/ 28 September 2016

Verashni Pillay: Why I’m leaving the Mail & Guardian

M&G editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay will join Huffington Post South Africa and is confident the next M&G editor will take the paper to greater heights.
M&G editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay will join Huffington Post South Africa and is confident the next M&G editor will take the paper to greater heights.

I’ve been building up to October this year. It would mark one year as editor and I had planned to pen a letter to the Mail & Guardian readers, staff and industry watchers to celebrate the remarkable gains we’ve made this past year, and to outline the challenges that still remain and how we’re going to forge ahead.

I never thought that, instead, I would be writing my farewell letter.

I love the M&G probably a little more than is healthy. I’ve been here for six years in total, and have given it my all. But two things have happened: an opportunity came knocking that I just couldn’t refuse and I realised I had accomplished much of what I had set out to achieve at the M&G. I wasn’t looking to leave at all and the offer to be editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post in South Africa came in the last few days.

Conventional wisdom tells one to remain in the job of editor for a number of years, to leave your mark. But I did not become editor to build my reputation or create a legacy. I was persuaded to become editor of the M&G this time last year because, quite frankly, the publication was in deep trouble and there was a real danger it could have closed. Amidst retrenchments, plummeting circulation and the abrupt departure of its editors, morale was through the floor. I couldn’t walk away.

I thought it would take several years to fix the problems but the turnaround has been rapid, thanks to the large goodwill towards the M&G from readers, the larger industry, and donors – and to the incredibly strong team we have built. We have not only arrested the circulation decline but dramatically increased circulation.

The M&G is one of very few newspapers to consistently increase its paying readership, having seen strong growth every quarter compared with the previous year. Following a small but encouraging increase of 0.5% in the last quarter of 2015, circulation soared by 12.1% in the first quarter, at a time when other weeklies in general were down by 10.3%. The latest results, for the second quarter of this year, show M&G’s paying readership is up by 6.3% against an overall drop of 6.7% for weeklies.

In addition we’ve launched a new digital strategy that has resulted in our traffic increasing by nearly 30% year on year and seen us putting out up to 10 pieces of quality content on the website every day, of the same standard as the newspaper. If the M&G’s digital properties are its future, we have to ensure that their brand and quality of content is as strong as the newspapers.

It’s been a hard, hard year where my primary focus has been to build a strong team and recruit the smartest people in the game. I wanted to be surrounded by brilliant people and I’m at that point right now. The appointment of Beauregard Tromp as news editor and later deputy editor has been absolutely key to the successes we have seen, as have people like Matthew du Plessis in the role of managing editor. These and other newsroom leaders have driven the successes and changes we’ve seen, and will continue implementing our vision while the search for the next editor is underway. Beauregard, who joined shortly after I became editor, will be acting editor in this time.

The interim leadership will have the benefit of a very strong newsroom team under them.

We were able to bring people with decades of experience into the newsroom as well as mid-level talent and fresh new voices who are already making their mark. We brought in experienced and award-winning journalists like Jessica Bezuidenhout and Prega Govender, and made Matuma Letsoalo politics editor. Section heads like Milisuthando Bongela have transformed the arts section and brought in a new type of reader, and Sipho Hlongwane — who knocked the lights out as supplements editor -— is now tasked with carrying out a badly needed revamp of our comments and analysis properties.

A year ago there was no online or investigative team to speak of: we have rebuilt those teams. We have the pleasure of having hired strong reporters across sections who create compelling enterprise journalism from scratch week after week: Pauli van Wyk, Athandiwe Saba, Govan Whittles, Pontsho Pilane and Ra’eesa Pather joined an already incredibly strong reporting team. And there are many more appointments that were made, promotions and restructuring that has seen the entire editorial team grow in strength and is wholly responsible for the successes we are seeing in terms of the quality of our newspaper, our increasing circulation and the uptick in awards we’ve garnered.

One of our biggest goals in the past year was to transform the M&G. It could no longer be perceived as a “white” paper. Beauregard and I were incredibly lucky to be given a blank slate thanks to many resignations before our time. We made it our goal when hiring and restructuring to prioritise not just black people and women but to hire people who thought about our country in a progressive way and were passionate about transformation themselves. We were able to dramatically change the racial make-up of the newsroom, particularly at top management level, which was previously predominantly white and is now over 60% black.

I have made many mistakes of course, and these have been carefully documented and picked over by social media – but this is the lot of any editor and the unfortunate truth is that women editors will always have it harder. Nonetheless it is necessary and good for the public to hold us to account and always expect better from us. I hope I have been able to admit my mistakes, learn from them, and limit the damage to the M&G. I am incredibly grateful to the majority owner of the M&G, Trevor Ncube, for the support and mentorship he showed me even when times were incredibly tough. And the M&G CEO, Hoosain Karjieker, who has a near impossible job but has been a consistent and passionate leader at the top of the M&G, guiding it through seasons of editor after editor and ensuring the publication’s survival.

In many ways, the M&G can never belong to anyone. It is larger than the people who work there, and definitely larger than the editors who have had the privilege of leading it over the years. The next editor will be gifted a beautiful newsroom of talented, inspiring and incredibly hardworking individuals who have a sense of ownership of their publication like nowhere else. This is our M&G: the readers, the public, the staff.

I joined the M&G initially as part of their online team. Digital is my true passion and when I was offered the job of editor-in-chief of Huffington Post in South Africa it was the perfect opportunity to make way for someone else to come along and take M&G to new heights. At heart I am a fixer and a starter-upper. Now that the M&G is more than stabilised and growing and forging ahead, it needs someone deeply in love with the incredible work this publication produces, with investigative and political journalism. I am more than certain that the next editor will do even better as the M&G enters a new future.