/ 14 December 2018

Battle of ideas in the newsroom

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

In 2017, 14 050 people died in road accidents in South Africa. When 2018’s count is eventually tallied up, the death of journalist and editor Sibonelo Radebe in mid-October will be included.

For most of his career he was a business journalist for Business Day and the Financial Mail and, at the time of his death, was business and economy editor at the opinion website Conversation Africa.

Radebe was popular and his death was mourned by his colleagues. “I feel like crying. A lot. Really letting it all out until I’m dry. He was such a good guy. This hurts,” political journalist Vukani Mde said on Facebook.

Radebe recruited Steven Friedman, probably the most clear-eyed of South Africa’s political and public commentators, to write for The Conversation. On social media, Friedman wrote: “He was a fine journalist — smart, alive to current developments and always thoroughly professional. Working with him was always a joy. I am devastated by this news. We lose far too many talented people far too early.”

Reading Mde and Friedman’s eulogies, I recalled that in 2011 I was Radebe’s external examiner for his master’s in humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand. His thesis was Presentations and Representations: Images of Newsroom Transformation in the Post-1994 South Africa.

I was struck by the lucidity of his writing, and remember thinking that Radebe was the kind of intellectual that South Africa needs now, to understand and weather the period after nationalist politics. Nearly two months after his death, I feel compelled to share a brief write-up of my notes on his research to pay homage to an extraordinary mind.

Radebe’s thesis focused on how transformation discourses of post-1994 South Africa played out in the newsroom of the second-largest Sunday newspaper in the country, identified in the thesis as “SA Mail”, but which any close reader of South Africa’s media could easily identify as City Press.

That newspaper, founded in 1982, was designed for black readers (on the margins of apartheid’s all-white public sphere). What interested Radebe was the plan by the corporation that owned the newspaper to rebrand the paper as a “nonracial read”. 

Radebe, using an ethnography of the newsroom, explored what was meant and understood as “transformation” by the paper’s new editor and some of its journalists, including former staffers.

What emerged was a study about discourse, power and journalism after apartheid. The thesis situated these questions in a changing media landscape, including the migration of journalism to the new digital media platforms. The result was a thick description of the politics of “media transformation”.

For academics, especially media and journalism scholars, the value of Radebe’s work is in its treatment of South African journalism, away from the easy categories and studies about “press freedom”, “the public interest” and ideas about “the fourth estate”. Journalism, in Radebe’s hands, was treated as a power centre and the newsroom as a “highly dynamic space of power contestations”.

In addition, he considered South African journalism in the context of the larger forces that have affected journalism worldwide (including pressures to synergise media products and cut newsrooms).

Radebe was aware of his own position as a journalist and of the limitations of his profession’s claims to truth-telling. As he wrote: “I have never thought myself to be capable of ‘telling the truth’. I have always been aware of my subjective interpretation of social events and news.”

At the heart of his study was the rebranding by the paper’s new editor. At its inception, “SA Mail” was known as “The People’s Paper”. That was changed to “Distinctly African” after the end of apartheid; the latter a slogan the new editor claimed would hamper the paper’s growth. Radebe interprets this discourse about nonracialism as a cover for market considerations: the most desirable readers for advertisers are affluent and suburban white people, who would be turned off by “Distinctly African”.

The editor then set out to hire a more “nonracial” cast of reporters. Radebe astutely pointed to the contradiction of this policy: the paper was being faulted for having reported to the majority and being staffed by black journalists; “nonracial” amounted to writing for the suburbs, that is, white readers.

This led Radebe to observe: “The [push to ‘nonracialism’] represents a paradigm [shift] that defines transformation as accommodation of black people within historically white institutions and privileges. Even when she is surrounded by a sea of Africans, the Editor still wants to ‘inject a touch of Afropolitanism’ into the ‘SA Mail’. With ‘injection’ being the key word …”

City Press is owned by the Media 24 group, which has a dubious history with diversity or “nonracialism”. The group produces media products (television, newspapers, magazines) that largely promote an Afrikaner political agenda, which, at some levels, thrives on nostalgia for apartheid.

Radebe writes about the silence in the newsroom about the newspaper’s ownership by this company, including during apartheid, and the paper’s relationship to other titles in the group. He finds that few journalists wanted to touch on that history, instead proffering a general account of the paper’s history as “anti-apartheid”.

For Radebe, “transformation” has two functions: it serves as a cover for a process of empty “transformation” and, at the same time, facilitates the market imperatives of large media companies. As one informant told Radebe, a “nonracial” “SA Mail” can be produced with far lower costs because it can be filled with editorial content that is supposedly “race neutral” and produced in a centralised newsroom that then feeds content to various titles across the media group.

Radebe also explored these issues against the background of entrenched methods of news gathering and editorial “best practices” (which have been found wanting), the growing synergy in media companies regarding content and the move towards digital platforms, in which newspaper groups increasingly downplay the identity of individual newspaper titles for more generalised content.

Radebe’s research was an original piece of work and a valuable study of an existing public sphere. He vividly showed how the public sphere, any public sphere, is a site of considerable contestation, where ideas about race, the nature of a democratic press and political society are constantly being worked out and fought over; that, in a sense, the story of post-1994 South Africa has largely been about the accommodation of black people in historically white institutions and privileges.

At the time I reviewed his thesis, I thought I was witnessing the start of a promising academic career and I wrote in my report that Radebe should be encouraged to study further.

After Radebe’s memorial service, Friedman, whom I have known since my time as a researcher at the now defunct Institute for Democracy in South Africa, emailed me that Radebe’s family said he was planning to register for a doctorate.

South Africa has lost an original and necessary voice.

Sean Jacobs is associate professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City