Standard, whether as a rewrite sub, swiftly fashioning a front page splash, or six inches of perfect copy from three or more sources; or as a copy taster, sifting through torrents of paper from three international news agencies as well as PA.
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He was also a successful foreign page editor, squeezing the day’s world news into an essential digest and flourished as a headline writer, conjuring words that were punchy and witty, or arrestingly dramatic, depending on the story.
Together with colleagues in a newsroom where journalism was driven by a constant stream of page deadlines to prepare five or even six editions of the paper each day, Burdett had to make snap judgements and get them right first time.
He loved the job and his sense of mission was uncompromising, aware as he was of the paper’s enormous circulation and dominance in the capital during the 1960s and 70s.
He was unerring as a copy taster, telling the back bench which of the dozens of stories he read each day should be included in the paper and confidently skewering everything else on a lethal-looking battery of spikes – including his own hand on several occasions. As a news sub, he was quick to spot errors, and turned the roughest copy into plain English devoid of cliche and gobbledegook.
Born in Tottenham, north London, Burdett joined the RAF during the Second World War and volunteered to become a bomber pilot. He completed his training in Canada and the UK but was thwarted in his desire for active service by the arrival of VE Day.
On leaving the RAF, which he likened to his ‘university”, Burdett returned to his pre-war job in the News Chronicle library. From there, and apparently without any formal training as a journalist, he joined Westminster Press and then had spells on The Daily Sketch, Daily Mail and did regular shifts on The Sunday Telegraph before arriving at the Evening News in the early 1960s.
He was among the last of the Fleet Street journalists to experience the final years of labour-intensive ‘hot metal’production processes before newsrooms overflowing with paper gave way to the wonders of computer-driven ‘new technology’and the dawn of the digital age.
Off duty, Burdett, who lived in Hertford, was always a generous, warm-hearted and stimulating companion with a mischievous sense of humour. He held strong views and enjoyed having them tested in forceful, but always friendly, debate – often over a drink or two in a favourite journalists’ venue, such as El Vinos , The Wig and Pen Club or The Mucky Duck. He was a thoroughly charming man who was incapable of malice and bore no grudges.
He was also proud of his sartorial tastes – he was hardly ever seen without a tie – and he loved social get-togethers, especially with old friends.
Burdett cared almost as much for his colleagues as for his job, and he served for some years as the NUJ’s FoC at the Evening News. When it closed with major job losses in 1980 – to be merged with the Evening Standard – he did his best trying to help other staff, even though he must have been concerned about his own future.
He went on to work for local publications near his Hertfordshire home, such as This Week and The Enfield Gazette, revelling in the new experience of on-screen subbing and page design. He did not retire from journalism until the age of 74 and then only when his age was ‘rumbled”.
Typically, he was diligent in passing on his knowledge and experience to young newcomers, always urging the best from them.
He taught himself to play the guitar and the piano and devoured all the books he could. Latterly, as ailments took hold, he accepted treatment with steadfast dignity, never complaining, but getting on with life and hoping for the best. He had even expressed a quiet desire to ‘go for the ton”. His many friends will never forget him.
He is survived by his four children and his former wife.