Much more than ‘The Grand Scam’: Rob Rose is editor of Sunday Times’s Business Times and a multi award-winning financial investigative journalist. He recently released The Grand Scam, a book about Barry Tannenbaum and his Ponzi scheme, a story he first exposed about the largest fraud case in South Africa.
What drew you to the media? I loved writing, so in the middle of my law degree I did a stint at Engineering News, that famous nursery of journalism talent. When I finished the law course, it took me all of two weeks to realise I’d rather be a journalist.
Do you have any hidden talents? I have the most hidden cricketing talent in the country, hidden even from anyone I’ve ever played cricket with. Also, if we had an Olympic squad for Tetris, I’d walk into the team.
What superpower would you like to possess? The ability to teleport to places would be useful, and also the power to teleport PR people to distant planets. Having had a child two years back, the ability to recharge without needing to sleep would also be great.
What is your best characteristic and biggest flaw? My best characteristic is being able to tell people in positions of power honestly how I feel about them. My many flaws include laughing at inopportune moments and worrying inordinately about whether there were grievous errors in stories after they’ve gone to print.
If you didn’t have a career in media, what would you be doing now? If I needed the money, probaby a lawyer. If I didn’t particularly, a full-time writer.
What moment do you regard as career defining? Many. My first front-page news story at Business Day was one; the Tannenbaum story, and also, the Dina Pule exposé with my team, Stephan Hofstatter and Mzilikazi wa Afrika, which got Pule fired after she attacked us. And certainly the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 2010.
What have you learnt the hard way? Not to get too close to certain sources, no matter how intriguing the information they have. Not to sacrifice your independence for access to ‘powerful’ people.
What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given? The best advice I got was to report what people do, not what they say. This is the fundamental difference between journalists who report on a press conference as if it represents real news, and those who actually find out what’s happening. The worst advice was that a shorter story is always a better story.
Whom do you admire most? A lot of people. Deon Basson remained one of my first role models, but was treated abysmally by Naspers, despite being the most outstanding financial journalist of his generation. And investigative journalists who keep the country honest without falling prey to the temptation to write meaningless hagiographies about nauseating CEOs.
What quote best describes the way you see the world? Not sure. Perhaps what someone once wrote about news being what someone doesn’t want you to print, and the rest being advertising.
What is your favourite holiday spot and why? St Lucia on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast. Or Siberia. I took a train ride from Moscow to Beijing once, and I loved the endless miles of end-of-the-world snow.
What book do you wish you had written? ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis.
If you had a tattoo, what would it be of? Something unexpectedly threatening, like a methed-up teddy bear brandishing a spatula with spikes.
What are you addicted to? It was a dark day when I discovered I could download Tetris on my phone.
What are you afraid of? The terror of the unexpected phone call.
What do you regret most? Not many things, which probably is testament to some form of wholesale narcissism. Perhaps leaving my dog at home for some weeks when I was young. He died while I was away.
What cheers you up the most? My wife, my child. As you’d expect, really.
With regard to your book, how did you take a news investigation and turn it into a gripping, book-length read? When I started writing the book, I wanted to tell a narrative story of how and why somebody would stitch together an immense con: what motivates someone, and where are the inflection points where they make life-changing compromises that, clearly in this case, spiralled out of control. Basically, I tried to construct the story in a linear way, focusing on those points upon which everything ultimately twisted.
Are there any disadvantages to turning great journalists into editors? Many. I’ve worked with good journalists who’re useless managers and editors. Also, it takes years to develop that vital skill of nailing down a story properly and tightly – so removing people who’ve finally got this skill from the frontline weakens your core product. Someone said recently we need more editors in this country: self-evidently, we don’t – we need more good journalists. It baffles me that media managers in this country are paid more than journalists: a good journalist is worth 10 of them.
How do you yourself balance investigating stories and your duties as an editor? It’s tricky, and I’ve found myself writing far less now. To investigate a story properly, or manage people properly, you need to invest time. One trick is to say no to meetings that are a waste of time, like management meetings called solely to justify someone’s job.
This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.