Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt and City Press editor Ferial Haffajee are two of the most influential editors in the country. The Media questions them.
A decade ago, having a woman editor of a mainstream newspaper was a novelty. What does this change in our industry mean to you?
Haffajee: In 2004, when I became editor of the Mail&Guardian, the novelty value surprised me as it was my gender, not my journalism, that caught attention. I chose to embrace the novelty and find different ways of editing. In hindsight, I had to work doubly hard to ensure the journalism was very good. So, yes, I felt a need to prove myself.
A decade later, it is wonderful that our ranks are now populated with excellent women media leaders and there is a second and third generation in the making. It’s no longer a novelty, but it doesn’t mean the work is done.
Oppelt: It means that our society is changing, that it is less about your gender and more about your ability. Gender transformation has quite a way to go still – like most other countries – in all spheres of society. Media is but one area.
What does being editor of such a pivotal newspaper mean to you?
Haffajee: City Press is well beloved in its niche and our job is to get it into new audiences, to make them love it too. The job of repositioning a title like this is an exciting task, but it can be overwhelming on some days. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved: keeping the values of City Press, but altering its look and feel for the 21st century. We have set the agenda on many stories and for this, we were rewarded with becoming Media Tenor’s most influential title and were honoured with about 12 awards last year, among them seven Sikuvile newspaper awards, the SA Pulitzer. Our design team has scooped the Joel Mervis twice in a row.
Oppelt: It means sleeping badly, being obsessive and perhaps a little crazy and ensuring that my hairdresser is around to dye the grey away. That’s a joke by the way.
It’s a huge privilege that can be daunting at times with pressure from everywhere. But the Sunday Times demands that I constantly return to the most fundamental point of my job – what our readers want.
What do women bring to the media, or newspapers, that is unique?
Haffajee: I speak only for myself since many women media leaders bristle at the idea of being different. I have chosen to lead differently. Love him as I did, I don’t do a Deon (du Plessis) bellow across the newsroom and have everybody on tenterhooks. I try to lead collectively but am not afraid to take decisions.
Being schooled for many years in how to make gender-blind media, I’ve threaded my politics into the titles I’ve edited: giving voice to women as specialist sources, getting women columnists, ensuring a gender-balanced newsroom. That said, I’m tough as nails and I tend to sift out mediocrity and under-performance quite deftly (or cruelly, depending on whom you speak to).
Oppelt: Surely it is the qualities of a leader or editor rather than the gender that is most important? Of course we need more women editors in South African media, but do we choose editors because they are women or because they are good?
What is your aim as editor, in terms of your readership and staff?
Haffajee: We want to be South Africa’s agenda-setting title, to have the big South African conversations in our pages, our website and on social media. To attract the cream of the journalism crop into our newsroom to make brilliant journalism across all the platforms open to us. If we can build an award-winning app I’ll be over the moon.
Oppelt: There are circulation targets that I want us to meet. In order for this to happen, we need to do the job we are charged with – delivering unique content to our readers. This requires a changed mindset in terms of staff.
What do you believe are the pivotal values your newsroom has to uphold?
Haffajee: City Press is a pulse paper – it has always been rooted in the people – the urban black working class. It is still our core audience – it is a city title. We want to keep this identity but bring in new readers while staying true to our core.
Oppelt: Professionalism, passion and ambition. If you do not have these qualities to start with, then it becomes very difficult to want to be the very best in your industry. I want a competitive newsroom, where journalists strive to be the best in their beat, on their paper and have their bylines all over the Sunday Times.
There is a lot riding on you in your position. What would you say that is and from whom?
Haffajee: Indeed. I think editors are communally owned in South Africa and we have a duty to protect our code of ethics, to be exemplars and to respect our Constitution. I’ve come face to face with this through a great many efforts to gag the titles I’ve worked at, during The Spear saga and in my “black snake” period with Eric Miyeni who called me this because of our investigations into the ANC Youth League.
Oppelt: Of course there are the usual ‘media experts’ who stand on the sidelines and watch the potential fall of the Sunday Times with great glee. These are the experts who spoke about me at the time of my appointment as the “young Phylicia” with a “torrid past”. It might have smarted a few years ago, but now I consider it white noise. The critics who really matter are our readers.
Most commentators and sources in newspapers are male. What are you doing to change this?
Haffajee: You should add, “white male”. Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve made it my mission to get the colour and gender of authority to change. At the Financial Mail, the ‘Little Black Book’ was an effort to change who was regarded as influential and powerful in our media. At the M&G, we published the ‘Book of Women’ for the same reason. There remains work to do, but for me it’s a weekly task to ensure that we create a publication across platforms.
Oppelt: It’s about constantly asking who else there is. It’s easy to jump back into the same pool of commentators. We were asking these questions more than a decade ago. Sources are altogether different. I don’t believe that sources come with a gender.
One of the big problems for women in the media is the need to balance children with careers. What are you doing to help the mothers in your newsroom?
Haffajee: Media24 has great workplace flexibility policies. We have kids in our newsroom quite regularly. We extended maternity leave and try to run a ship that accommodates working mothers and fathers. But publishing a Sunday is cruel: we work Tuesdays to Saturdays, which cuts into family time. I am thinking through ways of running a ship that is not quite so hard on family time, mine included.
Oppelt: This is a very difficult thing to balance. I have two small children and I have had to set up a support structure that helps me manage my responsibilities. While it sounds unsympathetic, women, as well as men, have to find the middle ground between career and family. I don’t have a problem with colleagues bringing their children into the office or going off early if their children are ill. Those are basic considerations.
Newspapers are still boys’ clubs. How has this impacted on you?
Haffajee: My background necessitated breaking down clubs and forming new networks. Apartheid was, after all, one big race and gender club. Starting at the then Weekly Mail helped: the paper was run on love and principle and by strong women. They taught me to take down boys’ clubs.
Oppelt: It impacts in a negative way because you always remain the outsider. But I would not have survived this long if I allowed it to become the greatest impediment in my professional life.
What have you done to change this?
Haffajee: I try to run democratic spaces (as far as newsrooms can be) and I don’t operate in cliques. You can’t please everybody and managing journalists is like herding cats, but it’s a life’s work and sometimes it pans out okay.
Oppelt: I don’t want to be a boy. I don’t want to be part of club of chauvinists who patronise women. So I ignore it and demand that I am judged on merit. And I do my job.
Do you believe there is too much emphasis on the fact that you are a woman in this position? If so, why and how should it be?
Haffajee: No. For those of us who are first generation symbols of change, we have to pay back: live true to the position, empower other women, create non-racial and non-sexist spaces and to use our authority to do important work, be it fighting against endemic sexual violence, holding up a mirror to a recalcitrant private sector, and fighting against corruption.
Oppelt: Yes there is. Interrogate my past performance, the jobs that I have done. If I have failed somewhere, if what I have contributed to the newspapers I have edited does not merit this appointment, then I should not have got this job. I doubt my predecessors have been interrogated in the same manner.
I get tired of the gender questions – not because I don’t care – but because it undermines a fundamental issue relating to skills, qualities and talent. The gender or race issue denies us possessing talent, as if we are disabled in one way or another and need to be affirmed wherever we go.
What is the thing that makes you get up each day and come to work?
Haffajee: Journalism is an honour, not a job.
Oppelt: I love what I do. The energy in a vibrant newsroom, the magic of ideas coming together, the excitement of a magnificent splash – nothing beats that.
My two daughters are my key drivers. I want them to be proud of me, to learn the best lessons from me – that they can dream of things that might have seemed impossible at first. It’s comforting in some way though when your one child applauds your appointment because it came with a balcony and a fridge. That makes me smile when I walk into my office in the morning – Mamma’s balcony and Mamma’s fridge.
What are the hurdles still in the way of you putting out your perfect newspaper?
Haffajee: For one thing, we are doomed if we understand ourselves to be putting out newspapers. We are a title across platforms and you have to be playing in social media (Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Instagram), in print and online. It’s exciting but tough. What would I like: journalist-developers, better headline writing, a commitment to both long-form and short-form journalism. Otherwise, I think City Press has the finest team in the business.
Oppelt: Skills, drive and ambition. Also, understanding what our readers are about. We need to train our young reporters, we need to infuse them with a sense of energy and ambition, that they deeply understand and love the DNA of the Sunday Times.
Sometimes women appear to be their own worst enemy and instead of helping each other in their career pursuits, they undermine each other. What is your experience in this?
Haffajee: I have had mostly good and empowering relationships with the women I have worked with. I have learnt from people like Charlotte Bauer, Barbara Ludman, Caroline Southey, (the late) Linda Stafford, Gugu Msibi, Edwina van der Burg, Babalwa Shota, Gayle Edmunds, Nicki Gules and Natasha Joseph, among many, many others.
Generally, I’ve disliked and avoided editors and journalists (male and female) who were vicious and sort of 19th century in their practices.
Oppelt: I haven’t found this as much as the viciousness of male colleagues who feel threatened by me. I think that women often claim victimhood because it provides a very convenient excuse for their performance. Have we ever asked men if they are their own worst enemies? I deal with colleagues in a fairly equal way – but I have found in the past that women tend to take criticism personally while men understand that it is about the issue not the person.
As a role model to other journalists, and women journalists in particular, what do you want them to learn from you?
Haffajee: Whatever I can teach them. When people call me a “role model” – I still go “who, me?” but I am learning to embrace the role and thinking through ways I can use it to benefit young journalists.
Oppelt: Work hard and love what you do. It’s not your gender that holds you back but your own self-belief at times. If you approach this industry as a closed boys’ club it will be that to you. If you enter journalism with a sense of determination that you can get what you want, then your canvas is wide open.
Should editors be involved in the business/financial aspect of their newspapers? If so, what should they be doing?
Haffajee: These days, there is not an editor who will deny that we have to be involved in the business and financial aspects of our titles. We just have recognise that we are in an industry that is in a state of revolution. It is the era of the entrepreneurial editor. I prefer not to get caught in the trap of cost cutting, but to try to be part of finding new revenue streams to fund and create space for good journalism.
Oppelt: Absolutely. I believe in respectful distances between editorial and business units. But I do want to be able to negotiate with our sales staff, able to find out what the key drivers for circulation success are, whether there are new revenue streams that I can develop through editorial products.
Is it up to powerful women like you to guide and help young female journalists or it is gender stereotyping? Why?
Haffajee: I love working with young journalists of all stripes and genders – they teach me as much as I learn from them. And, no, I don’t think it’s stereotyping to empower young women.
Oppelt: Yes and no. My role models and mentors were largely male. They taught me about editing, they were available to answer my thousands of questions. Essentially, they taught me about the business of newspapers. But one of my first news editors was a woman who taught me not to succumb to victimhood, to work damn harder than anyone else because that is what counts.
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