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Richard Addis has probably the most extraordinary CV of any Fleet Street editor, past or present. Educated, conventionally enough at a prep school in Winchester and Rugby School, he went on to become a monk within an Anglican community in a picturesque abbey at Watchet on the Somerset coast before going on, in a grey habit and hood, to Downing College, Cambridge, where he read English. After discovering, halfway through Cambridge, that he did not after all have a vocation for the religious life, his first job was, bizarrely, as a fledgling gossip columnist on the Evening Standard's 'Londoners' Diary'. His friends marvelled at the apparent mismatch of this gentle, seemingly unworldly man pitchforked into the maelstrom of London celebrity and high society life. Addis, however, with the invaluable help of his hugely well-connected father, Ritty, an ex-colonial officer and by then a charmingly relentless charity fundraiser, unearthed a string of off-beat scoops for his new employers including such gems as Lord Avebury's decision to leave his mortal remains as dog-food for Battersea Dogs' Home and Prince Charles's attempts to enter the Royal Academy Summer Show under a pseudonym.
"My father knew a few of the great and the good," recalls Addis, "as he'd asked most of them for funds for his charities. He'd introduce himself typically by saying 'You don't know me but I leant your father my top hat for Ascot' - at which point he would get the undivided attention of whichever multi-millionaire he was trying to persuade to be more generous. He'd often ring me up and say 'I heard X is having triplets or Y has run off with a Belgian count' - and he was nearly always right so I eventually managed to get a job on Fleet Street with his help."
Addis's beatific calmness served him well as, uniquely among national newspaper executives, he kept his cool despite the pressure of urgent deadlines. He developed unerring news judgement and rose through the highly-competitive ranks of the Evening Standard, surviving Fleet Street's periodic bouts of blood-letting to become an assistant editor, before going on to be deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, executive editor of the Daily Mail, editor in chief of the New York Times, then editor of the Financial Times's weekend paper. He is believed to have edited (either as editor or as stand-in in the editor's absence) more national newspapers than anyone else alive.
Addis believes passionately in the need for every child to be more aware of the world and its place in it, not just those from high-achieving schools that specialise in inculcating current affairs and the sort of 'hinterland' that propels so many of their pupils into top universities. After decades in top media roles, his latest venture is into the world of education, something of a return to his roots, as his mother Jane founded the Merlin School in Putney.
Addis, himself the father of five children, has just launched The Day, an online news service for schools and families, supplying three contrasting stories each day, taken from the mainstream news agenda, plus factual background, context and debating points, written by national newspaper journalists. The Day is designed to help youngsters from 11 upwards boost their knowledge of world affairs. So why, given so many competing calls on teenagers' time, does he see news awareness as so important?
"It gets us out of our bubbles and makes us think beyond ourselves," he said. "It's the difference between a conversation about me and a conversation about more-than-me, which frankly will be more interesting. It's also an antidote to the epidemic of narcissism, illusory optimism, anxiety nd depression that has defined the Me Generation (anyone born in the 70s, 80s, 90s). All these self-centred mantras commanding you 'Be yourself', 'You must love yourself before you can love someone else'; these are deeply-entrenched beliefs among the under-40s and I think they're over-rated."
Addis's own fascination with current affairs started early despite little encouragement at school. "In Rugby in the early 70s, there was very little awareness of news and the school failed utterly to explain to us that what we were studying in history, English or economics was actually something you could discuss interestingly with normal people rather than just confining it to lessons in appalling old Victorian classrooms. The Day is about reversing that failure.
"I edited the school magazine, The Meteor, which meant spending a day at the printers designing each edition. They showed me all their typefaces, which I thought were great, and so I used a different typeface for each article, caption and headline in the magazine! It looked absolutely terrible but I thought it was wonderful. The biggest news story in the local paper The Rugby Advertiser was about a railway-yard fire that swept two miles up the track reducing everything to cinders. I recall it because I started it with my friend Neil, doing an experiment, building a homemade petrol bomb to blow up the school, which went off prematurely!
"As a monk and an undergraduate, I never read a paper or followed the news and never had a television until I was 40: tricky at The Express where people were forever proposing stories about people I'd never heard of. I did learn how to do splash headlines that made people read the paper, though - such as POP LEGEND SHOT DEAD (for John Lennon) - the point being that you never say who the legend is in the headline so that the maximum number of people will but the paper to find out.
"There's not much current affairs material out there specifically for teenagers. BBC TV's Newsround is quite good as a one-off bulletin but is aimed at a younger age group. The only other specialist news service for kids, First News, is excellent and good fun but likewise aimed at a younger cohort than The Day.
"Given my own career and the importance of contacts and work experience, I'm convinced that closer links with real breaking news cantering the whole business alive for youngsters. At The Day, we arrange day trips to working newsrooms, plus talks by well-known war reporters and top journalists so students can learn about media first-hand. We're also launching the first Under 18 British Junior Journalism awards - JJs - to give students recognition at universities and boost their chances of traineeships later on.
"Whether or not a student wants to work in media, basic news awareness helps us ask the right questions. I agree with the 1988 Nobel Prize winner Naquib Mahfouz: 'You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."