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Mother of two, living life in small-town South Africa

Mbeki gone: an act of newspaper heroism

Peter Bruce, the editor of Business Day (and a former sub-editor, which means he understands the trenches only too well), wrote a great column in Monday’s newspaper about how a “reporter with a great news story” managed to get The Weekender a world exclusive, breaking news of the ANC’s decision to recall President Thabo Mbeki.

Although they had already put the paper to bed on Saturday night with an inconclusive, ho hum Mbeki story, political editor Karima Brown responded to an SMS sent at 1am carrying news of the NEC’s decision. This was the biggest South African news story since the fall of apartheid. Hell, how could she let her paper miss it?

Describing it as an act of “newspaper heroism”, Bruce explains how Brown and other key Business Day/Weekender staffers remade the paper in the early hours of the morning. By 3.55am, Executive Editor Rehana Rossouw was able to send Bruce an update: Mbeki gone. New headline. Paper changed. We got it right.”

Just brilliant, writes Bruce. And I have to agree: this is the kind of thing that could only happen at a newspaper. Just brilliant.

By the way, if anyone out there cares to do a search to find out when this news hit the web, let me know who got it first. This may just turn out to be a case of “print got it first” and that would delight an old codger like me who is nostalgic for the adrenaline of a newsroom. A very cursory browse of online archives shows that IOL’s first confirmation story ANC officially asks Mbeki to go was posted at 9am on Saturday. News24 had a tentative Mbeki asked to resign? at 11am, while the M&G had ANC dumps Mbeki, moves to ‘heal rift’ at 1.30pm.

Update, 11.20pm – 22 September: Rehana Roussouw, executive editor of the Weekender, explains in Business Day about what happened in their newsroom (and at the NEC) on Friday. Headlined, “The little paper that can”, she writes:

The Times website had been reporting from about 5pm that the NEC had already decided Mbeki must be axed. They were quoting Sunday Times staff. It looked to us like an inspired guess. Despite our best efforts, we hadn’t been able to confirm that fact ourselves.

I’ve been digging around the Times website (impossible to navigate or is it just me?), trying to find these references, but the closest I can get to a “confirmed story” is the Breaking News blog’s Mbeki recalled from office, which was published at 6.46pm on Saturday 20 November. (Incidentally, Ray Hartley carried the news on his blog at 12.13pm.)

Once again, I’m reminded that the Weekender’s scoop was only possible because there were experienced hands at the helm who had the right contacts, who could trust the information being sent through and who had enough experience to change an “inspired guess” into an on-the-record, confirmed story.

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Filed under: Blogging, General, Newspapers, , , , , , , ,

The 3 deadly sins of journalistic life

I have started teaching a six-week course on sub-editing to fourth year Journalism and Media Studies students at Rhodes. It’s a small group of women who have chosen to do the course for very different reasons. It’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. I know I have as much to learn from them as they do from me.

Sub-editors have always been my favourite people in a newsroom. Generally, they’re quirky, clever, curious and totally unhinged. In preparing for the first session, I spent some time thinking about the role of sub-editors and how that is changing as media consumption patterns and news change. There’s a lot happening out there that challenges my thinking that subs are essential parts of the editorial process. But that’s material for another posting. After working on and off as a sub-editor for 16 years, I like to think that there are some lessons I have learnt along the way.

Clive Lawrance (yes, that is how you spell his surname) co-taught this course with me a few years back. A crusty newsroom curmudgeon who commanded respect and excellence, he liked to warn of three things that stand between a writer and good writing: vanity, fear, laziness. Most of the lessons below fall into one of these categories.

  • There is always someone who knows more than you
    You may be able to fix or improve someone else’s writing, but that doesn’t mean you know more than them. Subs’ rooms and newsrooms are filled with interesting people who know a lot about a lot of things. Learn to listen. And look up whatever you don’t know. There will always be a reader who knows the subject better than you.
  • We all make mistakes
    Sub-editors may be the “unsung heroes of journalism”, but adversarial relationships between writers and sub-editors serve no purpose. While our job is to get it right and make writers look good, it’s worth remembering that subs can also mess up a story. A little humility goes a long way.
  • Read, read and read some more
    Clive used to quote Uys Krige as saying, “To be a great writer, you need to read the great masters. If you’re not reading, then you should be writing. And if you are not writing, you should be thinking about writing.” Make reading a habit. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read whatever you can lay your hands on. Be curious. Be interested. Be interesting.
  • ‘In order to’ is two words too long
    Teach yourself the rules. You can teach yourself to spell. (And, yes, I still believe spelling is important despite Ken Smith’s call for a spelling amnesty.)
  • Punctuation can fix a lot of wrongs
    Simply punctuating correctly can restore sense to a sentence. It’s not rocket science. Teach yourself how to do it well.
  • Respect a writer’s voice
    Avoid changing anything without a good reason. Fix mistakes, but don’t beat a story into submission. There are many reporters whose first language is not English. Help craft the story, don’t destroy it. Not every story you touch needs to be reworked into your style.
  • If you don’t know, look it up
    “Thou shalt not sub what thou don’t understand,” one of my favourite chief-subs once admonished me. We should always be asking questions because we don’t have all the answers. Use the internet. Don’t leave home without your dictionary. Find out how things work and how to do stuff that will make you a better journalist, like working with pictures and audio, basic HTML. Curiosity is a n essential characteristic for the job.
  • Presentation is (almost) everything
    Know what it’s called. Know the keyboard shortcuts. Work fast. Work neatly. Look like you know what you are doing.
  • Respect your job
    If you don’t like it, leave it. Like what you do. Hell, love what you do. Otherwise no job is worth it. Especially on the nightshift.

Vanity, fear, laziness. Beware the three deadly sins of journalistic life.

Filed under: Newspapers, Personal, , , , , , ,

Cashing in on news as social currency

Jack Shafer weighs in on Slate on the terminal state of newspapers by arguing that newspapers are dying because they are no longer the best providers of social currency.
Social currency, he explains, is the phrase used to “describe the information we acquire and then trade—or give away—to start, maintain, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans”.
Newspapers have traditionally been a source of social currency, an excellent source of “socially lubricating conversation”.
But, as Shafer points out, newspapers are being upstaged and usurped by other media in the social currency game. “What is Facebook but the Federal Reserve Bank of social currency?”
It’s an interesting take and another reminder that “the decline of newspapers has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the changing world”.

PS: And while you’re there, don’t miss Shafer’s response to a rant against bloggers. This spat happened way back in 2005… Has anything changed since then?

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‘It’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off’

Tap tap tap

Followed a link off Twitter to Steve Smith’s eulogy to the archetypal “newspaperman”. Sigh. Here we go again. Yes, I started off in journalism in the “glory days”. I learnt to type on a typewriter. I know what “spike” and “slug” mean. I hanker after grumpy, know-it-all sub-editors from whom I first learnt that everything is miscellaneous. I too fell in love with newsroom drunkards who called themselves journalists, er, newspapermen. Blah blah blah.
But, echoing Jess Walter’s comment, I am moved to quote US columnist Molly Ivins, who once said: “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying, it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”
Seriously. Get over it. These days there are women in newsrooms. There are even female editors. There are bright young things doing things we only dreamed of. What we think is irrelevant anyway. What is coming next, Steve, is a world for adapters and adopters. Play the new game or find another job. Just ask all those legions of old newspapermen now doing PR…

Added 6 August: In the same vein, but less of a whine and a little closer to my heart really, is Lawrence Downes’s Elegy for Copy Editors. Brian Cubbison responded with five possible exhibits for a copy editors’ wing. I love his suggestion of the ‘Headless body in topless bar’ front page of the New York Post.
I nominate the Sun’s headline, ‘Super Caley go Ballistic, Celtic are Atrocious’, which appeared after a famous upset in the Scottish Cup in 2000. The modern argument goes, of course, that the days of clever, punny headlines are over as we’re all writing for search engines. As the Guardian’s Peter Preston reminded us way back in 2006, computers don’t do jokes.

Filed under: Newspapers, , , , , , , ,

When journalists can’t be bothered to read

Business Report 3-deck poster

Guy Berger sent me this jaw-dropping photograph of a Business Report poster. I have no idea when it was taken or who took it, but it makes me want to weep — this is, after all, the stuff only seen in a sub-editor’s goriest nightmare. And, more than anything, it makes me fume with fury.

I was part of the tiny team that launched Business Report in 1995, with loads of blood, sweat and tears. It was hard work, chaotic and pressured. But we did it! A pet project of Independent Newspapers‘ chief executive Ivan Fallon at the time, the idea was to beef up the group’s financial coverage as well as offer advertisers a national platform — essentially, taking on Business Day. It was a logistical nightmare: one newspaper to go into four different titles (Pretoria News, The Star, The Mercury and The Cape Times), each with its own advertising configuration and readership quirks . If only the production bosses at the now defunct ThisDay had asked me, I could’ve warned them :)

But, working with some of the best subs in the country, we did it! And now, of the core launch team, I can think of only one (Jeremy Gordin) who still works for the company. The others have all moved on to greener pastures, including Tony Nicholson (The Sydney Morning Herald), Vernon Matzopolous (Summit TV), Carina Le Grange (Media24), Don Bayley (The Sunday Times) and Les Tilley.

I worked at the Independent at various different titles from 1994 (Pretoria News) until I burnt out at Independent Online in 2000. And only a handful of the many people I worked with remain. Working for an employer that is as ruthless in its pursuit of profit as Independent is neither easy nor pleasant.

But what upsets me, really, is what that Business Report poster says about the morale at the company. It shows that no one cares anymore. Is morale so low at the Evil Empire that no one bothers to read the posters? Or, perhaps, there was no one who could read on duty at the time? What has happened to the guys in works (who saved my arse more than once)? Oh, of course, they were retrenched in the endless staff redundancy drives…

I will admit that I am bitter. I am bitter because I came to newspapers just in time to glimpse the glory days before economic and commercial pressures snuffed out passion and professionalism. I am bitter because I have seen how once great titles — and, yes, once great journalists, unionists and activists — have been run into the ground and have lost their way. I am bitter because Irish bean counters have stripped the group that holds the nation’s conciousness in its grip as the publisher of 14 major titles. In fact, I am so bitter that I have fantasised that Koni Media will buy Independent instead of Johncom and, perhaps, turn that limping company around.

This week’s Sunday Times has reprinted a piece from The Times about calls by Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien for Sir Tony, the Irish owner of Independent News & Media, to step down:

Mr O’Brien, an unhappy 11 percent shareholder in Sir Anthony’s Independent News & Media, said Sir Anthony was too old to run a modern newspaper business, and that by leaving he would save millions of euros.

“The Independent has to go, as do other vanity projects,” Mr O’Brien told The Times in an uncompromising interview. “If he goes, and The Independent is sold, shareholders will save money. This is a company that is going nowhere.”

Dramatically escalating the row between the two Irish plutocrats, Mr O’Brien said that “Tony O’Reilly would be better off retiring and going off to sort out Waterford Wedgwood. It would be better if he spent time on an old economy business. His three sons should go too; he is running an old-style fiefdom.”

Look, I was working for the company with O’Reilly bought the Argus newspaper company — and its 12 titles — in March 1994, for a few million rand – with the approval of the ANC. [Read this fascinating account of the shifting media landscape in the mid-1990s, which has many of the same elements of current debates around media ownership.] And the fact remains that, in terms of return on investment, the South African operation outperforms any of O’Reilly’s other media investments.

Perhaps I am naive, but I always wonder why no one makes a fuss that ownership of the largest newspaper publisher in the country is in foreign hands. All profit from the company goes to Ireland.

PS: In 2005, MediaLens wrote an article titled A Special Kind of Independence. I think the author and I share quite a few viewpoints. She (or he) is almost as bitter as I am about Sir Anthony O’Reilly.

Filed under: Newspapers, , , , , ,

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