She is “excruciatingly aware” of the fact that her gender and age are points of criticism for many, Liza Albrecht says as she settles down on a couch at the Paparazzi restaurant in the tiny seaside town of Melkbosstrand.
“I am also frighteningly aware that I do not fit into the traditional picture of the male editor. When I visited Rapport‘s Johannesburg offices shortly after my appointment and saw the photographs of previous, all-male editors hanging on a wall, it struck me that mine would also be there one day. It feels quite bizarre. However, it is also great to know that I do not have to act according to a preconceived idea. I will never be one of the boys and I can freely say that I do not want to be like one of them.”
Albrecht says it didn’t occur to her that she would be the paper’s first female editor when she was informed of her appointment.
“It only struck me a day later when others started pointing this out to me. And suddenly I found myself wondering if there would be different expectations of me. Would people expect me to feature more ‘women-related’ issues in the paper? How do I, as a woman, feel about the back page with pictures of half-naked women? To be quite honest, I believe there is scope in a newspaper like Rapport for a bit of yellow-press journalism on the back page. It sells newspapers. In spite of people complaining about pics of scantily clad women, I have never heard of anyone who has stopped buying the paper because of it.”
Albrecht is taking over during a time characterised by many changes in the company. In December, employees at some Media24 newspapers, including Rapport, received letters informing them of expected personnel cuts.
“To a certain extent this makes (dealing with) my appointment easier,” says Albrecht. “Staff members are in the midst of change and my appointment is happening in the middle of the process. But it is tough times for most employees. There is more uncertainty in the newspaper industry, and specifically the Afrikaans industry, than there has been in decades. Newspapers across the board have to adapt or die. Luckily Rapport is one of the newspapers in the group which is doing quite well financially.”
One of her challenges will be to exploit the potential of new media to complement the printed product.
“Blogging and cellphone technology are becoming an integral part of the news industry and we have to exploit the potential to its fullest,” she says. “There is incredible potential, but we have not yet fully figured out how to use these media together to create a truly viable multimedia platform.” As editor of Rapport, Albrecht is re-thinking issues such as the importance of news events in relation to how interesting they are.
“Why would someone think a news item that was in the news earlier in the week is still important when the newspaper hits the shelves? We have to move beyond the immediacy of news and explore its relevance and context, while at the same time presenting it in an interesting way. And this is where investigative journalists have an important role to play.
“Unfortunately, for the most part, investigative-journalism structures have disintegrated. We have to re-invest in this kind of journalism. Although the pressure is on to deliver news in a leaner and meaner way, we have to avoid presenting such diluted stories that we end up with an empty shell. We cannot afford an intellectual decline in the way we deliver content. We have to employ well-informed journalists who can not only write well, but who can also interpret and contextualise the news. We have to re-establish respect for journalists.
“In fact, I believe it is the responsibility of a newspaper to contextualise. For example: If we have a gruesome story on the front page about a farming couple killed in their beds, we have to put things into perspective through a leader article and/or an analytical piece to avoid loading the report with political undertones. It is not about taking a leftist point of view, but rather covering all angles and avoiding a one-sided point of view.”
She adds: “It has always been taboo to editorialise when writing a news story. I believe that an informed journalist should be able to do so.”
Albrecht started her journalism career as editor of Die Matie, the student newspaper of the University of Stellenbosch. She was studying law when she got married and left university to become a layout artist at Die Burger.
“As a newcomer at Die Burger I kept my mouth shut for the first few months.”
This changed when Arrie Rossouw became editor of the newspaper and made it clear that he wanted to hear what the younger journalists had to say.
“A number of us participated in a workshop led by Arrie and I realised I was free to voice my opinion. Since then I have not stopped saying what I think. It was extremely liberating to realise that suggestions made by the younger journalists were important enough to be implemented at Die Burger.”
By, the successful Saturday supplement, which appears in Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad, was the brainchild of Albrecht and a colleague, Wicus Pretorius, currently Johannesburg bureau chief of YOU and Huisgenoot. The supplement, of which Albrecht was the national editor, is highly rated by readers because of its in-depth features on a number of issues including politics, arts and culture. Prominent columnists and political analysts, including Max du Preez and Christi van der Westhuizen, contribute to the publication. After seven years at Die Burger, Albrecht was appointed assistant editor at Die Burger in 2008. She was in this position for around six months before being appointed editor of Rapport.
Despite the uncertainty amongst Media24 newspaper employees as a result of the restructuring process, Albrecht says she was pleasantly surprised to find pockets of positive energy amongst Rapport’s personnel.
“There are wonderful people coming forward with great ideas on how the electronic media and newspapers can work together. We have to capitalise on this energy.”
Albrecht is sensitive to the fact that she will most probably come under fire for any mistake she might make. But she is more than prepared for the punches that might be thrown her way.
“Of course I will make mistakes. And there will be a lot of criticism. I am ready to accept everything that is thrown at me. I only hope that there will also be those who dole out good advice.”
!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”Liza on…!_LT_/span
style=”margin-bottom: 0cm;”!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”Her management style:!_LT_/span!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”!_LT_span “I have been told that I lead from the front and that I not only expect others to follow, but to hurry up while following.”!_LT_/span!_LT_/span
style=”margin-bottom: 0cm;”!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”Growing up:!_LT_/span!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”!_LT_span “I grew up in a house where I was taught to speak my mind. My father, Carl, is head of research at Cansa (the Cancer Association of South Africa) and my mother, Sybelle, a former journalist, was a ferocious letter writer to newspapers. The letters’ page editor would write (in response to her mother’s letters): ‘SA van Durbanville, te bitsig’ (SA from Durbanville, too acerbic). It was, of course, an euphemism for being too politically critical. I am blessed to have grown up in a house where I was taught and encouraged to question things at all times and to think creatively.”!_LT_/span!_LT_/span
style=”margin-bottom: 0cm;”!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”Good journalism: !_LT_/span!_LT_span style=”font-family: Arial, sans-serif;”!_LT_span“A good journalist is one who has passion; who can get excited about a story and who keeps on coming up with new ways to tell stories in such a way that it keeps the reader riveted. He/she also has to be analytical and able to contextualise the news. For that, one needs common sense and to be well informed.”!_LT_/span!_LT_/span
style=”margin-bottom: 0cm;”Stephanie Nieuwoudt is a freelance journalist.
- This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (February 2009).