Feeling the industry’s pain: Cherilyn Ireton is the first female executive director of the World Editors Forum (WEF). She spent more than two decades as a journalist, editor and senior manager on newspapers such as the Sunday Times and Business Day.
What drew you to the media? During the 1976 riots, the bus home from boarding school went past Soweto, which was ablaze. This awakened my political interest. On weekends home I used to go to The Star newsroom and wait for my sister, Karin, also a journalist, to finish her shift. I loved the mixture of serious and silly – black reporters who had been in jail were telling news editors what was really going on with the security police and in the townships while photographers would be playing newsroom cricket with paper balls. I became an avid newspaper reader – and my headmistress nurtured my interest by getting me a subscription to The Star. I never really considered another career.
Do you have any hidden talents? If I do, they remain hidden… but in my dreams I am a Kenyan athlete.
What superpower would you like to possess? I sometimes wish I was like an enhanced Elastigirl from ‘The Incredibles’ and could be on three continents at once.
What is your best characteristic and biggest flaw? Modesty… and modesty. Many might add I’m far too serious.
If you weren’t heading up the WEF, what would you be doing now? Probably training guide dogs in some small town.
What moment do you regard as career defining? I was an indentured trainee on the Sunday Express when first the cadet school, and then the newspaper, closed. The then editor, Ken Owen, was so angry with the South African Associated Newspapers that he promised to train me in the newsroom and ensured extensive training on the new paper, Business Day.
What have you learnt the hard way? You need to move around to get ahead. Even if you learn new skills, people tend to categorise you according to how they first knew you. To be able to use and show new skills, you need a new audience.
What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given? Best: Recognise your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Worst: An aunt told me I must wear lipstick and high heels to get ahead. I do neither.
Whom do you admire the most? As a public figure it’s Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. But personally, it is a handful of women in their 40s and 50s who have had the courage to reinvent themselves.
What quote best describes how you see the world? In a world that seems to be going backwards on freedoms, Nelson Mandela’s words are a beacon to all in our Paris office: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy…. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.” – February 1994
What is your favourite holiday spot and why? I like to try new destinations: sun, water and good food are important.
What book do you wish you had written? ‘In God’s Name’, by David Yallop – an eye-opening exposé of the corruption and skulduggery in the Catholic Church.
If you had a tattoo, what would it be of? I would never have a tattoo.
What are you addicted to? BBC Radio 4 – a throwback to growing up listening to Springbok Radio.
What are you afraid of? Snakes. Bats.
What do you regret most? No regrets. I took an 800km walk when I left newspapers in South Africa. Putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the scenery and people along the way was more therapeutic than questioning whether I had taken the right route.
What cheers you up the most? Thunderstorms and being near water. It is the positive ions.
How do you think the role of an editor has changed in the digital age? Editors today must be able produce a first-class news product and be able to drive business development and change. They must be open and co-operate with the commercial teams. They have to be familiar with new technology and allow experimentation in their newsrooms. They need to be connected and converse with – not talk at – their audience.
We’re constantly hearing about how the media is struggling worldwide. Where is it doing well? Many news organisations with a combined print and digital strategy will tell you that more people are reading their journalism than ever before. But the business model is broken and digital revenues are nowhere near what they are losing from declining ad spend on print.
The long- term structural shift from print to digital is hurting and there is no single way (yet) to match the glorious print advertising revenue in a digital environment.
What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your job? Finding good case studies and examples of innovation to inspire editors can be tough.
What are your goals? To be the go-to support person for editors seeking help in transforming their newsrooms.
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.