The Quiet Editor

Media24 must be heaving a sigh of relief at the quiet leave-taking by Ann Donald of the iconic Fairlady. It is not noted for peaceful farewells from its editors, several of whom have left in a blaze of publicity.

Donald is leaving for family reasons, an oft-quoted phrase when leaders part company with their firms.
In this case, there is nothing sinister about the leave-taking. Friends and colleagues of Donald confirm her desire to spend more time with her teenage children. During our interview she admits frankly that her family has taken second place for too long. “I don’t want to find two years down the line that I have lost my family and my health.”

So, this time, the grand old (fair) lady’s not for burning. “People do tend to look at sensationalism around Fairlady,” comments Donald shortly before her departure. It seems that they do so with reason. “I have only worked with two of the editors but from what I have heard this is one of the quietest, if not THE quietest, leave-taking,” says Patricia Scholtemeyer, CEO of Media24 Magazines.

Editors in the past have left to start a rival magazine, fled from the country with their child in defiance of a court order and, in what must rank as one of the highest profile magazine editor departures ever, Dene Smuts, now an MP, left overnight in a blaze of international publicity. She resigned in protest at not being allowed to run a feature that might have cost the apartheid National Party a marginal seat.

But Donald comes across as the epitome of the intelligent, middle class reader who is her magazine’s target market. “She has been a breath of calm, fresh air, a down-to-earth ordinary girl who is not a prima donna,” says Cape Town columnist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.

In fact Donald’s “the girl-next-door” air is somewhat deceptive. She is - and she isn’t. She slid quietly into the magazine’s driving seat after being headhunted from her former position as publisher of Woman’s Value (also Media 24). This was at a time when nearly every magazine editor was applying for the hot seat.

Editors come and go at other magazines, some attracting more fuss than others, but Fairlady is a title as embedded in the South African psyche as biltong and braai, and its editor seldom ducks the limelight. That’s why the quiet Donald didn’t exactly leap at the job. “But who says ‘no’ to Fairlady! I felt it was a gift,” says Ann, adding, “but I knew if I failed, it would be high profile failure.”

During her tenure Donald has managed to stabilise - but not increase - Fairlady‘s circulation. Nonetheless, this is something of a feat for a magazine that has been hemorrhaging steadily for 20 years.

When she took over in January 2002, Fairlady‘s circulation had been dropping steadily from a fortnightly 186,000 in 1985 to 95,545 (ABC: Jul-Dec 2001). The proud general women’s interest magazine had been nibbled away at by the flood of new titles, ranging from Cosmopolitan - launched in 1984 by Fairlady‘s founding editor, Jane Raphaely - to Elle, Glamour, Marie Claire and most recently, and some say most threateningly, Woman & Home.

When Donald took over she felt the line was being blurred between fashion/beauty/celebrities and the tradition Fairlady had sprung from - that of (almost) a magazine of record. Fairlady readers store back copies to refer to historic events as much as they do for its recipes. The magazine that had once nearly cost a Parliamentarian his seat had been reduced to features discussing the sort of panties to wear to a party.

“When I was called in it was an opportunity to get back into the kind of editorial environment that Fairlady had always covered,” says Donald, who concentrated on making hard-hitting features the magazine’s point of difference. She knew the magazine was making inroads, she says, when some of the country’s best writers, like Rian Malan, Pearly Joubert and Mike Nicol, wrote for it. She speaks with pride about the November 2005 issue, with its Baby Tshepang feature. “You won’t pick up this magazine in 20 years time and not know when it was written.”

It was during Donald’s editorship, when the magazine hit an all time circulation low, that it took the long overdue step of going monthly.

In a bold move, she refused to accept diet pill advertising on the grounds that, “we couldn’t accept their money and then criticise them in our editorials.”

Scholtemeyer, who has been commended for supporting her editor - something publishers are not always noted for doing, especially when it means a loss of revenue - comments: “She has put her own stamp, and her values, on the magazine, one of them being that women are too obsessed with body image.”

Another bold step was deciding to run “real local women” covers, as opposed to an endless diet of international celebs. At the time Donald was publicly applauded but privately criticised by some in the media industry who thought Fairlady had lost valuable circulation. “But the ABCs were not hugely affected and although there was a dip in one of them, it was not dramatic,” says Scholtemeyer, who is clearly sorry to lose Donald. “She focuses on tough stories. You don’t describe Fairlady as light and fluffy.”

Indeed, Donald declares herself “bored with magazines that treat women as one dimensional, superficial.” She’s had enough of “10 ways to keep your marriage happy,” and thinks magazines have fallen into the trap of competing with each other and not catering for readers. “We need to credit them with having a brain.”

Well, thank goodness there is another equally lively-minded editor about to take up the Fairlady reins in feisty Suzy Brokensha, currently finishing her editorship of Marie Claire. She, like all past editors, brings an understanding of motherhood to the title, with two children under the age of seven. She also adds some spice with a reputation as a fine poker player who is the reigning champ in her local tournament. “I believe there isn’t much about life you couldn’t learn at a poker table,” is her straight-faced comment. But that’s not all - she also used to wield a reasonable cue at pool.

Brokensha says she doesn’t plan to “mess with the intelligence of the (Fairlady) content, which I love. But I may add more humour and lightness.”

As for Donald, her farewell gift is the book The Fairlady Collection, featuring some of the magazine’s best writing since its launch. The articles capture the essence of South Africa over four decades. “Vanity Fair could publish such a book but it wouldn’t have the same significance,” she says.

Sue Grant-Marshall is a freelance journalist writing for several magazines. She worked on Fairlady, The Star and the Cape Argus for many years before taking the independent route. She’s a member of the Mondi MPA Awards panel. Sue has written two books.

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