Campaigning newspaper editor and author
Born: 18 April, 1923, in Aberdeen. Died: 21 March, 2008, in Aberdeen, aged 84.
ROBERT Smith was the campaigning journalist and author who as longest-serving editor of the Evening Express in Aberdeen, led on issues that affected his native city, notably on oil. He was an early supporter of North Sea development back in 1967 when the notion of offshore industry held the flavour of a music-hall joke.
As exploration gathered pace, he oversaw news coverage by his own staff to many parts of mainland Europe and Houston, Texas, both to report on developments, and to question how oil and gas might alter both the land and fishing for his readership area. His assiduousness saw his paper gain an exclusive on Scotland's first gas landfall site at St Fergus.
An absolute newsman, Smith saw news as his first and last issue. If a story affected his readership area, it was in. More to the point, news coverage might be backed by a "News Extra", a pithy piece giving the story behind the news. Thus when footballer Tommy Craig was transferred from the Dons in 1971 for a then record fee of 100,000, his broadsheet paper produced the background comment. When more than 20 people perished in a gas explosion in Clarkston, Glasgow, he had a reporter on the spot filing copy. Likewise, there was an inside track direct from Clydebank on the evening of the demise of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. When the Second Cod War broke out in the summer of 1973, he had a staffman aboard an RAF Nimrod round Iceland to report directly.
His editorial flair lay in management of news coverage, layout and production. Long before electronic means of splashing a story, he memorably covered the sleeplessness of American astronauts on the first night of the initial Moon landing with a 96-point heading across page one – "Moonsomnia". Annually, he and his team effected a minor miracle at the budget, with an extra edition comprising a re-plated front page with almost up-to-the-minute information.
Smith completed this in days of hot metal, a production process whose principles would have been recognised by Gutenberg and Caxton. At the same time he robustly developed circulation to ensure the paper was on sale by mid-afternoon from Invergordon to Montrose, and as far west as Fort William, 166 miles away, the largest evening newspaper geographical circulation in Scotland.
An intensely private person, the tall, fair-haired Smith took some justified pride in a bronze replica hanging in his Aberdeen home headed "Twenty Not Out", a page never seen by readers, and designed by staff to mark his two decades at the helm. Among the light-hearted writings lay some serious tributes, such as his raising the daily sale of the paper to "a spectacular 82,000". The plate also recalled that in the 1950s, as assistant editor, he introduced a weekly column under the pseudonym Rex Baird that became "the scourge of bureaucratic ineptitude everywhere".
From his editorial chair he put considerable effort into charity fundraising for hospital equipment, with a LaserLine that included a presentation on the summit of Cairngorm, and LifeLine, a renal dialysis appeal that thrived on a series of special trains from Aberdeen to Kyle.
His public principled stances were marked by a very private one. When contacted about possible appointment as MBE, he turned down the offer, giving no reason. Long into retirement, he confided that he felt that the award had been devalued in its use to pay off too many second-rate politicians.
Smith began newspaper life before the war as a 15-year-old copy boy in Aberdeen, moving after a year as an editorial trainee with DC Thomson. After the war, he moved to the old Weekly Journal, before becoming assistant night news editor with the Press & Journal in 1955, and then editor of the Evening Express.
In 1984, after 22 years at the helm of the Evening Express, including a celebration of the centenary of the paper in 1979, he retired to write. From his pen flowed a simply enormous variety of books – histories, guides, narratives, stories, all illustrated by him, and all local bestsellers.
From 1980 onwards, his writings included Grampian Ways, The Granite City, The Hidden City, The Road To Maggieknockater, Discovering Aberdeenshire, One Foot In The Sea, Buchan: Land of Plenty plus two with particular emphasis on the Deeside he loved – A Queen's Country and Land of the Lost. The latter was an exploration of north-east Scotland's forgotten townships, the ferm touns of yore, Deeside places from Glen Gairn and Luibeg to Ordie and Birse. For his research in the field, he was almost always accompanied by his wife Sheila – with whom he celebrated his diamond wedding two years ago.
For a decade, Smith was press secretary of Braemar Royal Highland Society, and proved not only an innovative but very safe pair of hands. Always one to train the young, his commitment to the next generation was recognised by the society on his retirement in the creation of the Robert Smith Quaich, an award now annually presented to the top media student at Robert Gordon University.
Smith served with RAF Coastal Command in the Second World War, initially aboard twin-engined Catalina flying boats operating out of Oban Bay, then as a wireless operator and air gunner in India. Coastal Command, navigationally very testing, was regarded as the least glamorous section in the RAF, as suggested by the dress code: Fighter Command undid the top button of their tunics; Bomber Command had a whistle under the lapel; Coastal Command undid the bottom button because, as the saying went, they "always got stuffed". It was a story he appreciated.
Robert Smith is survived by Sheila, their daughter and son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.