The Jamaica Observer is 28: A midwife's taleMonday, March 08, 2021
Exactly 28 years to the day, the Jamaica Observer yesterday marked a moment in time that has changed the media landscape in Jamaica and achieved what only one other newspaper has been able to do — exist beyond 10 years — as it moves relentlessly towards the third decade.
It's a story worth telling:
From different corporate offices at different points in the capital Kingston — call it fate, if you will — a common vision emerged about the same time in the minds of two men: hotel and business mogul Gordon “Butch” Stewart and banker Delroy Lindsay.
Out of that common vision, the Jamaica Observer was born to become the fourth daily newspaper in modern Jamaica on December 11, 1994. But before hitting the streets as a daily, the Observer story had already begun to unfold in an interesting and intriguing way.
I first heard of the idea of a new newspaper, after the Jamaica Record had folded. Some months elapsed and I thought the idea had been scrapped. Then one morning as I edited a script for then Prime Minister Michael Manley I got a telephone call from Moses Jackson, relaying a message that I should call Dr George Phillip.
Dr Phillip was the man who brought Stewart and Lindsay together, having worked with both of them at key levels.
Phillip, Ken Gordon, owner of the Trinidad Express, and an executive of Appliance Traders, Dr Jeffery Pyne, interviewed me, among others for the job of editor of the new paper. I was called back to a second interview, this time with Phillip and Owen Baptiste of the Trinidad Express and who, I subsequently learnt, was going to be CEO and editor-in-chief of the newspaper.
At the end of the interviews I was offered the job to be editor in charge of the day-to-day operations of the editorial department and reported for work as the first employee of the Jamaica Observer on December 14, 1992.
It was clear to me on December 14, 1992, when I had my first working meeting with CEO and Editor-in-Chief Baptiste that we were several items behind on the agenda for the start-up of the Observer newspaper. The publication date was March 1993. And I was only the first employee!
In the right place at the right time
Up to that point, the start-up was the burden mainly of one man — Dr George Phillip, a likeable businessman who had made a name as an industrial relations expert. He had been in the right place, at the right time, to bring the hotel magnate, Butch Stewart, and Worker's Bank principal Delroy Lindsay together to start the Observer.
Stewart, in particular, had for sometime nursed the idea of providing Jamaica with a second daily to help propel the country forward into the emerging Information Era. Now the time had come.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pioneers
On that December morning, Baptiste, Carole Embden and I met at the site of the headquarters at No 2 Fagan Avenue. The building was not a 'site' for sore eyes. It was the old Kiskimo building that was being redesigned and renovated to house the baby Observer. There was no doubt that we were going to be starting this newspaper literally from scratch. But untamed enthusiasm knew no bounds.
By the end of December, the editorial team was a small bunch of bright-eyed, dare I say bushy-tailed, youngish journalists who, one could tell, were quite unaware of the full import of what they had got themselves into. But whatever obstacles were to come would surely be overcome by their pioneering spirit and that same boundless enthusiasm.
That original group now comprised Elaine Ferguson, features editor; Carole Embden, news editor; HG Helps, later confirmed as sports editor; Neil Fairclough, production officer; Sandra Champagnie, layout editor; Michael Gordon, photo editor and Corinne Barnes, senior reporter.
In the years up to that point, I had spent many years honing my craft as a newspaperman, having started in 1973 as a trainee reporter at The Gleaner. After journalism school in France, I had tried my hand at being an international correspondent, at public relations in Chicago, and finally as editor-in-chief at the national news agency.
Ink in the blood was never enough
The job as editor of the Observer meant that I had reached the pinnacle of Jamaican journalism and, at 38 years old, still had a bundle of energy. But starting a newspaper from scratch was not something one could read in a book. And having ink in the blood was never going to be enough.
I awoke abruptly one morning to a severe sense that we, or certainly I, had taken a leap, some might say given a push, into the unknown. When we met later that day, I told Baptiste that as my team members were all newbies at starting a newspaper, it would make sense that we got a little 'practice' at producing one. He seized upon the idea of sending a group of us to the Trinidad Express newspaper which was providing expertise for the Observer.
Of the original editorial group, six of us went to Port-of-Spain on January 3, 1993 to begin an odyssey that, as the Americans like to say, would change our lives forever. Michael Gordon and Corinne Barnes remained behind in Jamaica to provide us with stories and photographs that would form the basis of a “launch issue”. In four days, practically without sleep and coaxed on by one Fred Reid, we produced a 'newspaper', using the Trinidad Express process. Don't ask me how we did it.
It was sent off to Miramar, Miami to be printed and shipped to Jamaica in time for the January 15, 1993 launch ceremony delayed two days by the January 13 earthquake.
Fast-forward in time now to March 1993. By now the team had grown. I was elated when Vernon Davidson accepted my invitation to become the first chief sub-editor. At the time he was running the public relations department of the Jamaica Tourist Board. Susan Anderson was doing graphics; Roy France, layout; Grace Virtue, reporting; Delroy White-hall, reporting; Ky-Ann Phillip, reporting; Ingrid Riley, reporting; Leonie Cooper, typing. If I miss someone, put it down to old age (Remember, I was 38 then, now I am 66, if you please!).
It is worth stressing here that we did not start out with a press in Jamaica. The plan was to produce the Jamaica Observer as it was called on film in Jamaica, fly it to Miramar, Miami for printing by Florida Offset on Wednesday and fly the printed paper home on Friday for distribution.
From base on Grant's Pen Road, St Andrew, with one telephone line, no news car, few computers, woefully running behind time, with no chance of a dry run, a bunch of fired-up young people — now including Lambert Wallace, the short-lived production manager — produced the first Jamaica Observer that hit the streets on Sunday, March 7, 1993.
By then other notables on the staff included Donna Ortega as advertising manager, Marlene Street as financial controller, Vivette Anderson, as purchasing officer and Lilliane Wilmot as personnel manager.
The story of that first issue merits a separate article all by itself. We made the deadline by means of superhuman sacrifice. In fact, I recall now that that first paper was sent to Miami in two parts. Come to think of it, we never missed a single publication!
In a way, after that first issue, we all sort of grew up; we had lost our innocence. And you know what? That was the easy part!
Some of us took turns to take the negatives to Miami. Those who did still share hilarious anecdotes of frequently missing the 7:00 am Air Jamaica flight, having overslept, as the paper was hardly ever completed before 4:00 am. The rest of that story is stuff of which my book will be made. We added a second publication in June, called the Wednesday Observer, with a name change in short order to the Midweek Observer. In October 1993 the genius of Moses Jackson produced the award-winning Business Observer as part of the Midweek Observer. On December 11, after all that 'practising', we went daily. After what we had gone through, this would be like a walk in the park.
Conflict and change
Importantly, by August that year, simmering problems at the Observer came to a head, leading to decisive change at the newspaper. A struggle which had originated in Port-of-Spain and pre-dated the Observer, played out itself between Owen Baptiste and then Trinidad Express Chairman Ken Gordon. I was unwittingly embroiled in the struggle, with Baptiste and me becoming fierce adversaries. The truth? It was late in the day that I learnt of the bigger struggle. But it retarded the progress of the paper.
Like good owners do, Stewart and Lindsay took the decision to revamp the newspaper, following an investigation by Moses Jackson, then an advisor to Lindsay. Baptiste was returned to Trinidad after rejecting an offer to remain as CEO but cede the position of editor-in-chief to Paget deFreitas who was later confirmed in that position. And with Dr George Phillip at the helm as CEO, the Observer now turned its gaze towards the future as a daily newspaper.
The Observer moved from strength to strength, creating a name for itself, with blistering stories throughout 1994. As the year-end approached, Phillip decided it was time to take the plunge and go daily at last. Convinced that the time was ripe, he set December 11 as the history-making day when Jamaica would get its fourth daily newspaper.
There are compelling stories upon stories in the making of the Observer which has become a trailblazer of no mean order. But these are for another place and another time. This was merely to whet the appetite as we mark the 28th anniversary as a newspaper.
It would be remiss of us not to pay tribute to three of the key personalities who made it all possible and who have left us now: Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart; Dr George Phillip and Owen Baptiste. We hope that we continue to make them proud.
— Desmond Allen is founding editor of the Jamaica Observer
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