As the first white editor of The Star in 13 years, Kevin Ritchie wasn’t sure he was right for the job - but he soon learnt otherwise.
Johannesburg - The voice on the other end of the line was clear: “I’ll use a sporting analogy with you: it’s your job to lose.”
To be honest I didn’t believe either the promise or the person behind it for a moment. I had a job to do, it was that simple. That morning, Makhudu Sefara, a man who I had come to respect immensely, had resigned as editor of The Star.
I had been his deputy every step of the way for two-and-a-half years.
As of 12 hours earlier I was now the acting editor of The Star - and almost incidentally the first white editor of Independent’s 128-year-old flagship title in almost 13 years.
It faded to irrelevance with the work ahead; the next edition had to come out, the one after that planned; staff needed to go on leave, staff needed to be hired, advertising needed to squeeze in last-minute ads, the ombud was looking for responses to complaints, lawyers were at the door, reporters wanted to know why their stories had been cut or badly subbed - in other words situation normal on a big metro daily.
The man on the phone was Iqbal Survé, the executive chairman of Independent Media. I’d met him a couple of times before, we’d chatted, but never about career prospects.
I demurred. I said I’d hold the fort for as long as he needed, as any deputy must, while he found a suitable candidate; one who reflected the majority of our readers for a start, but also someone who continued the trajectory that The Star had been renowned for far beyond even appointing Mathatha Tsedu as deputy editor back in the Nineties.
Survé said we’d talk in a couple of months.
I thought nothing more of it. I didn’t even want to hope, it all seemed impossible in a company so publicly committed to transformation in every facet of its business.
Six months to the day, he phoned me again: “I’m making you the editor,” he said. I expressed my misgivings again.
“Transformation isn’t about race,” said Survé. “It’s not about quotas, it’s about getting people in who understand what the job’s about in a country such as ours, about how the media landscape is changing and what legacy newspapers like The Star have to do to stay relevant and profitable.
“I don’t need BEE points for this company, I am black. What I do need is fundamental structural changes to achieve what we all have to do.”
I asked him what I would be expected to do. “Be fair,” he said. “Be courageous. Tell the full story. Make sure there’s always a range of voices. Be patriotic, uphold the constitution and,” he said, almost as an afterthought, “I would prefer it if you didn’t support any particular political party.”
I accepted the job, I couldn’t do otherwise. It’s the dream job in South African journalism, to lead a dynamic and diverse team of journalists comprising old sweats and young Turks all committed to telling not just the South African story, but particularly the Joburg story.
It’s been a roller-coaster for the past two years, but not perhaps the way you might imagine. Our greatest arbiters have been our readers; the latest and final AMPS figures have shown that The Star, along with Diamond Fields Advertiser and The Mercury (coincidentally also published by Independent Media), are the only daily papers to have grown their readership in an environment that is becoming more and more a war of attrition.
On social media, the growth has been even more impressive and dynamic in the past month alone since we appointed two young journalists, Lerato Mbangeni and Mpiletso Motumi, to lead the way.
They’re black and female, just like our night editor Mapaseka Mogotsi and our graphics editor Nolo Moima. They’re there because they’re the best at what they do, not because of any desire to tick race and gender boxes.
I could say the same for Mojalefa Mashego, our executive editor of news, or his deputy Omphitlhetse Mooki, night news editor Lebogang Seale, or our legendary executive editor Sol Makgabutlane.
The same goes for our award-winning reporters Angelique Serrao, Solly Maphumulo, Shain Germaner, Botho Molosankwe, Baldwin Ndaba or our subs led by Danni Marais, and our photographers led by Karen Sandison.
This pursuit of excellence has been an important ingredient as we wrestle like the rest of this country with the real nettles of transformation like #RhodesMustFall and drive our own in-house and groundbreaking nation-building project #RacismStopsWithMe.
They’ve been my inspiration at a time when I might otherwise have felt quite despondent.
I’ve been in this game, with the same company too, for 25 years and it’s never been as challenging as it is now; whether it’s the tectonic plates of our economy or our politics shifting.
We face challenges all the time, it’s always been like that in newspapers; we don’t just write the first draft of history, we’re right there on the front lines too and to be successful, we have to work as a team.
In journalism, we often say: “You’re only as good as your last byline.”
At The Star, you’re only as good as the people around you - and the people who put their trust in you; whether they’re the readers or the shareholders.
We’re in a good space.