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The road to transformation

As I look back at my three decades at Independent Media, I am reminded of all that has changed, and all that is still changing, says Pretoria News editor Valerie Boje.
The road to transformation
My career with Independent Media dates back three decades when, as a Rhodes University student, I first worked at the Pretoria News during my holidays, joining the staff after graduation as a reporter.

As I look back, I am reminded of all that has changed, and all that is still changing.

It was a very different Pretoria News that I started working for. We were in the same building, but almost everything else has changed: from the name of the street (then Vermeulen, now Madiba) to the way in which the paper is produced; from the momentous political and social changes in the country, to those within the media industry, and our group in particular.

For years, Argus Printing and Publishing built up an empire of newspapers run much along the lines of an “Old Boys’ Club”. The world I entered was very much a white man’s world, where a young white female reporter’s job was not “hard news” but to cover softer stories. Older male executives were addressed as “Mr” but that didn’t always equate to respect, considering their sexist behaviour.

The attitude continued even after I was married to a colleague, when a senior male questioned if it was right that one household should get two bonuses!

My husband, then the news editor, was to help that change when he insisted that I - and the increasing number of woman reporters - go out and cover “real news”.

More importantly, there was a realisation within the company and its shareholders that black journalists needed to be part of a changing media. Here the Pretoria News proved to be one of the leaders. Journalists such as Sej Motau (now a DA MP), Patrick Hlahla, who sadly died a couple of years ago, and our deputy editor, Jos Charle, photographers including Morris Leogabe and the late Walter Pitso, were among those on our team.

This was the turbulent pre-democracy era and their contributions would play a huge role in stamping the Pretoria News’s reputation as a newspaper of authority.

These black journalists opened the eyes not only of white colleagues like myself, but the traditional readers of the News to issues affecting the black community of Pretoria.

In particular, Patrick and Jos alerted us to the growing tension within the townships which led to the Mamelodi Massacre, the 30th anniversary of which was commemorated last year.

Of the beats I covered as a reporter, local government was to be my favourite. It is hard to believe that the city council of that time turned the sod at what is now Centurion Mall, but was also debating things like whether to allow black domestic workers to sit on park benches while minding white children.

On the wider political stage, growing restrictions on the press led to (as legal guru Kelsey Stuart once said) more pieces of legislation curbing the freedom of the press than there were days in the year.

Yet, again especially thanks to the contribution of black journalists, drivers and messengers, the Pretoria News continued to get valuable news from the townships and present readers with a picture of what was happening, notably during the 1986 State of Emergency.

I believe that commitment earned the respect of black readers who, to this day, make up the majority of the Pretoria News readership.

The death throes of apartheid and the beginning of a new dispensation were a fascinating time to be in a South African newsroom, and it was hard not to be humbled by being so close to the historic events of the time of Nelson Mandela’s release, the first democratic elections and the glorious inauguration of Madiba at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 10 May 1994.

Technically, the most dramatic change came in printing - from hot metal typesetting that had been used worldwide for centuries, and a newspaper which had its own printing press and press room staff on the premises, to today, where the entire newspaper is produced electronically and printed off the premises.

During my time as a sub-editor, the Pretoria News had become the first daily newspaper in the country to go electronic.

Goodbye to the typewriters we trained on as computers took over the printing world; and goodbye to the presses which thumped in the basement. We also changed from an afternoon newspaper to one coming out in the morning.

The Pretoria News was among the titles sold by Argus to Independent UK. And during that period I got to spend time at the Independent in London on an exchange, and to serve on a team preparing the introduction of a modern electronic-editing system for the group, a system currently being upgraded.

And which saw another first for the Pretoria News - being the first newspaper in South Africa produced in the Cloud!

In 2012, I was asked to serve as acting editor of the Pretoria News, a position confirmed as we entered 2013, the year Dr Iqbal Survé's Sekunjalo Media Consortium bought Independent News & Media, bringing it home to South Africa, and committed to change a legacy print company into a modern one with his motto: “Digital first, print best”.

In my very first interaction with Doc, he assured me of the importance of the Pretoria News to him personally, and to the group, because of its unique position in the administrative and diplomatic capital city.

In my time as editor, I have come to appreciate the extent to which we in the new Independent really are one team.

The company is diverse and will not tolerate sexism or racism; it is driven in its passion for new technology and a desire to reach out to new readers.

It is committed not only to fair reporting and equal opportunity, but to achieving real social change through campaigns such as #RacismStopsWithMe, which has proved so relevant since its launch in February.

I feel challenged and blessed to be where I am in my career, to be part of the past but also the future and to have around me a young, multi-skilled and confident team of men and women who will carry this venerable title into the future, not only as a print medium but also on digital platforms.

16 May 2016 15:47

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About the author

Valerie Boje is editor of Pretoria News.




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