Journalists at the Times Media Group are about to be tossed out of their comfort zones and sent to foreign countries to track down stories of interest to South Africans. The move is part of a R10.2 million investment in training that the group believes will “advance and strengthen” the quality of editorial in its newspapers.
Managing director of TMG, Mike Robertson, says the group has had discussions with several London-based newspapers, including the Mirror and the Telegraph. “But our people are being sent primarily on short-term foreign assignments – they will have to find and do an agreed number of stories suitable for us, outside of their comfort zones and possibly in other countries. There is also an ‘action learning’ component where they will have the opportunity to be participant observers of how other media houses are managing and dealing with a highly competitive news environment and digital innovation including attendance at other relevant media seminars taking place,” he says.
The choice of papers in the United Kingdom was due to the Sunday Times being founded on the British model, Robertson says. “… our newspapers and digital operations are much closer in style. They have also been through upheaval and some trauma and have had to deal with innovation and digital changes, as well as improve their system, controls and look to their ethics,” he says.
Robertson says the staff chosen to take up the challenge abroad will have to deliver an analytical report on what they have observed in media on their return and draw conclusions about best practices. “We want to expand their knowledge of the world, by giving them the opportunity to live and work as a journalist in an entirely different environment by being exposed to different thinking and approaches to news and newspapers,” he says.
“Foreign postings draw on people’s resilience and resourcefulness giving people the opportunity to step outside their own society and observe it from afar, as well as experience being an alien in another culture. It challenges them to be highly self-sufficient and proactive and places them in a situation where they are no longer experts and must go back to the basics of establishing contacts, discovering information and finding creative solutions.”
Senior editorial staff, particularly those in line for promotion or others about to take on new projects or challenges could find themselves operating in a foreign media environment, Robertson says.
Asked whether the demands of a 24 hour news cycle have impacted on quality output, Robertson “There have always been 24-hour news-gathering cycles” but in this case, the group is focusing on ensuring it has “unique quality content in our newspapers and behind our pay walls that is not available elsewhere”.
“On our free-to-air sites separate teams concentrate on aggregating content. Different skills are required. As an aside, the quality of reporting on the internet in South Africa is generally of a very poor standard. There is far too much comment from people all too willing to share their ignorance and far too little quality analysis,” he says.
The foreign component is a small part of the comprehensive training package. The investment will also fund sub-editing and production training for 20 staff members, drive a content quality programme that will be managed by “experienced copy coaches” and keep staff abreast of the constantly changing media law environment. The training of existing staff will run alongside an intern programme to recruit and develop 10 new journalists, and a work experience programme for graduates.
Robertson says in-service training has always been part of the group’s editorial focus, and that media law sessions are key to keeping journalists and sub-editors in the loop. “As the law is continually developing with new rulings, constantly updating, it is necessary for all staff to attend a session each year, he says.
The same applies to ethics and the tenets of the Press Code. “The Ombudsman is here annually for both graduate trainees and staff. Special title-specific sessions have been held with him on the Press Council and we provide full booklets on our ethics policies and codes that must be signed off on. All Ombud and Press Council findings are circulated to all staff by the legal editors,” he explains.
Robertson expanded on the concept of ‘copy coaches’ and why TMG is embedding the concept into its titles.
“We are establishing two ‘centres of excellence’, one in courts and law stories, and another in local government and provincial legislature. These ‘group hubs will provide cornerstone training, both formal and experiential, for our graduate interns who will be required to spend substantial periods working in both hubs during their training year. It will also supply specialist beat expertise and content to our titles. The hubs have quality improvement and training and mentoring mandates in these foundation news gathering beats, which have been neglected by both training institutions and media houses over the past decade,” Robertson says.
“Story or writing coaches are being contracted to work closely with news desks and with individual writers/reporters for specific periods on several of our titles, to improve and develop the talents of our people and relieve pressure on news desks in the long term.”
The R10.2 million already set aside for training won’t be the last investment made as TMG, Robertson says. It will continue for “as long as these initiatives are effective or for as long as is needed for these initiatives to produce the desired results. The centres of excellence are based in Johannesburg this year. Next year we will expand them to Durban and Cape Town. We will also start another centre to focus on reporting and writing on the arts,” he says.
Paddi Clay, who is currently at the helm of the SoJ programme, will be running the training component of the group. Dominc Mhlangu, deputy editor of The Times, is setting up editorial centres of excellence for journalists reporting on Local Government events and issues. Kim Hawkey, group courts and law editor at Times Media, will be managing the training programme for court reporters.