Mapi Mhlangu was recently appointed editor in chief of news channel, eNCA. Michael Bratt sat down with her to find out more about the direction she will be taking the channel as well as her goals for the station and her take on the South African broadcast news landscape.
Mhlangu is wearing takkies, footwear that doesn’t quite match the smart outfit that she is wearing. Sensible shoes, considering she does a lot of walking. “My whole idea is that I should walk the whole day. I should be in studio at least 30 minutes a day. I should be at the outputs desk at least 30 minutes a day. I don’t want to spend all my time in the office because you don’t know what is happening.” She pulls a pair of high heels out of the handbag sitting on her desk, and continues. “It’s always sensible to have shoes which you can run around in… it is a newsroom after all.”
Throughout the conversation Mhlangu talks about her new position and eNCA while referring to the bigger picture. Her vast political knowledge comes to the fore as she maps out different scenarios that could play out in the upcoming election. This includes the ANC possibly not reaching a majority vote, as well as looking at what has happened in other African countries in situations where this has happened to the ruling party. But for Mhlangu one thing is imperative. “It’s up to us as a newsroom to reflect the political changes that are happening and to try and tell the story as honestly as possible… We must scrutinise all the players and give equal attention to political parties that are in Parliament,” she says.
The biggest challenge facing editors
Mhlangu believes the biggest challenge facing news editors in South Africa currently is the pressure being put on journalists who report on dodgy stories such as the massive state capture project. “The challenge for our journalists now is that there’s surveillance on them. How do you protect your staff from surveillance and rogue elements? Now the danger is covert. The attack on Peter Bruce was made to look like an attack on him, but it was an attack on all journalists who have been writing about state capture,” she believes. But she counters this threat by saying all editors must affirm the profession and affirm to journalists that it is still okay to ask questions without fear or favour, to show that they still have the confidence to this profession. It’s a bonus, she reckons, that she is inheriting a news organisation that has a lot of the fundamentals in place and which has created a strong brand of journalism.
Not being everything to everyone
Independent journalism, holding on to top broadcast talent, and not trying to be everything to everyone are the three characteristics that Mhlangu believes sets eNCA apart from other South African news channels. While she admits that resources are constrained, this is a positive as it allows the channel to be more selective of the stories it covers. This is done on the so what basis of the story as well as another important variable, whether the story tells the
“South Africans are looking for people to ask questions on their behalf. They’re not looking for the buddies of the politicians. They’re looking for someone who can ask their question of why they have been battling to get an ID.” One example she cites is the recent Gupta emails leak, which she says has been covered in-depth and well by media organisations. But she believes one thing is lacking.
“We almost obsess with what the executive is doing and the broader implications. We have not been able to zoom in to say ‘what does the state capture mean for Gogo in Mandeni whose mayor or councillor spends thousands of rands buying KFC’. What does that mean? We must broaden this conversation to include ordinary South Africans”. This strategy seems to be working as the channel has held an over 50% audience share for the past three years. While Mhlangu is looking to increase the number of viewers, she wants to ensure that it is not at the expense of the existing viewers. Balance is vital.
Integrating online with television news
eNCA has combined its broadcast and online newsrooms with a view that they should no longer be separate entities. Reporters from both are being up-skilled across both skill sets and mobile is being encouraged as an initial reporting tool. But Mhlangu still touts the benefits of traditional television, when asked whether the traditional 19:00 news broadcast is still relevant in the digital age.
“You still need well-told, researched stories that pass the editorial test. Sometimes what you get online is wishy-washy and rumour. You follow the story online but you still hear people saying, ‘If I don’t see it on eNCA, then I don’t trust it’ … Being first is not always right, being right is always right,” she explains.
The priorities for eNCA
What are the priorities for the news channel? And what strategy will Mhlangu implement to head towards meeting these? Here is what she had to say:
The handover from Anton Harber
Mhlangu was former editor in chief Anton Harber’s second in command for 16 months, a process she says assisted in the handover to her. The biggest lesson the newsroom learnt from Harber, Mhlangu says, is that, “While you push for product, you can’t push for the best product without happy people.”
The previously stated strategy of the news channel was a collaborative effort between Harber, Mhlangu and the rest of the team. Mhlangu says there won’t be any radical changes to it now that she is at the helm. Aside from assisting the newsroom, Harber also imparted some personal wisdom to Mhlangu. “He always said that ‘We are incredibly lucky that we have a shareholder who is not interested in interfering with what we do. We must always guard that independence, even more importantly now. Never forget that what set us apart is our independence and our journalists are seen to be asking the questions that other journalists fear to ask, and guard that independence at all cost’.”
Transformation in news broadcast media
When asked about her views on transformation in South African news broadcast media, Mhlangu refers to the bigger picture again, saying it is ongoing and focuses on not only racial transformation, but gender, class and ownership transformation as well. “Yes transformation is about race. It is about how the majority of South Africans see themselves portrayed on television. But it’s also about our ability to give South Africans an opportunity to tell their stories in their own language,” she says. She adds that she is not surprised that black stakeholders who bought into media ownership have left, as the space is not “an easy win”.
Away from work
Living her life between KwaZulu-Natal (where she is originally from) and Johannesburg, Mhlangu loves to travel when work isn’t keeping her busy. She’s part of a group of friends, named #onelife, who keep each other accountable for promises made as well as experiencing things together. Mhlangu is also part of a book club, loves art and good food, and reveals that some of the best conversations she has are with her nieces and nephews, as they ask the most random questions and make her think.
Loads of varied experience
Mhlangu brings 20 years of experience in the media industry to her new position. This comes from both the coalface, through an editorial background, as well as management, as she has a business background. She started as a reporter for the SABC in KwaZulu-Natal being trained in storytelling, camera work and as a sound technician. Business reporting experience came through a stint at CNBC Africa, as well as political knowledge, which came from being a producer on SAFM with a show that explored political issues.
She believes that another valuable element she brings is empathy for journalists and the situations they face (as she remembers her times as one), as well as an appreciation that sometimes they need down time. Mentoring and talent management is something that Mhlangu wants to be actively involved in, as the mentoring she received from her predecessors made a huge impact on her. Having held senior positions at eNCA for the past seven years, Mhlangu is also very familiar with the general strategy of the organisation.
“I take two views in the business that we are doing: Looking after journalism, but also looking after the channel as a business unit that needs to make money.”
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