Volunteerism: My Experience With The Daily Observer In The 1980’s

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

The month of February each year is an important month in the life of the Daily Observer newspaper, the country’s first independent daily that was established on February 16, 1981 in the early 1980’s by veteran and venerable journalist, Kenneth Yarkpawolo Best. Although I am no longer with the newspaper, I see it as my duty each year to retrospect some of my experiences with the paper which I joined in 1983 as a volunteer, beginning as a cub reporter, with assignment in the Borough of New Kru Town. The essence of this is to share my years of experience as a cub reporter, a senior reporter and then news editor, prior to the civil conflict in 1990.

My interest in the journalism profession started many years ago when I was a student at the William R. Tolbert High School, now D. Twe High School. My first news script was done in 1977 at the school when I wrote the result of the class election which I posted on the school’s bulletin for the students’ consumption. At the time, one Helen Karyonnoh Brown, alias “Yellow Sunshine,” now with the West Africa Telecom in Congo Town, won that election.  Minutes after the story was posted, it attracted many persons like the unlike poles of magnets.

From that moment, I was encouraged by many students to continue reporting on events in the school. Those words of encouragement inspired me as I continued to report on events in the school and even outside of the school. I remembered that I travelled on many trips with the school, bringing back reports. Two of the areas visited that I really enjoyed was in Bong Mines, when I lodged with one Buster Fallah and also one in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, when the present Gender and Development Minister, Pinky Duncan Cassell, was then the student council president of the Bassa High School. In Bong Mines, I had the privilege for the first time to have a hot water shower bath. Please, don’t laugh at me for this.

My greatest time as a school reporter came in 1978 when the then vice principal of the school, Joseph Torbor, who was affectionately known as “Torborlism,” because of his tough disciplinary stance, recognized me during a school assembly, for my level of reportage in the school. He presented a purse to me, which was like as million dollars at the time, as a student. He also assisted me whenever there was a mistake, as I did my reporting independently. One of the corrections I still remember is that- once I wrote and used “deviate of,” and he said the appropriate preposition should have been ‘from” and not “of” and therefore, the phrase should have been “deviate from.” From then, I never made such a mistake again.

For the then Principal Timothy Nyae, his public speaking helped me in building up my vocabulary. The old man, who died many years ago, was also a tough disciplinarian and was also respected by students for his penmanship. As a student and student reporter of the school press club, I learned many words such as inculcate and soliloquy from the old man.

While at the school, I was a member of the school’s editorial team that produced the first standard newsletter of the school, through a financial assistance from Dr. Arif  Kassas, who operated a clinic in Monrovia at the time. I served as the first News Editor of that newsletter. Mr. Gabriel Williams, now with the Liberian Embassy in the United States, was my deputy.

Upon my high school graduation, I joined the MIRROR Newspaper; a weekly newspaper operated by Edward Davies, then, Director General of the Liberian News Agency (LINA), as a freelancer. My going to the Mirror was based on encouragement by my old time friend D. Ignatius Roberts, now with LINA. Mr. Roberts was a reporter with the paper at the time, which was edited by one senior journalist, only known at the time as Mr. Newton, and who was assisted by Daniel Achampong.

It was while with the MIRROR as a freelance reporter that Mr. Gabriel Williams, then a reporter with the Daily Observer, during one of our alumni meetings told me that the Daily Observer was interested in having someone in New Kru Town as its eyes on events in the Borough. It was then that I applied in April 1983 as a correspondent. With that, I was asked to write a report, which I did and presented.

One of the editors at the rime, Isaac Thompson, a man I still respect for human interest stories and headlines, did the evaluation after which he simply said, “We can use him.” From then, I began reporting. My first major story in May 1983 was about erosion in New Kru Town. When I saw my byline (name) in the country’s number one independent newspaper, I was fraught with ecstasy. That day, I was among the happiest people on earth.

When I started reporting for the DAILY OBSERVER, I was not immediately placed on the weekly per diems that reporters received, neither was I placed on salary. Notwithstanding, I continued to report like a volunteer, bearing in mind that, that was a great opportunity to learn, being fully cognizant of the galaxy of media practitioners at the paper at the time. I was hopeful that one day, I would be placed on that weekly per diem list and also receive salaries.

But more importantly, my interest was to learn to become a professional journalist in this country, because of the passion I have for the profession. Besides, I admired the works of some top journalists at the time. They include, Kenneth Best, who the late President Samuel Doe, derogatorily said to once, “Mr. Best, you should know best;” the late Rufus Darpoh, the man who was detained at the notorious Belle Yella Prison in Lofa County, and later referred to as a “Zoe Bush;” suggesting that certain happenings there cannot be revealed; Alhaji Kromah, John Scotland, with his weekend newspaper, with headline, such as “DEDEBA or “More Heads To Roll” and Amb. Carlton Karpeh, with his Weekend News.”

Expectedly, after reporting for months, by including West Point and other areas as a foot soldier, I was placed on the weekly per diem and later began to receive remunerations based on the number of stories I presented. Because of the volume of stories, at sometime at the end of the month, I got more pay than the regular reporters on monthly salaries. This necessitated the management to place me on salary. I then realized the popular saying that, “patient dog eats the fattest bone,” and that “a determined mind always succeeds.”

Later from volunteerism, I became News Editor of the Daily Observer, a job that gave me greater responsibilities because as news editor, one finds himself in a position that is the lifeblood of the editorial department because news helps to determine the kind of newspaper, from which people would be interested to purchase and also do business with.

In addition, I discovered that as news editor, there is no time for rest. The news editor job, as I always told my present staff, is “24-7,” as that editor “must be on top of things or happenings;” one has to read to know of events, listen to various stations, and be able to determine any follow up angle to a story. My experience is that the News Editor Job gives one a sense of innovation, ingenuity and creativity. All in all, as it is said, one must have ‘Nose for News.”

As news editor, I learned is about team work, as one person cannot make it in the newsroom, and also learned good interpersonal communication skills, with those in the editorial department. Like my boss, Mr. Best, when it was time to joke, that was it, but when it was time to work, so was it, as there was no room for joke. More importantly, some of the things I also learned while at the Daily Observer were good work ethics and adherence to high journalistic ethics. Thanks to Mr. Best for insisting on good work ethics, high ethical standard and also by living by example.

Because the newspaper was widely read, concentration was also made on the political sub-divisions of the country. With that, I had to keep in touch with our correspondents in the counties. They included Edwin Fayiah, Koffa Jerboe, the late Attes Johnson, the late Ephraim Johns, S. Togba Slewion, J. Grody Dorbor and C. Y. Kwanue. Also in the newsroom, I had individuals who cooperated with me. They include Gabriel Williams, James Seitua, Abdullah Dukuly, and J. Burgess Carter. During that time, the man who had nose for news was the late Taana Wolokollie. The Photo Department headed arch-photo journalist, Sando Moore, with his staff- Arthur James Folley Siryon, Mozart Dennis and Gregory Stemn also worked cooperatively with me in making sure the appropriate photos were given and that assignments were covered.

Let me also not forget the layout department headed by “Black Baby,” from which I learned to do manual layout through the drawing of lines for the size of the stories and headlines point size, as well as the cut& paste method in laying out the paper; thanks also to the 4 paper’s Librarian Siatta C. Sonie, for assisting us during research time.  Besides reading newspapers, listening to radio stations, another responsibility was that I had to keep in touch with the bulletin of the Liberia News Agency (LINA) for local stories we did not have.

As news editor, I also covered activities at the Legislature and Executive branches. The interesting news at the Capitol Building at the time was confirmation hearing which was done in plenary, while at the Executive Mansion was state visit by heads of state and also nationwide tour by the President, the late Samuel K. Doe. Sometimes during those state visits, we waited in the night hours to conclude a story on such state visit. In short, being in the news editor position is like being in the “Squirrel’s Cage and that it is time-consuming, tedious and strenuous. Anyone venturing in such position must be prepared to face these challenges.

By being the paper’s news editor, I was never complacent. I interacted with senior editors, including the late T-Max Teah, a patient-minded editor, the late Stanton Peabody, who introduced “The Three Leads (paragraphs), Isaac Thompson, Manjlu Reeves, S. Vanii Passawe, and Joe Kappia, known as “The Lead.” He was also the writer of a column in the paper known as “Educational Matters.” Special thanks to Mr. Willis Knuckles, for exposing me to investigative journalism and supplements.

Today, as I reflect on some of my activities at the Daily Observer over the years ago, I am proud of some of those who I worked with as News Editor and gave me full respect and are today in high positions of trust. They include Bill Burke, head (Chief of party), and energetic Maureen Sieh, all of International Research and Exchange Board (IREX); Frank Sainworla, station manager, RADIO VERITAS; S.  Togba Slewion, head, department of Social Work, United Methodist University; Mr. Gabriel William, Minister Counselor at the Liberian Embassy in the United States. Let me also mention the name of Simeon Freeman, now a businessman and political leader. Both Freeman and Miss Sieh went there as vacation students. While commending them for their status in society, let me remind them that they are still “indebted” to me.

Another person from the editorial department, who is in position of trust today is Cllr. Bedor Wla Freeman, head, Independent Information Commission, the group responsible to ensure the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.

On this occasion of its anniversary month, let me say a big thank you to Mr. Best and the team at the time for giving me the fundamentals and rudiments of mainstream journalism.

Let the young people of today, cultivate this spirit of volunteerism. I am sure with this, employment is certain for them. Every time I pass by street corners or visit some university campuses, I see young men in groups discussing, debating and sometimes fussing about the European league games, when some of such time could be spent as volunteers to get knowledge and later employment. I am not against soccer, but I think that many young people are focusing too much on this, thereby missing some opportunities. Indeed, volunteerism, also prepares one for a better tomorrow. Try it!  I Rest My Case.