/ 28 May 2020

‘Exactly where I was meant to be’

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Khadija Patel (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


It’s been a year since we moved offices. It was a big move. We had forfeited a good address in Rosebank for the eighth floor of a neglected, high-rise building in an area desperately trying to be trendy. And we couldn’t have been happier. The new address felt more like us. It unburdened us from the ego that the good address so generously fed.

It would help us move beyond some of the bad decisions we’d all been paying for, although we had no part in making them. This was just a better place for us. As a bonus, it was cheaper to rent.

The Mail & Guardian, 35 years old this year, was still mired in financial trouble. Years of predatory ownership had severely damaged the business. As the publication careened from crisis to crisis, I became its fourth editor in five years in 2016.

But I never wanted to be the editor of the Mail & Guardian.

The outer extremities of my vanity were flattered by hints that I may be offered the job. The greater part of who I am, however, did not seek it. Indeed, when I was actually offered the position one Monday morning in October 2016, my immediate response was an emphatic “No”.

“Why not?” asked the chief executive, Hoosain Karjieker, who appeared to have expected nothing but my enthusiastic acquiescence.

Not five minutes before that conversation I had smiled with relief when one of my friends in a Facebook messenger group of journalists and other low-lifes predicted a seasoned political journalist to be the new editor of the M&G. So this offer was a shock — not least about the quality of information shared in said group.

But I also had my own media startup, The Daily Vox, to take care of. Hoosain said he had a plan for that. Considering the strained finances that come with managing a media startup, my curiosity was piqued. As he rattled off numbers and statistics about how a potential partnership between my startup and the M&G could work, I was tempted.

I could do with a change. But then, I also knew better. It was hardly a secret that the M&G was struggling financially. “Why would I want to get involved knowing the M&G has no money?” I asked.

By the end of that day, however, after consulting with family, friends and mentors, I had accepted the job.

I was not even 33 years old. I was a woman. I had never worked in traditional media. I was visibly Muslim. I felt a sense of condescension and incredulity regarding my ability when my appointment was announced.

The messages of support and congratulations, however, were far more voluminous. And this gave me strength.

In a few weeks, sitting at my desk at the old office, I felt something I hadn’t felt before. I felt like this was exactly where I was meant to be. It is a feeling I now wish I had savoured longer.

The first edition of the Mail & Guardian under my stewardship coincided with the release of the report of former public protector, Thuli Madonsela about allegations of state capture by the Gupta family. The release of the report was the death knell of Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

It was Madonsela’s final report as public protector. That week at the M&G, we described her report as having “future proofed” the country.

That so many of the incidents cited in Madonsela’s reports began life on the pages of the M&G — not to forget our colleagues at the Sunday Times and City Press — was a boost for the value of investigative journalism in our democracy.

In the long list of Madonsela’s sources, the Mail & Guardian was mentioned several times. Thus, the importance of journalism — good journalism that holds power to account — was emphasised. And more than that, Madonsela’s report hinted that an era of deferred responsibility was over. There was something like hope in the air, for South African politics, for the centrality of the media in a vibrant democracy, for the Mail & Guardian.

And I took strength from that.

My big plan was to restore the pursuit of quality journalism at the centre of the Mail & Guardian. Through the years of turmoil, the M&G newsroom had been weakened and efforts to rebuild it stymied. And although I cannot complain of a lack of support for that vision, the first — and continuing — requirement of me as M&G editor was to cut costs.

At first it was easy. There were several costs that made little sense to me. But as the years wore on, and the business environment worsened, it became more difficult. Although I understood the need for a more agile newsroom, I also understood the need for good journalists to produce quality journalism.

And, although I too suffered some stops and starts, I had assembled a good team to do just that. But the media space was changing. The surest sign of that change came in 2018 when the Daily Maverick published the “Gupta Leaks” In another time, perhaps that leak would have been to the M&G.

But there would also be much to celebrate. We won awards and took on powerful elites. More than anything else, I am proud to have established a team, an “us”, forging together a disparate group of people in the singular pursuit of good journalism.

But the economy had worsened, print circulation was under pressure and digital advertising revenues were collapsing. Something — or someone — had to give.

In December 2017, the M&G was lent a new life. The Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), a New York-based nonprofit, acquired the majority shareholding in the company. Standing beside the South African-based representatives of the MDIF, our aim was to restore M&G to its rightful place in the South African media landscape.

Throughout my time here, I have been conscious of the possibility of being the editor under whom the M&G fails. I have been equally vigilant about the prospect of being the editor under whom the M&G records a decline in quality. My job then was to somehow balance the needs of the news business with the need for people to do good journalism.

And my experience is not unique.

It is the experience of many other newsroom leaders around the world — the need to keep costs down, while producing an excellent legacy product and still meeting the needs of readers’ changing behaviour through digital products.

It was a challenge I relished. For one, I thought my experience of running a digital news startup would allow me to rapidly turn around tired workflows and decrepit digital infrastructure. Some changes were easy to make; others, more fraught.

I was the person tasked with making unpleasant decisions that severely affected the reality of the people with whom I worked; people who I had come to love. In the meanwhile, I also worked with a board of directors who were growing more anxious about the sustainability of the business.

As I pack up the last of my things from the office, I know that the transformative potential of good journalism has not deserted the people who bring the M&G to life every day.

And indeed, if the pandemic never happened I may have been writing a very different farewell. 

At the end of this month, I will no longer be leading the M&G. There is a lot that is uncertain in the world right now. But one thing is certain: the M&G remains one of the most important sources of news in Africa. And it will continue to be so.

Last week, as we rang the bell at the end of the print production cycle of another edition of the M&G, I looked across the newsroom. Our view of the urban forest of Jo’burg’s northern suburbs still leaves me in awe.

In the newsroom the desks are still piled with court papers, newspapers, documents and menus from nearby restaurants. The glinting embers of the dying day flooded through the large windows.

Outside, the roads were empty. South Africa was still shut down. Inside, the chairs too were mostly empty — as they are likely to be for some time yet. Watching the darkness flood over the sky, I stood, alone, and smiled.