When Debora Patta’s eldest was five, she was keen to debate the death penalty as part of a “show and- tell” at school. “Clearly she had been watching too much news…
“Those poor children (Chiara, now nine, and two-year-old Isabella). They listen to the news all the time,” says Patta, the group editor-in-chief of eNews.
For the past two years Ella, as they call Isabella, had to vie for her mother’s attention along with Patta’s other baby Ã¢Â€Â“ a 24-hour news channel. The eNews Channel has been on air (DStv, channel 403) since 1 June. “It has been two years in the making. Once you have a dream and you’ve put it down on paper… the hardest thing is to make it a reality and to stick to all the deadlines.
“We had to move (e.tv soapies) Ã¢Â€Â˜Scandal!’ and Ã¢Â€Â˜Rhythm City’ out before we could start building in here (at the e.tv studios in Hyde Park, Johannesburg). They only moved out in March. That’s an incredibly tight deadline. “We had to do everything Ã¢Â€Â“ down to choosing the colour of the chairs. You’re making 60 decisions or more a day and every single decision counts; they have long-term effects.”
Recruitment turned out to be quite the challenge. “We really needed to get a good mix of experienced talent and young up-and-coming professionals.” The intake of e.tv’s internship programme was increased last year “but you can’t run an operation on enthusiasm and youth alone. A lot of that helps, but you need experience and so we had to literally head-hunt to get good people.” Up to 179 people would be recruited for the eNews Channel. They include the headline anchors, Redi Direko, who continues to present on Talk Radio 702, and Jeremy Maggs, who has left the SABC to join eNews.
E.tv retains a dedicated prime-time news team. Patta says not to tamper with this formula is one of the learnings from study tours to various international channels, including Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN and Sky. “A lot of the channels have domestic and 24-hour news operations. If you have an existing channel, that must continue as is.”
The eNews Channel will gradually introduce more features. “We wanted to get the product on air and stress test everything (before introducing more).” The initial current affairs offering includes an extension of “3rd Degree”, called “3rd Degree Plus”, presented by Patta, “Maggs on Media”, presented by Maggs, and “Inside Out”, an “inspirational business show”, presented by Pat Pillai. A political show, presented by Justice Malala, was expected to follow.
Patta believes e.tv’s success story is inspirational: “It feels sometimes like the Ã¢Â€Â˜Little Engine that Could’. We were so much the underdog when we started. Now we’re the most watched English channel and our news is highly rated.
“It’s (the establishment of the eNews Channel) a great moment for the company and for the country. “I don’t want to sound boastful, but I think… what we’re doing here is very good for democracy. We’re very patriotic, as much as we annoy people. We want to be part of the debate.”
Patta says existing local bureaus are being beefed up and new bureaus are being established. The plan is to expand into Africa. Reporters will be sent to cover big international stories where they happen. She shares CEO Marcel Golding’s ambition to become global players.
“This is going to take many years to get going. I think from here it’s not just about South Africa. I think we want to show the world that you can have news from an African perspective… I believe we’ve got the talent to be amongst the best in the world.” Big dreams for someone who started her journalism career at the “absolute bottom” Ã¢Â€Â“ monitoring the wires during the graveyard shift (12pm to 4am) at (Talk) Radio 702.
Patta says when she heard 702 after moving to Johannesburg, it “was like a light-bulb went on Ã¢Â€Â“ I thought: That’s where I want to work”. When the former political activist, who had been involved in adult education in squatter camps, applied for a job, “they laughed at me because I had no experience whatsoever in journalism”.
During a freelance stint with BBC Radio on a Winnie (Madikizela-)Mandela documentary, she asked someone to put in a good word for her. The call from 702 finally came Ã¢Â€Â“ they needed someone to monitor the wires because the story of the Gulf War was about to break.
She spent the rest of her eight years at 702 “trying to prove Chris Gibbons wrong”, after he said she didn’t have a voice for radio and should consider print journalism, she says, laughing. “That’s what I always say to young journalists: Don’t take no for answer. Bash that door down.
“You know, the talented rise, as long as there is a culture of enabling it.”
Patta joined e.tv 10 years ago as a reporter. She says spearheading and being part of the team that launched the 24-hour channel is “probably the most exciting thing” she has ever done. “I’m not young (43), but I’m young to be doing something like this… For everyone here, this is a lifetime opportunity.” Patta admits she demands high standards from staff, but she tries not to ask people to do things she would not do or hasn’t done herself.
“The key thing at e.tv is that it isn’t about politicking. It’s about performance. We have very limited resources Ã¢Â€Â“ we are lean and mean.
“I think my strength is empowering others. I’ve opened a lot of doors for people. My PA from ‘3rd Degree’, Nkepile Mabuse, is now an anchor on CNN. There are a lot of those kinds of success stories in this newsroom. You don’t hit a glass ceiling here.”
Patta chooses to develop young talent because she believes it’s the future. “I was a young journalist who was given an opportunity. I knew nothing about journalism and 702 took a chance on me. And that’s what I like. I love people coming here hungry to develop.” It might be tough to work for her, she says, “but I’m fair”.
!_LT_EME.tv’s sister business, e.sat, has been awarded a licence that would enable it to become a pay-TV operator, but it opted to be a content provider instead. The eNews Channel is e.sat’s first offering.!_LT_/EM
!_LT_EMThe company is not commenting on its investment in eNews, says Vasili Vass, head of publicity.R !_LT_/EM
Presenting “3rd Degree”
“I’m a journalist at the end of the day. It’s the only thing I know how to do, really Ã¢Â€Â“ I’m not very good at anything else. I still want to be out in the field.”
“We don’t want to break press releases. Not everything is breaking news Ã¢Â€Â“ breaking news must be proper breaking news.”
The ethics of 24-hour news “Things are moving faster. You don’t want to spend the day apologising if the story turns out to be false. The challenge is to be fast and accurate.”
Working for international news channels “I never wanted to work for the internationals. I wanted to be part of an organisation that would send its reporters around the world to report back home.”
Telkom Media’s chances
“I can’t speculate on the competition. To be honest, my focus is just so on what we do.
“That has always been our strength Ã¢Â€Â“ that we are focused on our products. We try to think ahead and pre-empt what might come our way. “I’m delighted that we are first to air.”
This profile first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine.