/ 14 June 2008

‘The worst crime in journalism is dullness’

Anton Harber, co-founder and editor of The Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian, answers 10 questions as the M&G celebrates its 20th anniversary and looks at how the newspaper has changed over the years, where online journalism is heading in South Africa and how tomorrow’s spunky journalists should be trained.

1. “The Mail & Guardian celebrates its 20th birthday at a time when our country’s journalism is the target of much criticism, even derision,” you wrote in “The meaning of the Mail” (M&G, August 1). Can you explain this?
Well, there is some good and plenty of bad journalism in this country, but I think the M&G still produces some of the best. There is fierce competition in this corporate environment today and we don’t have a lot of older experienced journalists as a backbone.

There is a more competitive atmosphere, not only in South Africa but [also] globally. The M&G started without any financial help. It had to mature into a self-sustaining product, and it did. But there is always a fine balance to be found between the demands of journalism and the demands of newspaper economics. In many places the battle is being lost, but I hope that’s not the case here.

2. As one of the joint founder editors of the M&G, is the newspaper what you intended it to be?
No, it is not, but that is not a bad thing. The world has changed, so the newspaper has had to change as well. It has come a long way from what we intended, but it would have died if it did not. I think its core values are, to a large extent, still the same, and that is what is most important. The M&G is still an outspoken, stimulating, thinking-person’s newspaper.

3. Is the M&G still pushing the boundaries as it used to do when named The Weekly Mail? (“It had to be different from the mainstream media or there was no point to its existence, and this meant that we had to challenge the status quo and break the rules,” you wrote.)
It is. But I think more can be done. We did not start it 20 years ago to become like any other mainstream newspaper. There is a big push now to make it profitable, and that is not a bad thing, provided the editorial integrity is guarded in that process, provided that does not become the sole aim, provided we remember that the purpose of profit should be, first and foremost, to make the maker stronger and better.

4. What are the biggest changes in the M&G‘s attitude? And the biggest changes in our position in the South African media landscape?
The M&G‘s values are much the same, but whereas those values were fringe and radical 20 years ago, society has moved and now these values are more centrist. I think the paper should still try and push the boundaries, providing the in-depth, provocative writing and thinking that lies at the core of its history. The worst crime in journalism is dullness, and thankfully the M&G has never suffered from that malady for long. Hopefully, it never will. Hopefully, it will always be a leader in ideas and innovation.

I hope that with doing that we are still different from other newspapers. It is about giving real depth, to get below the surface. That needs to stay. But the M&G is now in a tough position to do this.

5. What have you done as a person for the improvement of journalism in South Africa? What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?
Of course, my involvement in the M&G [is my biggest accomplishment]. I am proud of helping create a new voice with lasting impact. But more recently, I have been writing and I teach [at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg]. I am also still a bit of a media entrepreneur: Irwin — my co-editor and co-founder at the M&G — and I run BIG Media. For 12 years at the M&G I had the best journalism job, at the best newspaper, at the most exciting time. It is very hard to find anything as thrilling and rewarding as that again.

6. What do you think of new newspapers like Nova? What is your stance on tabloids?
I think it is wonderful that different newspapers are sprouting up, that there are adventurous media companies investing in new products with some success. I prefer the more quality newspapers but if you think about it, South Africa is one of the few countries where newspaper sales are rising, and that is a good thing. Of course it would be better if more people read The New York Times rather than Daily Sun. But I would rather have them reading the Daily Sun than not reading a newspaper at all. Nova is a brand-new newspaper that has not found its character yet. Give it time.

7. How do you train journalists to have attitude and guts, journalists “who are prepared to immerse themselves in stories in a new way and have an unflinching determination to get them into print”, as you wrote in the M&G in August?
First we have to teach people to research and write competently — that’s the easy part. Then we have to somehow impart the kind of attitude that makes journalism comes alive. I believe that students need to be curious, opinioned, outspoken and gutsy. They have to be spunky. Teaching that is the hard part.

8. “Online journalism, a new form of journalism, is in an ‘infantile’ state. There is no doubt that it will grow into a hulking giant. I am certain it will provide many new challenges and opportunities for young journalists,” you wrote in “It’s about ‘telling the story, not making money’” (M&G Online, October 27). What is the state of online journalism if you look at the top three news sites of South Africa — News24, IOL and the M&G Online?
Online journalism is the future, I have little doubt, but in this country it still needs to take a great leap forward. There is too little original journalism on the web, still too much lifted from the world of print. Our online news sites are following, and not yet setting, the agenda.

In some countries, the great leap forward came when online coverage of the tsunami was quicker and sometimes better than in other media. We haven’t had that breakthrough here and we probably won’t until bandwidth becomes a lot cheaper.

We will know that the change has come when the M&G stops thinking of itself as a newspaper, but as a purveyor of information and opinion — and the method of delivery will be decided by what works best from story to story, or day to day. I don’t think newspapers will disappear, but I do think they will have to change significantly to co-exist with online media.

9. How can online journalism wrest itself from its dependence on agency/wire copy? When will we see more original online journalism?
When we have more investment in online journalism, and when citizen journalism — the participation of ordinary people in news gathering and dissemination — takes off in this country. It will come, quicker than we expect.

10. How can print publications best work with their online counterparts instead of feeling threatened by them?
When they start understanding and using each other’s strengths. When the two elements realise they can strengthen each other. When you view the M&G as one institution which is generating news and opinion, using whichever medium is most effective at delivering it.

Online is great because it can combine speed with depth like no other medium [can], but the greatest advantage might be that the lower costs will free journalism from the kind of corporate, financial constraints which are weighing us down and threatening the kind of journalism that the M&G is best at.