David Wynne-Jones, who has worked in St Helens, Singapore, and most places in between, retires today – 50 years after becoming a cub reporter at the North Wales Weekly News.
‘It was in Conwy – I was a nervous little lad sitting behind a huge desk, the editor looking over his glasses from the other end,’he says.
‘I was thinking: ‘How am I going to cope with this?'”
But cope he did; darting from paper to paper with pen in one hand, and dictionary in the other. Covering funerals in North Wales, clearly, did not deter him.
‘It was fairly parochial, going to funerals and collect mourners’ names,’he says.
‘Woe betide you if you missed anyone out. You weren’t allowed to go on the bigger stories, because the seniors did that.”
From North Wales funerals, he crossed the border to the St Helen’s Reporter, before becoming sports editor on the North Wales Chronicle.
In 1965, he became chief sub at the Chester Chronicle Group, before joining the Liverpool Daily Post. From there, it was the Oxford Mail and Times Group, then deputy editor at Darlington’s now-defunct Evening Despatch.
From County Durham to Kent, his first editorship was at the Folkestone Herald, before taking the chair at the Watford Observer in 1983.
In 1987, he was made editorial consultant at the Strait Times in Singapore, returned in 1990 to become deputy editor of the Oxford Mail, then became editor and publisher of the Witney Gazette in 1994.
In 1999, the last date on his world tour, he became chief sub on the Newbury Weekly News, and he has also been in charge of the monthly Out & About magazine.
Reporters rely too much on spellcheck
How has the job changed since 1959?
‘It was hot metal and monotype in my day,’he says. ‘We went through all the changes of technology. And with Wapping – it wasn’t just the nationals, the weeklies and regionals were affected greatly by that.
‘Design-wise, technology has made the job easier. There are so many things you can do with design now. There’s no such thing as columns now – you can make your own columns as wide as you want.
‘But I’m not sure the basics are still there – reporters rely too much on spellcheck, for instance. In the old days you knew how to spell in the first place.”
So will plans – recently unveiled by Johnston Press in the Midlands and Northern Ireland – to ‘centralise’subs away from reporters, affect quality?
‘I go along with that,’he says. ‘You can’t even discuss stories face to face.
‘You can do it over the phone, but you can’t do what happened in my day, with chief subs and news editors glowering over you. If it wasn’t right, you were made to do it until it was.
‘Local knowledge is very important. Not every sub lives in the town but you have people with that local knowledge, which is very important – especially when young reporters starting their career come from out of the area, and often move on to bigger and better things.”
Another danger to the future of sub-editors is the rise of reporters publishing directly to online.
‘I can see why it happens for expediency,’he says. ‘But I think there’s a danger there will be a pretty almighty cock-up – and that might focus the mind when it happens.
‘It [web publishing] should be treated in precisely the same way as the paper.”
So what will he miss most? Not, presumably, reporters’ sloppy spelling.
‘The companionship and the camaraderie you get with working with people,’says Wynne-Jones, who has two daughters, including Ros, a former national journalist.
‘The banter is fantastic. You can’t possibly replicate that.”
Despite planning a ‘gap year’with his wife, Patricia, taking in South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii, he will be keeping an eye on the columns of his old paper.
‘I shall be monitoring the titles,’he says. ‘If mistakes are made, I will be emailing.”