Newspapers and Gnomes and a level headed outlook

Let Us Go Then You And I…

Can I play the surgeon this Friday, slit open the torso and welcome you into the belly of the beast? Take my hand and let me lead you inside, where slimy guts writhe and steam furiously, noisily, disgustingly. Come on. Let’s go.

I said let’s go. I am not releasing your hand. This is not a tour. This is an abduction. I am going to show you, by brute force, the whole repulsive process that results, in the end, in the shit your read in your newspaper.

First a flashback:

When I first started at the New Vision newspaper (around February, 1962, give or take) it was as a freelance writer. The company was cruelly exploitative — often Stalinesque — but we brave soldiers were determined to battle the odds and succeed. Succeed in getting some of that press money. Chiching. Chiching.

Some of us were on Campus. We needed teeth. 

But as with all battles, this one often wrought wounds. Us soldiers would meet under a sprawling tree in what is no longer the parking lot to lick our wounds (Yes. They paved paradise. Initiate Earworm.) and complain. 

We complained about the bosses, we complained about the stories we were assigned to do, we complained about the pay, we complained about the new measure to enforce a formal dresscode, but most of all we complained about sub-editors.

Stop wriggling. Would you prefer it if I used handcuffs?


What is this “Saba Dita” of which Ispeak?

And now we come to the disgusting part. This is how a newspaper article is made: It begins with a writer. Who, as you may have surmised, writes the damn thing. He or she then sends said article to an editor.

Sometimes the editor looks at the article and likes it. And laughs while reading it and says, “This woman is crazy,” if, for example, it comes from Lydia Namubiru.

After reading and chuckling, he or she passes the article on to an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive gnome that lives in a hole under the floorboards and is called a sub-editor.


a sub editor at work
a sub editor at work



Actually, that is not true. The subeditor is not a gnome. The subeditor is a smart young lady. The gnome is the editor. 

Now, this subeditor, in the New Vision at least, is supposed to take the article and check it for spelling and grammatical errors (which she will then correct), accuracy (which she will ensure) an, after this, put the thing on the page. Yes, our subs do layout. 

They have to fit your words on the page. But sometimes writers write too much. Sometimes MTN or DFCU or even Geisha (though where soap of all things gets the impudence to interrupt newspaper stories is a mystery) book advertising space, which means your story has to become even shorter. The result is that the subeditor often has to cut stories.

Writers HATE that.

Writers think they know it all. They think they are the perfect arbiters on what they mean and what they say and how it should be presented, and they loathe any slight alteration to it. 

This weekend, for example, Ivan Musoke is going to want to kill me because I cut the intro out of his Big Brother article.

After working for roughly 40 years, give or take, I came to that career point when one discovers that one can make more money as a subeditor. 

So I turned and told my brothers in arms, the soldiers I had fought so many battles with, to kiss my ass and I went off to the desk.

Where I was to learn this:

Subs HATE writers.

Because so often writers are sloppy and irresponsible and late, and if they are not that, they are just plain bad.

Examples in recent history: 

When listening to Katamba and Dumba do their commentaries, they will give enormous player profile and accurate information and statistics after a mere fowl committed, goal scored.

Beauty lies in the hands of the beholder. To me, beauty does not mean much. I don’t think the one I’m dating now love me because I’m beautiful and neither do I love him because of his looks. 

There are cases, and they are not infrequent, where you see a writer’s byline above a story, but not a single sentence you then read is as originally written. I kid you not. Shit is real in this subediting business. It has made some subeditors nervous and suspicious to the point that they don’t believe in perfect copy anymore. Every article has to be corrected. 

And that is what writers complain about. Sometimes the “correction” is a bit overzealous, and things like pace, flow, impact and even meaning are lost. 

For example, this build-up, rising to a crescendo that will thump my point down here…

I believe in putting the bad news on the front page before the good news. I believe in all of it. Because when it works, when the principles are followed, then it goes beyond just information being conveyed. A wonderful thing happens: Truth is told.

May be reduced to this…

I believe in putting the bad news on the front page before the good news. When the principles are followed, the truth is told. 

No thump. Just a flaccid splat.


no bang
no bang



As time went on, however, I rose in the ranks. I am no longer a subeditor and am now in a position where I am able to insulate myself from their woes. I have a good rapport with the subs who handle my work in the Sunday Magazine and I can confidently tell you that any errors you see in my magazine column are my own, and I only work with excellent writers, so I forgot what it is like for subs to beef with writers or vice versa.

As usual, with these long posts, by the time I get to the end, and having been interrupted throughout the process to actually do the work I am paid to do (I started writing this around two hours ago) I don’t remember what my point was.

No, I wasn’t bitching, I think along the way, I was going to apologise for my outburst and assure Ugandan subs that, while I retain the right to fume, it isn’t personal, and I like them and want to be their friend. 

Except with Don. Don, we should take this outside. 

DON! I’m JOKING! Even you also.

Anyway. Here is Giles.


On Monday I will officially kwajula Liz.

19 thoughts on “Newspapers and Gnomes and a level headed outlook

  1. Yuck…anal-retentive!!! Hah and hah.

    Naye Baz, that splat thing is f-ugly!!!

    This is why blogs are better than newspapers and bloggers better than /press writers, sub editors and editors all rolled into one. But fret not Baz, u’re an editor/blogger.

  2. Interesting insight.

    Some of us only know you from Bad Idea… didn’t know there was this much drama attached. And with that, there goes the little hope I had in having an article in the papers.

    That splat picture…

  3. “When I first started at the New Vision newspaper (around February, 1962, give or take) it was as a freelance writer” IT or I…who was the freelance writer?

    “…grammatical errors (which she will then correct), accuracy (which she will ensure) an..” an? don’t you mean and?

    I am a languages teacher but I am also known as a “fouille-merde” a french expression that is too french to be explained here. (call me!)

    Teeheeheeheeh i am soo LMAO correcting your spelling and other errors…

    I love you by the way and i am hoping I am the Liz you refer to above. (I believe in miracles)

  4. guns out blogren!!! it is war!
    did the strange liz just say i love you to baz?! well i guess he won’t be flying solo no more now will he?

  5. What does a sub straight from Campus know about work of a reporter who has been doing it for 10 years. What right does this sub have to cut and fit a story into a small colomn. If only the experienced were subs then maybe. I have two friends I was with at campus two years age (Baz 196WHAT? Okadiye) and straight from campus they were given the desk to edit. Really.

  6. Chanelno5, that is pretty scary–ur friends given a desk to edit? It must be a tough call.
    And you also present the bizzare, traditional view of many writers. What does 10 years of static writing got to do with clean copy? I have been a sub for the many past years and trust me, some of the sickening writers are those of “10 years and above experience”. Ask anyone in NV about a mzee who does court stories and you will know what I am talking about.
    The sub-writer war to me, is just a mere clash of egos. As someone who has done both–and a trained diplomat I know this can be resolved. It is just about open communication and consulting. That is all–that is how I cooled down hot-headed reporters in NV–and I am doing the same in DM.

  7. Don, i don’t think it is egos. Both sides are victims of a bad system of doing things. Starting with assigning editors sending out poor writers. If only the company would devote part of the time it spends looking for subs with good english to looking for writers with the same capacity. Also, calling the writer back should always be an option.

  8. I luuurved that movie Spiderwick Chronicles!!! Off topic? I have nothing to say since I’ve been a writer and I actually counted all the words in my articles before they were handed in. Also, I had the best luzungu in that place no one dared edit my articles. Yes, the editors were mostly Afrikaans speaking. So I don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to sub-writer wars.

  9. I am a writer with a publication in Nairobi. My sub is a tall, slim, sweet thing with very looong [and I mean loooongg!] legs called…, I won’t tell you her name because she knows Karate [plus did I mention that she has very loooong legs?] and I still have use for the two danglers inside my boxers.

    Anyway, what was I saying? Yes. My sub. She is very sweet. I like her.

  10. @ Mamazuzum

    Back in high school, I was not exactly a truant. but Neither was my attendance of lessons motivated by a genuine belief in the merits of education. As a matter of fact, I only attended mathematics and science lessons because Mr. Mmbwanga’s exploits with the behinds of class-cutting pupils were legendary.

    But one subject which I genuinely enjoyed for all the right reasons was English. Truth be said, Ms. Aradi was one hot madam, and like every single boy in my class, the dreams I heard about her [and they were quite frequent] had some pretty un-Christian themes. However, I really was more interested in what she said than in how she said it.

    This means I was able to acquire remarkable competence in the English language, and while I may not be a Bill Shakespeare, a Liz Windsor or even a Mike Kijana, I believe my grasp of at least some grammatical intricacies of the English language is quite pronounced.

    What I’m driving at in so many words is, what the hell do you mean by ‘pics and shens’ in English? And while you’re at it, could you translate the stuff in your blog?

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