Johannesburg - It’s not easy editing newspapers. A former editor of The Star once likened it to tiptoeing through a minefield blindfolded. That was Horace Flather. He also got William Nicol Drive (recently redubbed Winnie Mandela Drive) tarred so he could get out to his house on Fourways on tar, rather than gravel.
And that lets you into another secret about newspaper editors: It is often said that the difference between them and the Divine is that God never thought she was an editor. Editors can be incredibly caring, deeply passionate, highly opinionated and often inordinately selfish. Just like normal mortals, but on steroids.
It’s the best job in the world and it’s the worst – often at the same time. Much like zoo keepers trying to clean out panda enclosures, the pandas that editors have to deal with aren’t always as playful or friendly; overweening proprietors, angry readers, recalcitrant staff and incensed advertisers are just some of them.
Then, there are the politicians, the celebrities (sometimes one and the same as the politicians), the wannabes and the has-beens all clamouring for their 15 seconds of fame in the pages of the newspaper – and complaining about being misquoted when the coverage backfires on them.
That’s in normal times but we haven’t been living in normal times for several years now. You can blame the digital revolution and the incredibly short-sighted and suicidal gambit by newspaper management the world over to put content you’d pay for in print online, but make it freely available. You can blame Covid-19 and the lockdowns for hammering another silver stake into the dark arts of newspapering.
Times have changed, but papers survive; on less money, far less staff and far greater pressure than ever before. If carbon becomes diamond under pressure, then the great newspaper editors of today have become exponentially better than the good ones of yesteryear upon whose shoulders they stand.
Kashiefa Ajam, is one of the great modern South African newspaper editors. She has weathered the storms, kept her head and her paper high. Beloved by her staff, admired by her friends and feared by her foes, she has led by example; one of the few newspaper editors able to say “don’t do as I say, do as I do” as yet another edition goes out with a front page lead that she has either written herself or contributed to.
Very few journalists have been spared the millennial curse of self-promotion on social media. Editors, like other lesser humans, haven’t been inured to it either. Far too many have become the story, rather than telling it; their opinions masquerading as facts on the front page. Ajam has always gone in the other direction. Self-effacing, deeply humble and highly principled.
This is her last edition as editor of the Saturday Star, before she starts a new chapter with her family. It has been a privilege to write for her and an honour to be her friend.
It really is the end of an era. What a real pleasure to have been part of it.