Esmaré Weideman has just become the most powerful woman in the South African media. Peta Krost Maunder finds out what makes her tick in a story first published in The Media magazine.
Esmaré Weideman has done her time in the trenches as a journalist, an editor and media manager, but nothing could prepare her for the surprise of being offered the role of Media24’s chief executive officer.
But it was because of all she has done in her career that she felt she had to accept the challenge. “I accepted this job on behalf of every journalist, layout artist and photographer who has slaved away for this career we have chosen,” she says.
“I think it will be good to have someone in the job who understands what it means to deliver good content to a very targeted audience, on whichever platform at whatever price it takes,” she explains.
“I know what it takes to find a fresh angle, to explain a complex issue in words that will benefit a specific market. I know what creativity it takes to produce a really good glamour shoot or food story. I think it’s great to have someone at the head of your company who knows when your publication goes to print.”
And although her new seat is not yet warm, she has made it clear she will be addressing certain issues of integrity in the media. “I often hear stories about journalists that make my hair stand on end,” she says. “We can’t expose corruption, a lack of transparency or take the moral high ground on ethics if we don’t practise those principles ourselves.“
This is not the first time she has been offered a position in Media24 that took her by surprise. The previous time, Patricia Scholtemeyer (now M-Net CEO) offered Weideman her first job as a magazine editor on YOU. “I was on my way home and nearly crashed into a tree,” she says. “I never had these goals to become an editor of anything, but when asked, I didn’t think I had the right to decline.”
She did tell Scholtemeyer she was crazy. But in hindsight, Weideman says, she realises that her seniors – some of whom now report to her – had made the right decisions on her behalf. “I loved every minute of my 10 years as editor of YOU magazine.”
But, if it was editing one magazine, it is understandable that she savoured the experience – but three at the same time was a whole other story. After one year at YOU, she was asked to take over Huisgenoot as well. Again she told her seniors they were crazy, but she did it. A few years later, when DRUM magazine was in serious trouble, she was called on to revive it. “Gosh, it was tough,” she admits. “Almost impossible. But it did teach me to cope with pressure, I suppose.”
Could her strength of character, ‘workaholism’ and dogged determination to succeed have anything to do with being the daughter of two Afrikaans former teachers? “I learnt to work hard and always do my best from them,” she says. “They remain strong role models,” says the woman who still regards herself as a “West Coast meisie”.
She spent her first few years in Hopefield on the West Coast and then moved to Kuilsrivier. “I had a normal upbringing in a very Afrikaans home,” she says. “Coming from that background means Calvin sits heavily on my right shoulder, and I just always wanted to do anything required of me as well as possible.”
But she had no ambitions of grandeur – especially not of being an editor, never mind going into management. Surprisingly, she did a B.Comm and a degree in journalism. The former was because of an aptitude test she took at school.
“Some bright career counsellor told me I could do anything I wanted but should seriously consider a career in engineering.” So when making the tough choice over a degree, she opted for a B.Comm because she thought it would give her options later. “I gather now it wasn’t altogether a silly decision.”
While studying at Stellenbosch University, she visited the journalism department with a boyfriend who was studying law but dabbling in journalism. She recalls falling in love with the sound of the typewriters that the students were using at the time. “It was really as simple as that – I wanted to be a part of that world.”
Although she cut her teeth on Media24’s magazine Finansies & Tegniek in 1985, it was on newspapers that she excelled as a political journalist and moved into news management. When her husband, Philip, “wanted to go flyfishing in the Cape”, she agreed to move down to Cape Town.
But after hating her first week’s dash subbing on The Argus, she called her mentor and first editor, Salie de Swardt – who had become head of magazines at Media24 – for help. She then tried her hand at writing for magazines like YOU and DRUM, and never left.
She did a brief stint on what she calls a “real woman’s magazine”, FairLady, as deputy editor. “I didn’t think I had the image or skills to ever become editor of a women’s magazine,” she says. “My heart was always in news. And, at the time, I didn’t do high heels well!”
So when the former editor of YOU retired, she got that fateful call from Scholtemeyer, then head of magazines at Media24.
There have been many a hair-raising situation as editor of three publications. She recalls a time – when all three happened to be printing on the same day – going to sit on the pavement outside the Naspers building and, she says, “asking someone up there to help, because I just didn’t know how I was going to make those deadlines.” But after a few minutes she was back on the floor, and all three miraculously went to print on time.
She has had a number of harsh court battles and numerous angry calls about stories people may not have wanted to see in print. Weideman says these have never been easy for her. “It’s very hard, hey. I have never learnt to grow a thick skin. I take these things very personally. But I will defend, to the day I die, the public’s right to know.”
And, as an editor, she has had to make many urgent decisions. “Once you take a decision, you stick with it. I have regretted making cover choices that bombed.”
But, while she will miss making editorial decisions, the ones ahead of her are arguably more important. “The complexity of the job is only starting to sink in,” she says. “I do understand the responsibility that rests on my shoulders, also to represent women in journalism at its highest level. I hope I will make them proud.” She explains that many have commented on how she has shattered the glass ceiling, particularly in media management. “I think things are changing very quickly,” she says.
As a woman with children, she says her family has had to make sacrifices to be where she is. “I would love to spend more time with my kids. Thank God for Phil, who is a great dad,” she says. “There were times earlier on when I beat myself up because he knew what cereal they preferred and I had bought the wrong one.
“But they have learnt, from a young age, that women have the right to have careers and not feel guilty about it. They have also learnt that mom’s job makes her happy.”
She has also set examples for her staff by ensuring she was able to fetch her children from school or watch them play in sport tournaments during the week.
Taking on her new role will be challenging, and although Weideman says her true skills lie in finding loopholes in copies and steering stories in the right direction, finding loopholes in strategies and steering Media24 in the right direction are hopefully not that different.