Rapport’s new editor Waldimar Pelser says he feels honoured that people are speaking highly of him because he interprets that as meaning they recognise his commitment and passion.
But please don’t refer to him as the “last great white hope” or “the Afrikaans media’s last role of the dice”(à la the Mail and Guardian). “Any organisation that hedges its future on one or a few individuals is not well run and is destined to fail – that is not the case at Media24,” says the 35-year-old journalist, who takes up the editorship of the biggest Afrikaans newspaper this month.
“Nobody is irreplaceable. I will feel good about myself if I walk away from an organisation having made some improvements and having done the best job I could. I don’t think it is helpful to be touted as someone who will turn everything around because the truth is, singlehandedly, I can’t do much.
“I will regard my term here as a success if I leave a happy and satisfied team behind who can put out a phenomenal newspaper without me.”
Taking on a newspaper with a readership of 1.3 million, Pelser naturally becomes one of the most powerful editors in the country. “I am happy to be in a position where I have some say in a robust company with lots of talent,” he says.
There are some who say Pelser is way too young and inexperienced to edit such an important newspaper. But Lizette Rabe, professor of Journalism at Stellenbosch University, disagrees. “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. I think he is a very important part of our future media leadership. I hope he gets all the support needed to enable him to be the leader he can and must be in a new media era, when we will be redefining journalism, but at the same time reasserting its traditional role [of] being the Fourth Estate.”
Esmaré Weideman, chief executive officer of Media24, says, “Editors today need to be incredibly multi-skilled. They need to identify good angles on copy as news is available everywhere. They need to navigate easily between print and digital journalism. They must understand the business side of media and they have to be exceptional leaders. They must also have the public speaking ability to represent their brands out there. Waldimar is that rare package.”
Pelser’s credentials are indeed impressive, with Masters degrees from Stellenbosch and Oxford universities. While at Stellenbosch, he edited the Maties student newspaper (like many who have gone before him, including Koos Bekker, CEO of Naspers).
After completing his Oxford education in 2004, Pelser came straight home and snapped up a job at Media24 as a senior reporter on Beeld. He wasn’t thinking of where he might be in less than a decade. “I am historically bad at long-term planning. I always try to ensure that when I do uproot myself – and it has happened a lot – that it is for the right reasons,” he says. “What is important for me is to play a real role. Good journalism excites me.”
While at Beeld, he travelled extensively as the Africa correspondent and worked as the Lagos bureau chief in Nigeria. It was around this time that people started to remember his unusual name and his career began to take off. He was news editor for almost two years (2009-2011) before being offered the editorship of the short-lived NewsNow aggregator magazine.
“I would never have taken it on if I believed it wouldn’t survive. We had a fantastic team and gave it our best shot… [and] in those first few months we learnt so much about ourselves, marketing and resource-managing.”
As for being offered the deputy and then editorship of Rapport, he says he didn’t see it coming, but he “couldn’t pass up such an opportunity”. He admitted that when he took on the deputy role, there were “strong indications that editorship was part of the plan”.
“I am incredibly keen about this job and I would like to strike a balance between two things: creating a newspaper I can be proud of despite the fact that it is not necessarily aimed at me, and being a custom-made publication for people with a very big variety of views.”
He explains that by asking R15 from readers, he is also asking for a sizeable investment of their time. “While we aren’t competing with other Sunday newspapers, we are competing with everything else that demands our readers’ time. So, it has to be so stimulating, thought-provoking and fun so that our readers will get their money’s worth every Sunday.”
A cursory glance at Afrikaans newspapers’ Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures over the last few years shows there has been a steady circulation decline.
“Afrikaans papers have had sharp drops in circulation, but they have been more modest than some English titles,” says Pelser. “We are all being affected by money that is sometimes not there or being spent elsewhere, both by consumers and advertisers. If we had to add up the (ABC) numbers over the last 10 years, the drop has been spectacular, but times have changed and those days of a few voices and not much competition are over. For this reason, what we offer has to be outstanding, add value, be gutsy and unique.”
In his new position, he says he intends to focus on the quality of writing. “This is very necessary, given the move to longer pieces in Rapport over the last year. We need to offer more depth on a Sunday, when readers have more time and want to ‘unplug’, reflect and be stimulated… Rapport will strive to offer the very best opinion and analysis available in Afrikaans in order to stimulate robust debate on all issues that matter to our readers.”
Pelser says that Rapport excels in its sports writing. “Our sports coverage is often rated as the best in the country and the quality of writing and presentation is world class.” He says that if all the writing in the paper had the same impact as its sport, the newspaper would be phenomenal.
Pelser says Rapport has a growing readership online, which compares favourably with the industry’s mean. “We have almost 900 000 white readers and almost 400 000 coloured readers and our demographics will change in tandem with the demographics of the Afrikaans community at large.”
He believes that Rapport’s weekly challenge is to serve both its existing and future readers, so he intends to “relentlessly drive issues and stories that appeal to both groups”, including a growing number of coloured readers of all ages. “In news, sport and the opinion pages we will strive for diversity, while rejecting a sterile focus on race alone. Any whiff of editorial quotas will estrange black and white readers alike.”
Pelser says that changes will be introduced to Rapport’s online offering, including a paywall, but he emphasises that many of Rapport’s older readers may never become digital readers. “We will stand by them as they have stood by us – not least because they pay our salaries!”
Will Pelser be the new broom sweeping clean? In the last 10 months, since his appointment as deputy editor, he has already played a role in selecting new staff members he holds in high esteem and he makes it clear he has no intention of holding on to ‘dead wood’. He supports Media24’s push to do robust performance management despite “it not being easy or spontaneous in the media industry”.
“Everyone in our team must be hungry for growth and to contribute to making this paper great. Our message to our young staff members is: if you are hungry, curious and excited about your work, you can go far in a landscape that will look very different in 10 years.”
Some have criticised Media24’s decision to share content between its different newspapers. Rapport and City Press make content available to one another, he says, but there is very clear differentiation in terms of copy selection, pitch and presentation. “Rapport has a very strong identity and our ability to serve our own readers has only been enhanced by the links to City Press. The moment the two papers become too similar, both of us will fail. So we focus on sharing what matters to both readership communities – all of us are South Africans with a great number of shared interests – while ring-fencing all of those things that give us our unique identity.”
Looking at newspapers in general, Pelser says Daily Sun has proven that there is still growth in newspapers and that there are untapped markets. “This is analogous to China and India, which are focusing on the cheaper end of the market,” he says. “In terms of the higher LSMs, newspapers are becoming more niche, being sold at a higher price but with far smaller circulations. The days of high cover prices and high circulation are numbered. The competition is too fierce.”
Times have changed for advertising too, he says. “In the old days ad prices were high because newspapers were giving advertisers scarce access to their audience. Now, as print publications morph into online, they are among a handful of the millions of available platforms. [However] if you are providing unique quality journalism to an established audience you know and understand, you will still get your advertisers.”
Having said that, he maintains, “We cannot offer a young journalist a 35-year career in print, but we can offer them a career in Afrikaans journalism. In a decade or two, there won’t be nearly as many newspapers as they are now.”
He explains that technology is changing so fast that “we need to invest in skills that will be valuable any time”. Pelser makes the point: “Really good writing and the ability to get great stories will always be valuable. So too, is having an established robust network of contacts that trust you enough to ensure you get information that nobody else can get.”
While he may not be big on planning for his future, he says that he hopes to still to be playing a role in the media in 10 years time. “I want to be in an environment to help shape and produce good quality journalism,” he says. “At the same time, I love discussions and being part of determining where the industry is going. So, if I work more in the management side of this industry in 10 to 15 years, I would still be happy.”