Media need editor and manager to be separate

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Given that we so rarely talk about ourselves in public, it may come as a surprise to you to know that right now journalists across the country are in a state of high anxiety.

This anxiety has nothing to do with the ANC’s threat to introduce some form of secrecy bill or the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team’s efforts to transform us. That is grist to our mill.

The source of our anxiety is far more prosaic. It has less to do with the big picture and more to do with our actual survival and the shape that survival might take. To an extent, but only to an extent, it is about the internet and the challenges and opportunities it poses for us.

I say “opportunities” only because I went to business school where I learnt that you weren’t ever supposed to admit that you hadn’t a clue what to do when faced with dramatic change, so you tossed out something glib about “challenges and opportunities”.

But as you will all know by now, the reality is that – with a few notable exceptions across the globe – the old media hasn’t really worked out how to make the new media model pay. And it’s not for want of trying.

The problem is that while all this desperate survival stuff is going on there are also changes at management or ownership level that have to be accommodated.

While the journalists at Caxton/Moneyweb, Media24 and Mail & Guardian have only to deal with the common or garden variety of anxiety facing a seemingly declining industry, those at the SABC, Times Media Group (TMG, formerly Avusa) and Independent News & Media (INM) are dealing with grimmer anxiety-inducing situations. They are facing dramatic management changes.

There is nothing as likely to inflame anxiety as the arrival of a new boss – whether as editor, editor-in-chief, publisher or owner. Everyone in the lower ranks desperately tries to work out what the new guy might want and, consciously or not, probably tries to deliver that even before it is actually asked for.

The SABC has its own rather unique set of challenges, too vast to contemplate here. But what a coincidence that the two “print” media groups currently facing the biggest changes are the ones Anglo American dumped in the nineties.

The sale of the old Argus Group, and subsequently the Cape Times, Mercury and Pretoria News for around R600 million, to Tony O’Reilly’s INM must rank as one of the best investments the Irishman ever made.

By harvesting previous decades of investment in ‘Aunty Argus’, including trimming back the workforce to a fraction of what it was, INM was able to extract several billions of rands from the company and the country. And now Sekunjalo’s Iqbal Survé has to hand over R2 billion before the Irish will let go.

The exhausted survivors of the O’Reilly harvesting are now trying to figure out what will be needed to secure their continued survival. If Survé follows the amazing precedent that has just been set at TMG’s BDFM (Business Day-Financial Mail) and appoints himself editor-in-chief of INM South Africa the journalists here will have a far more complex situation to figure out.

While there has been some public discussion of the editorial changes at TMG, although no mention of the high drama behind it, there has been almost nothing said about the decision by the BDFM board to appoint Business Day editor Peter Bruce as editor-in-chief and publisher of BDFM.

Bruce has rather lightly dismissed professor of journalism and media studies Anton Harber’s criticism that this represents a break with the traditional separation of the journalist and management functions, pointing out that it isn’t the first time. And Harber was right to note that there has been an erosion of that separation at INM SA over the years, but there is still an awareness of it.

Even at The New Age, Atul Gupta has stopped short of formally appointing himself editor-in-chief.

However quaint and “old-media” you might think it is, the separation between management and editorial provides some safeguards for journalists as it creates shelter from direct assault by financial interests that otherwise have unfettered power to determine what the public reads.

For an industry that insists on self-regulation the separation is an absolute necessity. It will also be key to its survival in the digital age.


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