N.R.J. Aaron : Livewire of Daily News | Sunday Observer

N.R.J. Aaron : Livewire of Daily News

Way back in 1990, when I first walked in to the Daily News editorial as a junior trainee reporter, N.R.J. Aaron was the first person I met. Blowing a puff of smoke, he asked me to take the seat opposite his table. Then he pummeled his typewriter at an alarming speed, adjusting the return lever every few minutes. “Give me two minutes, I am doing the lead story”.

Having dispatched the lead story to a waiting sub-editor, he turned to me, looked at me through his trademark spectacles and said: “Young man, welcome to the world of journalism. There are no hours in this business so don’t watch the clock. Don’t’ stay in the news room, go out, talk to people and find stories. Get to know people and they will give you stories”. Then he continued with another story on his typewriter, telling me to meet the Editor-in-Chief Manik de Silva who was in his room.

Since then, I heard him giving this advice to many other aspiring young journalists, many of whom still remain connected to journalism in one way or the other. He was particularly proud of having groomed several young journalists who later made it big - he frequently mentioned the name of AFP Colombo Bureau Chief Amal Jayasinghe, who cut his journalistic teeth at the Daily News. He was an inspiration to all the young journalists at the Daily News.

Journalism was in the very veins of Aaron, who passed away at the age of 87 on Friday. Having remained a lifelong bachelor, it would not be incorrect to say that he was wedded to journalism. He was very close to his mother and sister, with whom he lived in his Punchi Borella residence. His next love was, of course, journalism.

The Sri Lanka Press Association recognized this by giving him the Lifetime Achievement Award for his immense services to journalism last year.

Although his designation as News Editor and later, Associate Editor, compelled him to be desk-bound, Aaron was in his element as a reporter. Education was his favourite beat, although he did cover many other rounds. In fact, many of his contacts from the Education Department were present at his funeral. Both Aaron and the officials had retired sometime back, but they kept in touch. He once advised me not to cease being a reporter “even if you become the Editor-in-Chief”.

Aaron’s dedication to his job was legendary. He used to come around 7 a.m. and went home after 10 p.m. six days of the week. Even on Saturday, when the Daily News was closed and the Sunday Observer took over, Aaron came to the office to prepare for Sunday, when the next printing cycle starts. His only rest during the working day was a short walk to the nearby YMCA for a snack and perhaps another puff.

He had a remarkable nose for news and could spot a “lead” from a mile away. He had a special bond with his executives and senior reporters including T. Sabaratnam, Ivor Milhuisen, Daryll de Silva (who all predeceased him), Sarath Malalasekara, M.J.M. Zarook and Rodney Martinesz (the present Associate Editor of DN) which enabled him to coax lead worthy stories from them even on a slow news day. He also had a “hotline” to Foreign News Editor Rohana Aryaratne.

On some days, selecting the lead was a tough call, because at least three of their stories would be exclusives. Aaron, in consultation with the Editor, had the final say. He rarely had to rewrite the stories of these veterans, but when he did, it was a master class not only in journalism but also in English itself. For young reporters like us, it was magical watching this team in action.

He also had a good eye for news photographs. Selecting the page one main picture was another task that he cherished. Once, when a photographer came with the printed picture (these were pre-digital days) of an inauguration of a train service with the train nowhere in sight but the Transport Minister beaming, he gave a piece of his mind to the photographer and warned not to bring such pictures to him. His interactions with legendary photographer the late Roland Perera were entertaining, to say the least. We could always depend on the duo to teach us something.

Aaron served for 41 long years and as far as I know, had not taken more than 10 days leave in total. Once, when someone told the Chairman about this, he ordered Aaron to rest at home for two weeks. He later confessed that this was a terrible period for him - away from his typewriter and the high voltage atmosphere of the news room. As far as I know, he also never travelled abroad, even though embassy officials virtually begged him to join the usual familiarization tours.

Leaving his beloved newsroom for a week was simply unthinkable. He came to work every day even during the dark days of the 1988-89 fear psychosis, when the insurgents attacked several Lake House lorries and issued a “ban” on the distribution of Lake House newspapers.

Aaron straddled the period when technology was gradually entering the newsroom. Computers were replacing bulky typewriters, push-button-telephones were coming in and the Daily News was increasingly using full colour, with the acquisition of a Webb offset printing machine. He encouraged us to use the new-fangled computers while he stuck with his old and reliable typewriter to generate the next-day’s headlines. His rotary telephone was the last to go when the technicians insisted that they must be replaced.

Aaron did not have a very good grasp of the Sinhala language, but this did not stop him from him having a great rapport with the Dinamina editorial next door. Aaron made sure that the Dinamina got our good stories and they in turn tipped us off on their big stories. This healthy relationship between the Dinamina and the Daily News enabled both newspapers to shine and thrive.

Today, there are perhaps no more people like Aaron in journalism. Indeed, technology has also progressed to the point where the news editor can command the entire newsroom from his home or even from an airplane if he or she is travelling. But Aaron firmly belonged in the old school of journalism where one had to be in the centre of the action in the newsroom.

If there was anything or anyone that Aaron valued more than journalism, it was God. He was deeply religious, though he did not show it. After a hard day’s work, he found solace in the Grace of God which also gave him the strength to face the challenges of the next gruelling day. As the entire local newspaper industry mourns the loss of a man who gave it all to journalism, Noel Robert Jolly Aaron is finally at rest, Safe in the Arms of Jesus. 

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