Smith to bring ‘compassion’ to Editor role

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  • Dexter Smith (File photo)

    Dexter Smith (File photo)

Dexter Smith, who takes over as Editor of The Royal Gazette on Wednesday, has more than 33 years’ experience in the industry.

Starting as a sports reporter with the newspaper as a 20-year-old in April 1982, he went on to become sports editor from 1991 to 1994 and then sports editor of the Gazette’s now defunct sister paper, the Mid-Ocean News, from 1994 to 2000.

He left Bermuda for London, England, in December 2000, when he began working as a freelance sub-editor on the sports desks of The Times and The Sunday Times, two of the world’s most famous and respected newspapers.

In January 2004, he became a full-time senior sports sub-editor at The Times, writing, editing and producing stories for the paper’s print, internet, digital and tablet platforms. He was an integral part of the team behind the paper’s award-winning daily print and online coverage of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

He returned to Bermuda in December 2013 to take up the position of Deputy Editor, Head of Sport at the Gazette.

Mr Smith, the newspaper’s first black Editor in its 187-year history, grew up in Pembroke’s “back-of-town” areas — Angle Street, Glebe Road, Curving Avenue — was educated at The Central School (now Victor Scott) and Saltus Grammar School. He has two sons living in England: Adebayo, 20, who is studying music journalism at the University of East London, and Kamara, 18, who is at Reigate College in southwest London.

A talented all-round sportsman in his younger days, he represented Bermuda at both cricket and table tennis, and played Cup Match for St George’s. He has also served as a corporal in the Bermuda Regiment.

• How did you start your career in journalism?

I was actually meant to be an accountant! I was good at maths and after I left Saltus I started a course at Bermuda College. Unfortunately a new lecturer, who had come from overseas, left the Island shortly afterwards and the course was cancelled.

After that I was a bit aimless but I had a job working nights in The Royal Gazette’s distribution department. I started there when I was 13 just so I could play on the Bermuda Press cricket team — you had to work for the Press to be eligible.

Dane Brown, who was the distribution manager and my first cricket captain at senior level (Young Men’s Social Club), saw an ad in the Gazette for a sports reporter and said I should apply. He told me: “Go and irritate them upstairs like you irritate us with all your sports stats and saying what they should and shouldn’t put in the paper!”

I applied and got the job, and started work at 20 under Dick Bennett, the sports editor. The plan was always to go back to school, but once you start putting money in a young man’s pocket, you tend to like that — and the Gazette was paying me twice, as I was still working nights in distribution! Eventually, Johnny Richardson, the circulation manager, and Keith Jensen, the general manager, called me in and offered me a pay rise if I quit the night job — and that was that.

I always fancied writing — English and the languages (Latin, Spanish) were my strengths at school, along with maths — and the job seemed well suited to me as a sports nut. I knew a lot of the people anyway through playing, so that gave me ready-made contacts.

By 1990-91, I had knocked on the head the idea of returning to school to be an accountant and dedicated myself to learning on the job. I then started picking as many brains as I could. I’m grateful to people such as Ivan Clifford, the former assistant editor of the Mid-Ocean News, who made time for me when I was looking to add editing and layout to my skill set.

• As the first black Editor in The Royal Gazette’s history, do you feel you carry a greater responsibility than previous editors, especially in changing the perceptions of those in the black community who may have viewed the paper historically with suspicion or mistrust?

[The appointment] is historic and no matter how I may want to couch it as being “just another editor and that it doesn’t matter that I’m black”, it does matter. It matters to many in our community and I have to acknowledge that with a degree of humility and some pride.

However, putting pride to one side, I aim to serve the entire community, not one segment — however much of a majority it is. As a result there will be times when some feel disenfranchised, but the aim remains to be as fair and balanced to all.

Central to the theme of making the Gazette open for business for allcomers is my ability to set the tone from within. If I can do that with a solid, professional team behind me and we produce the kind of balance in our reporting that I crave, I will be satisfied. There will be challenges along the way but this is not meant to be an easy ride.

The three men who preceded me have set the bar high — David White, whom I had a lot of time for professionally; Bill Zuill, one of my favourite people in Bermuda; and Tim Hodgson, whose general knowledge and encyclopaedic knowledge of this country, in particular, is freakish. I can only hope the legacy I leave in this office compares favourably.

• What do you see as your biggest challenges as Editor, particularly with the fast pace of technological change and a rapidly shifting media landscape?

One of my biggest challenges is to change the culture of the Gazette to a degree. We now operate in a 24-hour news cycle and the platforms we’re going to be giving to the public will be varied and many.

It is not just about the print product. Social media plays a massive role in how we present ourselves.

Those who have taken to it more easily than we have, such as Bernews and the bloggers, do not have a print product, so they are doing everything in their power to maximise what they do have. We cannot be looking at them from a moral high ground standpoint, be rather snobbish and say “let them get on with what they do” because we risk losing an important market share.

As a traditional print media, there is still resistance sometimes to reacting in real time — ie putting live updates on the website — because of concerns about not having anything unique for the next day’s paper. But a big story needs to be up there in some form immediately.

We can always run a longer, more in-depth version in the paper.

It is essential that digital and print work together. You cannot expect people to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper. It can still be unique but it is a changing market and, love it or loathe it, you’ve got to give people what they want. I love to sit down with a big read but not everyone is like that. Some folks like to get on their phone or tablet, read one or two paragraphs and move on to the next thing. We need to be in a position to give them that.

• What strengths and attributes do you feel you bring to the job?

Consistency, experience, commitment to excellence and a dogged determination.

One of my biggest goals is making sure the newspaper is received well. For a newspaper to be received well, it needs to be well written and, to a lesser extent, well presented or designed. We have not done that as well as we might have in the past, there has been an improvement and we will strive to improve on a daily basis.

One of my other strengths is “turning the page”. Yes, we might have had a great paper yesterday, but we cannot pat ourselves on the back — today is a new day; let’s move on and go at it with the same focus and intensity.

I bring compassion and humility, which I think is essential. I do not want to give the impression that this is the “big, bad Gazette” — although that was never my view, having worked in the company for as long as I have — but I do appreciate that there is a feeling out there that we are a particular type of paper that caters to a particular part of the community. I want to be seen as more than an historic face. Essentially, that means getting out into the community, being more visible, engaging the public — I think I’m adept at that — and making sure that I am in touch with the issues and what affects Bermudians and Bermuda residents.

• The Editor of the Gazette has always been a very public and high-profile position. How do you see your role in the community?

I certainly plan to be out and visible in the community and have as open an “open door” policy as possible. From a community standpoint, my strength will be to be welcoming, be open to constructive criticism and to provide a fair crack of the whip for all — whether they be warring politicians or the common man in the street.

We will continue to report the news, providing it is genuine news, but the Gazette cannot be part of the political conversation.

My interest is more the man in the street. We have already begun to try to place a higher emphasis on human interest stories with our Unsung Heroes and Young Achiever features. We intend to do more of those types of stories, which are popular with our readers, and speak to issues that affect the community.

• Given that it is now the Island’s only newspaper, do you feel the Gazette has both a greater role to play within the community and a duty and obligation to set itself higher standards of accuracy, fairness and objectivity?

My vow is to be as accommodating as possible, get the news out there in a timely manner, be even, fair and balanced, but be critical when we need to be.

When I got back to Bermuda there was some criticism about how we presented the news and accusations that we were being sensationalist in some of the headlines.

A headline is there to make a point, but we are hardly the Daily Mail or The Sun, nor should we want to be. As the only newspaper, you find yourself having to be a bit straight anyway because you get lots of these molehills turning into mountains. The slightest argument, whether it is in the House of Assembly or on a playing field, can cascade into an unholy war. We must always be mindful during a time of such heightened emotions that one misplaced word can start a frenzy.

The key is having a good team around me that buys into my philosophy of how I see the paper looking. That is so important to me and if I hold true to that, the rest should take care of itself.

• What did you learn from your experience working at The Times that you hope to bring to your editorship of The Royal Gazette?

The first thing I picked up on at The Times was the consistency issue. Ivan Clifford used to call me a pedant but at The Times everyone was like me — I was in good company. They were sticklers for detail and I realised that I had to raise my game if I wanted to be taken seriously.

What also impressed me was the organisation of the team, the structure and the quality of the staff from a writing and sub-editing standpoint — their intelligence and intellect and openness to ideas.

The accent on having to perform was key, which is what made London 2012 so important. Everything we had done before was magnified three or four times, in terms of getting that product out on a twice-daily basis for 2½ weeks, and then again for the Paralympics. It was the highlight of many of our careers and the plaudits that came after made it more so.

• How do you see the newsroom at the Gazette taking shape in terms of attracting young Bermudians to the industry?

Bermudians certainly are not coming out of the woodwork. I played a role in selecting our summer interns this year and the focus was on those Bermudians who are studying journalism overseas, with a view to employing them in a year or two’s time.

We need that fresh injection of young ideas. Anyone studying journalism now will be heavily involved in new media and social media, so it will not be foreign to them when you say, “Listen, you need to have a personal Twitter account and follow as many reputable people as you can so that you can be alive to news, alive to possible stories — sports, news, business … it doesn’t matter”.

Aligning yourself with the most popular social media is absolutely essential now for any news organisation, so it is important that your staff are comfortable with it.

• Are you going to miss covering sports after all these years?

Of course, but it is time for a change. I’m sure the sports department would definitely say it’s time for a change! I’ve become a bit of a beast with my weekly e-mail bulletins, asking them to tweak this or tweak that! Sport is something I have been passionate about for 40-plus years, and I will remain passionate about it, but only as part of the overall picture.

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Published Jun 29, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 29, 2015 at 8:21 am)

Smith to bring ‘compassion’ to Editor role

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