South African journalist, editor and former COO of BDFM Publishers, Cherilyn Ireton, is the new executive director of the World Editors’ Forum in Paris. Ireton, who moved to the United Kingdom six years ago, takes up the position in January 2012.
The World Editors’ Forum (WEF) is part of the global organisation, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishing (WAN IFRA), and is “the only network exclusively dedicated to senior newsroom editors from across the globe. Its key missions are to represent these editors, to uphold editorial excellence, to provide editorial services and to define the future of journalism. It is also involved in defending free speech and promoting the right of the public to truthful information”.
Ireton learnt that she’d been appointed to the position last week. The advertisement for the job, she says, came to her via a connection on LinkedIn. “I’m a lazy user of LinkedIn and log in only occasionally to see who is doing what. In May, while doing this, an ad was pushed my way. It was the World Editors Forum looking for an executive director. It sounded exciting and quite unusual in that it matched my skills, and was in Paris!” she told TheMediaOnline.
“That week, the UK outlook was looking particularly bleak with constant news of layoffs and warnings of how awful things were going to get. Without much thought or hesitation I knocked off an application letter. I finished it in less than two minutes and I knew right then it was a good letter.”
Ireton says the “job ad unlocked my feelings about working with newspapers – feelings which I had tried to box since leaving South Africa six years ago”.
It was no easy march to Paris. A job with an important global perspective must have had some tough global candidates. “The process was long and involved an initial phone interview in July, and a face to face interview in Paris with Christoph Reiss, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and his deputy Larry Kilman.
“In August I was invited to Copenhagen to meet the President of the World Association of Newspapers, Erik Bjerager, a most inspiring man who is MD AND editor of Kristeligt Dagblad. It was only in October, while in South Africa, that I got an offer, along with an invitation to the annual conference in Vienna mid October,” Ireton explains.
So what were the skills that made her such an attractive proposition for the WAN? “I know they interviewed a lot of people. They were quite happy to hold out until they got the ‘right’ candidate, which is why the process took so long. They wanted someone who understood the key issues facing newspapers around the world, with an editorial background, management skills, and the ability to deliver a sharp and meaningful agenda for the annual conference,” Ireton says. “Coming from a developing country also helped as there is a different outlook and energy between newspapers from the BRICS communities and those in established, first world markets.”
Ireton completed her MBA at UCT while still working fulltime at BDFM. After making the decision to leave South Africa six years ago, she moved to London and help start up a media consultancy called Presslinks which “provided foreign organisations and governments with editorial services and helped them to develop media links in the UK”.
She then took over the agency. “I inherited great clients, my favourite of which have been Finnish – introduced through its Embassy in London. I also got to work on projects with big organisations such as the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development, the Commonwealth Organisation and UNDP on global and development issues.”
It’s been quite a journey for Ireton, learning new skills – and running the London Marathon. “I think every South African knows and understands diversity through a southern African lens, but I really got my head around diversity and cross cultural communication on a global scale. Running my own business was a wonderful thing to do, but being responsible for my own paycheque was often quite scary and there were one or two days when I longed for the life I led when in London in the 90s as a foreign correspondent, with an expense account, for the Sunday Times,” she says.
“Exercise became an essential tool in fighting the effects grey days and forcing me to get out during winter. But I needed a goal to keep my interest up… and having walked across Spain after leaving BDFM I knew that distance would not be a problem, so I aimed high and signed up for the London Marathon. I am a plodder rather than a runner but I managed it and raised £5000 for Starfish Greathearts Foundation in the process. I am going to do it again in 2012.”
As Ireton only starts her WEF job in January, she could not discuss in depth what she’ll be doing or what the challenges will be but just hours after Gaddafi’s death, and the flighting of the mobile phone footage that witnessed his gory death, just where do we draw the line on ethical journalism?
“Mobile technology is great in that it empowers people to witness and share events, but citizen journalism comes with a health warning for news organisations,” Ireton says. “There was a whole session dedicated to this at the conference last week and it was amazing to learn how the news organisations verify information using technical and software tools e.g. to ID where copy is coming from or to see if photos have been doctored.
“The big news organisations know they carry a huge responsibility to ensuring what they print or broadcast is accurate and that the source is credible. Often they won’t use information until they have someone on the ground to check and verify it. In South Africa, newsdesks will argue that this is often not possible because of costs and reach, but increasingly they will need a network of trusted individuals who they can connect with in times of a big news story. I see a gap for micro news agencies in all communities and until they exist, staff from NGOs or trusted local organisations may help. The simple rule of don’t publish until you are sure of the facts should be strongly enforced,” she says.
One of the key issues for the WEF is upholding press freedom around the world. With South Africa’s media increasingly under threat of restrictions, this is something close to her heart.
“WAN has a whole division that focuses only on defending media freedom and they have had considerable success in countries like Egypt. The annual Golden Pen Award is part of their effort to highlight individual journalists in countries where journalists are tortured, jailed or disappear while trying to do their job. I will be part of their Press Freedom committee.
“When I started journalism newspaper law was a subject at Technikon and a copy of Newspaperman’s Guide to the Law that helped navigate through all the apartheid legislation was always close at hand. To be able to get rid of that book was a symbolic moment that signalled South Africa had really joined the free world.
“Given that, it has been very interesting to watch the parallel debate over media regulation now taking place in the UK and South Africa. The difference seems to be that while the UK government is capitalising on public mood and the apparent shortcomings of the Press Complaints Commission, it would never promote government or government appointed regulators to police content. The South African government seems determined to have a hand in an organisation that can punish the press for bad headlines and unsourced copy,” Ireton says.
Another pillar of her work will be the Newspaper in Education programme, a project that is pivotal to the future of the print media. “One of the most exciting case studies at the conference was from the Java Pos, where the editor at 27 is already considered too old to be in his job for much longer. The paper’s young staff gets free reign to try new things without the usual bureaucratic constraints. Young readers are integrally involved in the paper,” Ireton explains.
“That same approach might work with younger readers. If they are creating their own school or community newspapers, where they are invested in the content, they will read. I was so encouraged to come across two 11 year olds in Sussex [UK] who this week started their own kids newsletter for a housing estate here. Unprompted they interviewed people for the articles, designed and printed it themselves, from a desktop printer, and sold advertising to a local pizza shop and hairdresser to cover their costs. South Africa is so full of potential that with the right kind of backing, kids community newsletters could grow into something big.”
Ireton is excited about moving to Paris, but nervous about using her “inadequate” high school French! “I am really looking forward to finding an area to live and immersing myself in the local culture, if only from a sidewalk cafe. The prospect of trying to open a bank account and negotiate a lease with my inadequate High School French is a little daunting. But at least the office staff are English speaking.
“The offices are north of the river, close to the Gare du Nord, a convenient exit point should I ever need to jump on a Eurostar train and head to London for the weekend. It seems like there will be lots of travel. The next world newspaper week takes place in Kiev, Ukraine, an exciting destination that hopefully South African publishers and editors will support.”