EDITING a newspaper well requires that you are as passionate about your editorial on the state of the African National Congress, as you are about the second and (hopefully) explanatory paragraph of every story you publish, as well as policing the commas and apostrophes, hundreds of deadlines, a strong opinion on just about everything from corruption to interior decorating, providing amusement occasionally to advertising agencies and their clients, understanding the dark arts of circulation manipulation and appreciating you are little more than a glorified human resources manager, copy editor, bookkeeper and court jester rolled into one.
All of that matters, but you can get a lot of it wrong and survive. What you can’t survive is losing your readers. Heavens above, you’re a fickle lot! A crossword gone here, a health supplement there and before you know it, it is torches and pitchforks crushing in on the car when you go home.
Seriously though, I’ve been thinking a lot about editing lately, partly because the excellent Phylicia Oppelt was appointed editor of the Sunday Times on Friday, but mainly because I may soon have to appoint a permanent editor for Business Day. Perhaps this column might serve as a guide to getting the job.
First, I would expect you to understand that the audience you inherit is the one you serve. You may not like the sort of person who subscribes to Business Day, but if you can’t convince me you’d crawl across a minefield for them you’re wasting your time and mine. If you tell me your plans to attract a new audience who have never read the paper before, and you cannot explain how you will do that without losing one current subscriber, I will roll on the floor laughing as I wave you to the door.
Second, people paying for the paper expect it to be not only perfect and expert in every single respect; they also expect it to be brave about difficult things. That means you have to be brave, perfect and expert. And if you are not outraged to the point of violence well into the morning by every single grammatical error, every misspelt name, every late delivery of your newspaper, then we are not meant for each other. If you are even remotely unsure about the value of a market economy or think the state should indeed play a bigger role in the economy, leave me alone.
Third, everyone and everything is a competitor. Your job is to so completely own every story or issue of importance that the rage of the new editor of the Sunday Times (just across the floor, for those who don’t know) as she casts about for a lead on Saturday afternoon becomes something Joburgers set their clocks by. Like Cape Town’s noonday gun.
Fourth, and finally, if you want a life of your own then, I beg you, don’t even think about writing to me. We run a news agency (the old I-Net Bridge) and an 18-hour-a-day digital newsroom too (it’s called BDlive, check it out). I expect them all to be perfect and first with the news. I expect you to make all of your meetings and to be available for ad hoc ones too. I’m also an insomniac and I have great ideas at night that I’m going to have to talk about.
Oh, one last thing; the cover price of Business Day in the shops has just gone up to R15 (subscribers get all sorts of cool deals, however). Your job is to make sure it’s worth that every day. My job is to remind you that it’s costing almost R22 to produce each copy and that I’m going to get that cost down while you make it worth more. When I get the cost down and you get the value up and we meet, we’ll have the best newspaper business in South Africa and you’ll get all the bloody credit.
SOME people say that giving only matters when it hurts. When it’s money the giver could actually use.
But that would mean Patrice Motsepe’s gesture the other day would not be worthy of the accolades which it has been receiving and that would clearly be absurd.
The Motsepe lesson, surely, is that giving can make you happy. Let’s hope many others follow his lead.
You don’t have to be rich to be generous.