Phylicia Oppelt won’t do an early morning television news show. That time is sacrosanct. Then, she’s not ‘boss lady’ at The Times. She’s ‘Mom’, in the kitchen wearing a gown and red slippers, and making sandwiches for school lunches.
This is time with her girls. The “incredibly talented and committed journalist who worked really hard to get where she is” – in the words of Avusa CEO, Mike Robertson – will not be moved from that daily ritual.
“I believe girl children must be taught to believe in themselves,” she said shortly after winning the award. In her acceptance speech, she spoke of how her parents couldn’t give her a trust fund – “unlike Julius Malema” – but could give her an education and a strong belief in herself.
“I don’t have a husband, so I brought my Mummy to the awards today,” she said, and asked the woman who’s been by her side for 42 years to stand up. “And I strongly believe that in 2011 we need to address the state of education in South Africa.”
It’s something she brought up again when she spoke to TheMediaOnline after the awards. “For me, raising good citizens is vital. I want my children to buy a blanket when there’s an appeal. This country needs a compass. We have girls being raped by teachers, principals. Getting killed by gangs as ‘collateral damage’. I want for girls – children – to feel safe at school. We simply have to address education if we want to be the phenomenal country we can be.”
Oppelt believes women – or the majority of women – don’t recognise their power. “We’re citizens of the world, not ‘baby girls’. Women can stand as tall as anyone but it’s so often not recognised. We think we’ve done well and we should ask for a higher salary. So we go in to the boss and say ‘I’m sorry, but I think’…Sorry? Don’t say apologise for wanting more, for wanting a whole life. Men don’t!”
That said, Oppelt also thanked Robertson for his support and encouragement over the years. “Mr Robertson, this is the first time I’ll publically acknowledge you. Thank you. You challenged me to grow and saw things in me I didn’t see in myself.”
She also paid tribute, of sorts, to Ken Owen, the terrifying editor of the Sunday Times at the time she started working there. “It was martial law then. There was this hierarchy, processes, systems, and I’m afraid I respond to.
“We were expected to respect our selves and honour the contract we had with the newspaper, to be fabulous and good at what we did. I want that same contract in my newsroom. I want us to bring out the best daily newspaper in the country every day, five days a week,” she said.
Oppelt says some days she believes they do it, others not. “But the magic of dailies is that you have the chance to do it all again the next day. I try and read the paper as a reader every day, take a step back, assess the stories from a reader perspective. I look at stories and how to play them, perhaps from a different perspective.”
Clearly it’s a perspective that is yielding results for The Times. Launched in 2007, in three years the readership has grown to 330 000. Not too shabby at all. And as one of her advertising staff said, after rushing up to congratulate the editor, “I have to get back to the office. Advertisers are phoning in like crazy!”