With digital media being the media of the future, Melina Meletakos asks if the young women moving and shaking in this area will be the media leaders of tomorrow.
An overwhelming number of women have quietly crept into the driver’s seat of several digital media platforms in South Africa.
As the platform hailed as the way of the future, are these women likely to become the next generation of media leaders?
City Press editor Ferial Haffajee believes so. “There is a generation of young women working in digital who are diverse and sharp,” says Haffajee. “I feels as if digital has been easier for women to get to the top. They also stand out because the medium requires them to be multi-talented – they can write, code and produce multimedia.”
Gustav Goosen, CEO of The SpaceStation, agrees, saying that there are many women in the digital market who play a pivotal role in shaping the local industry. “I think it’s the dynamic nature of digital and the type of people it attracts. If you’re not constantly seeking new and better ways of doing things, then you’ll struggle in the digital market. For that reason, perhaps, the industry is eager to find solutions, innovation and success from whoever is able to provide it or play a part in achieving it, irrespective of gender, colour or creed,” says Goosen. “There isn’t any baggage or preconceived ideas of who can or who can’t, who should and who shouldn’t.”
Cherilyn Ireton, World Editors Forum executive director says, “As a new field, without barriers to entry, women have been able to advance quickly if they are good – simply because there is no one in the way.“
However, last year when The Media asked who were the women making waves in digital media, no names were forthcoming. We have since found a number of inspiring and innovative women in this arena. Here is a selection of them.
“Digital is about empowering alternative voices and alternative structures. It’s appealing to women in the same way that it is appealing to younger people – because it’s unconventional,” says Emma O’Shaughnessy, Media24’s editorial production manager.
Her job centres around the strategic development of news content, with a particular focus on driving special projects that have a strong digital angle. O’Shaughnessy says that one of the reasons she accepted her current position is that she knew that she would be able to have a voice within the organisation.
“Digital is flexible and has value systems that are not based on a typical hierarchical structure,” says O’Shaughnessy. This is because newsrooms producing digital products are increasingly ditching a top-down formation in favour of a horizontal structure where collaboration is key and the most engaging and interactive journalism is created by teams.
Cathryn Reece, who was the main driver behind News24’s coverage of the national elections and its hugely successful elections app, is 24.com’s product development manager. The app focused on breaking news, multi-media visuals, user generated content (especially on voting day), mechanisms to check voter registration, voting information, daily polls, party information and ongoing opinion and in depth analysis. The app also offered a live results map. Reece, a self-confessed “geek who loves words”, says her passion is digital news, content strategies and finding simple solutions to complex problems. In her position, she acts as the bridge between commercial and editorial needs and development requirements.
“Women rely on intuition in their personal and professional lives all the time and I think we are used to being different things to different people,” says Reece. “There are a lot of processes in digital media production that place high demands on those skill sets so women rise to the top quickly. We often land up being the glue that keeps a digital company together. And it’s in these areas that we thrive.”
Another woman worthy of recognition is Louna Lohann, the general manager of Media24’s online shopping venture, spree.co.za. It was initially launched by Lohann as SARIE.com’s e-commerce site but its success led to include all of Media24’s leading fashion magazines. The idea works around each title selecting, styling and displaying their favourite items on the website for customers to buy. Lohann ensures that customers have access to trendy merchandise and that it is presented in a visually appealing way.
She says that many women enjoy the interactive and multi-dimensional nature of the digital space. “It is also exciting to work in an innovative, growing and ever-evolving environment,” says Lohann.
Having a digital platform has meant that City Press is no longer just a physical publication that comes out on Sundays. Its strong digital focus means it essentially operates like a daily publication. The woman at the helm of the online platform is digital editor, and former editor of The Media, Liesl Pretorius.
She says that the concentration of women in digital positions can be looked at in two ways. The cynical view, she says, would be that until recently digital wasn’t considered a priority, which meant that young women got management opportunities in digital which they wouldn’t normally have had in print. The positive view would be that managers and young women had the foresight to know that we wouldn’t crack the future of media with only half the population trying to solve the problem.
“Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much how these women got there – but that they did. We need a mix of brains and skills to develop a new business model for news – not only pale males in grey suits,” says Pretorius.
For Ines Schumacher, the Mail & Guardian’s head of digital products, the fact that digital was until recently not considered a priority is a concern too.
“If you look back at the digital sector in America, a lot of the early innovations were done by women. Digital was considered experimental, not that important and generally a low priority. Now there has been a huge change in that perception. Digital is the future and I feel that men are taking over overseas and that women are being left behind once again,” says Schumacher.
Schumacher manages a Mail & Guardian team that puts together the iPad, Android and Kindle Fire versions of the news source, and acts as a bridge between the editorial and developer teams. Along with her colleagues Laura Grant and Paul Botes, Schumacher was a finalist in the multiplatform category at this year’s Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for their special report about the consequences of the Marikana massacre through the eyes of affected families.
Also in charge of a newspaper’s digital operations, Carrin Pasley-Banks was recently appointed as BDFM’s executive editor for digital. Pasley-Banks started out in content syndication in Johnnic Communications’ first online newsroom and has been employed in the digital media industry for over a decade since.
She says the rapid evolution of digital media has opened many doors for women in the industry.
“There are so many sides to industry jobs and myriad ways of offering users the best possible experience, which attracts women from all spheres – be it editorial/content, social media, development or product management. With the right attitude and approach, almost anything is possible in this industry,” says Pasley-Banks.
At the helm of Primedia Online is CEO Tanja Lategan. She is in charge of the overall running of iafrica.com, the online agency 365 Digital, display ad network Dash of Lime and the company’s newest division, Juice Content.
Lategan says digital media is a relatively young industry, unaffected by the gender roles historically applied to traditional media platforms.
“The digital media industry provides unbiased, equal opportunities no matter your age or gender. It is a creative and innovative space that attracts young people and requires passion, initiative and effective communication – qualities that most women excel in,” she says.
Candace Whitehead, managing editor of iafrica.com, says the immediacy of digital is what keeps her hooked.
“Breaking news gives me a buzz, especially knowing that we have the ability to publish it as soon as it breaks. I also thrive under the constantly changing face of digital media – even just looking back on how the digital landscape has changed in the five years since I graduated. And there’s still so much potential for growth, new technology and new types of content,” says Whitehead.
A Rhodes University New Media Lab graduate, Whitehead was appointed MD of iafrica.com at the beginning of 2014. She provides editorial guidance, leadership and direction for her team of editors, interns and freelancers. She also formulates and drives the site’s overall strategy and liaises with Primedia Online’s content marketing division, Juice Content, as well as their online advertising division, Dash of Lime.
Khwezi Magwaza, a digital content manager at Primedia, says that women are busier than ever before as they juggle their careers with raising a family. Digital media, she says, is convenient and efficient and allows women to be more flexible and do much more in a lot less time.
“For women with children in particular who have to pack a pram, travel bag and snacks even for a quick run to the mall, being able to work, shop or catch up with friends without leaving your house is a big win. Setting up a small business online is an easy process you can do in your pyjamas, getting funding for your cool idea is a Kickstarter campaign away, and you can go from being a dorm room fashion commenter to front row at Paris Fashion week,” says Magwaza.
Magwaza, the former editor in chief of Seventeen South Africa, was awarded the prestigious Ford Foundation Scholarship in 2011. Last year she completed her Master’s degree with the Arthur L Carter Journalist Institute at New York University in the innovative specialisation known as Studio 20.
Another young talent to emerge from Seventeen is Janine Jellars, who took over as editor from Magwaza. Now 94.7 Highveld Stereo’s digital editor, Jellars says when she started out in journalism 10 years ago, she was constantly getting into trouble for wasting bandwidth by trawling the internet, social-networking and blogging. The rest she taught herself by reading, doing courses and making herself available to create and edit content on any platform required.
“What set me apart in the early days was my ability to work across print and digital. But this is fairly standard for my generation of media workers – we aren’t aware of this division. We don’t work in silos or think ‘traditional versus digital media’. We just create. We multi-task which is traditionally a female strength,” says Jellars.
Jana Kleinloog, the digital manager of Caxton’s magazine titles, leads a team of technical and content developers that is responsible for providing digital services to the company’s 12 magazines. They also have strategic input across owned, bought and earned online media.
Like O’Shaughnessy, Kleinloog says that digital media has given women a voice that they didn’t necessarily have before.
“It’s a new frontier and therefore a completely level playing field where we can compete as equals. Women tend to engage more on social media. We blog, pin for hours and regularly participate in online forums. We are naturally drawn to the sense of community digital creates.”
Multi-platform content marketing agency New Media Publishing produces lifestyle titles like Taste, VISI, Eat Out and recently secured the contract to publish Quench, a communications vehicle for Amalgamated Beverage Industries. Steering the company’s digital division is Kerry Littlewood, who says that her diverse role means there is never a chance to get bored. She manages internal digital teams and digital partnerships, and works with clients to implement the best solutions for them. A key focus for her is to be one step ahead and know what’s coming next, digitally.
“Men and women who choose to work in digital recognise that there are far more opportunities in this industry because it is still growing and diversifying. When you ‘work in digital’ you’ll never find yourself working in only one particular element of the industry. Digital provides a challenging environment with so much possibility,” explains Littlewood.
Robyn Daly is the content director of Narrative, a content marketing media company that leads with digital. She started in print nearly two decades ago as a photojournalist for Getaway, a position she gave up in 2006 to launch Get It community magazine in the Cape as editor in chief. Daly made the move back to RamsayMedia three years later to start their content marketing division as group editor. But frustrated with the purely print focus of a traditional publishing company, she saw the opportunity to build a content marketing media company which led with digital media offerings for clients.
Says Daly, “We’re seeing the best editors and journalists recognise that there are superb career opportunities in brand-owned media and they are stepping into content marketing with gusto. In our particular domain, this means digital content marketing. We’re after talent, creativity, innovation and enthusiasm, backed with hard editing and story-crafting skills… unique individuals, whether women or men.”
Chanel Mackay is the digital media director at strategic consultancy 25AM, a position that sees her translating clients’ marketing needs and objectives into effective media strategies and campaigns. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked on major local and international brands and overseen the strategy of the media department.
She says women love to communicate and interact with others and that online entertainment is an extension of that.
“Why not be on the centre stage of it all? We are futuristic and inspired by new and evolving ideas. With that evolution, women are becoming increasingly tech savvy and embracing technology at a fast pace. We are able to expand our influence in creative innovation. The flexibility of the medium also allows women not only to be a powerhouse at the office, but also comfortably to resume family responsibility at home,” says Mackay.
She does, however, still believe that there are too few women in the upper echelons of management but that driving digital media should change this.
Paula Hulley, recently appointed as managing director of digital agency Gloo, oversees the growth and day-to-day operations of the Cape Town business and drives strategy for the company as a whole. She has been with the company since it began, initially as project manager.
“Marissa Mayer, who is the CEO of Yahoo since July 2012, speaks to not just looking for a role that will suit you but also finding a company that will help you grow. And digital is growing. This is evident in my personal growth at Gloo and the incredible journey of those around me.”
Memeburn’s managing editor, Michelle Atagana, says that this dynamism of the medium is what she loves most about working in digital media.
“Every day is a new adventure. This space changes so quickly and that makes it all the more interesting,” says Atagana.
But the swift pace of digital is also a challenge.
“Though great, when you work with so many properties you have to keep the pace of two news cycles, while maintaining excellent quality,” she adds.
Other noteworthy women in digital include eNCA’s online editor Sashni Pather as well as Razia van der Schuur, the online editor of SowetanLIVE and SundayWorld.
Veteran journalist and digital media guru Gus Silber says that it’s not unusual for so many women to be working in digital media and for them to be exceptionally good at what they do. This is because a prerequisite for any career in the industry is the need to be hyper-curious about the world. This is a quality that is the same for both men and women.
“The internet itself has shattered many of the assumed barriers, because it’s easier than ever now to gain knowledge and put it to work. In fact, you don’t have to be particularly ‘technically-minded’ to have a career in digital media. You just have to have a basic love of technology and media, and what they can do when put together,” says Silber.
But, giving final food for thought, Ireton adds, ”A more worrying newsroom gender issue, particularly in a South African context, is the dearth of maths skills among women journalists. The world of technology and journalism are increasingly coming together in the newsroom and it is a valuable skill to be able to think about code and algorithms.”
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.