My Interview with The Media Online Editor

For a number of months now I found it strange, yet not surprising, that many African publications especially newspapers did not have Twitter and or Facebook accounts. During my research I also discovered that it had not been long that one of South African’s media publications had its Twitter and Facebook accounts, and its web site changed.

The Media Online is an independent and unaffiliated publication whose readers’ “represent the media industry’s key decision-makers”. These, among others, include “marketers, advertising agents, media agents, researchers and media owners”. Other stakeholders include government and students. It also represents “behind-the-scenes analysis of the country’s top media brands – their strategies for growth and their area of focus”. The publication further boasts with experienced columnists in their respective fields and they include, among others, Alec Hogg, Moneyweb editor.

I had an email interview with The Media Online editor, Glenda Nevill, and started by congratulating her on the new-looking theme as asked what informed it.

GN: Having conducted a perceptions survey among its subscribers last year, the relaunch and redesign of TheMediaOnline is in direct response to readers’ feedback. The theme, as in the design and colour scheme, has been kept simple to keep the site uncluttered and easy to read. Red is strong ‘news’ colour, used in many newspapers’ mastheads; the deep blue gives contrast while the grey is bold, but is not overpowering. The layout is now easy to read and offers the user all the information they need in an easy-navigable manner.

AA: I have discovered that many African online publications seem left behind on technology especially on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. By this I am referring to publications that do not have either a Facebook and or Twitter pages. These include, among others, The Guardian (Nigeria), Daily Sun, Business Daily (Kenya) and The Standard (Kenya). Why is this case?

GN: I can’t really speak authoritatively for these publications but can assume, perhaps, that their readership doesn’t always have access to the Internet, and the costs of broadband are prohibitive. Having said that, though, I see Paul Kagame is quite active on Twitter, and in the light of recent events inNorth Africa, would imagine that these publications will soon be up to speed.

AA: At the time of my research I also discovered that The Media Online did not have a Facebook or Twitter account until recently. Why did it take the publication such a long time to have both Twitter and Facebook pages?

GN: Our research showed that TheMediaOnline was at risk of losing its appeal and that one of the main reasons was the lack of social media apps. We were contracted in to another service provider and had to let the contract expire in order to move ahead with a new content management system.

The first step was to engage with Matthew Buckland and his on-line publishing business, Creative Spark, to create a new CMS. Buckland, who made his name developing and growing on-line publications for the M&G Online and Media24 is well known to the publisher, having recently been appointed to The Media magazine’s editorial board.

AA: That The Media Online’s first tweet was only on 15 February is because of the Tweet account being created recently?

GN: Yes. We deliberately went for what we called a ‘soft launch’ in order to iron out any glitches first. Now we are building our community and engage with media issues on a daily basis. What is amazing is the vibrant community out there who ARE involved in media issues, who debate, who challenge, who engage on a daily basis. Our government could learn a lesson or two from the online community, who listen to other voices and instead of dissing them, talk to them. I see the ANC has finally come to the party on Twitter, with its My ANC feed. However, I wish they would use it always, not just before an election.

AA: Have you received any request to have these social networks pages for your publication before?

GN: Absolutely! The main theme coming out of our research was that readers wanted to engage with the site, and that we lacked the apps for them to do so.

AA: Do you think not having these buttons is an indication that African publications – especially the print editions with online editions or web sites – are getting left behind?

GN: Yes I do. I think the fact that President Zuma read out a question from a woman living in an informal settlement who posted it on the Presidency’s Facebook page is an indication that despite lack of Internet access via desktop computers, communities are increasingly using mobile phones for information. And that newspapers should take note of the power and reach mobile platforms as this is the means by which they can reach masses of people, and in this way, help empower those with the information that many of us take for granted.

AA: What is your view on the present state of the media and its freedom in the country, taking into account the proposed Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal?

GN: I think there are problems on both sides, meaning the media and the government’s attitude towards the media. I am adamantly opposed to any form of media censorship and think the MAT is an outrageous attempt by the ANC to control voices of those whose views they disagree with. And the Protection of Information Bill is a terrifying piece of legislation that we must fight with everything we’ve got.

I think the government and the ANC give only one side of the picture as in fact, government is the biggest media owner in the country. So to just take aim at print media – and not just any print media, but the broadsheets that tend to expose government misdeeds, and not the tabloids that probably do more to harm the ANC’s concept of ‘real people’, is hypocritical in the extreme. Just look at Floyd Shivambu’s comment about the Daily Sun, that it should stick to reporting about tokoloshes.

But I also think the media – or at least, some media – need to look at how they are reporting the news and the background to the news. I think areas out of urban metro regions are completely off the radar, unless there is violence. I think the voices of the disempowered are ignored while the media AND government claim to know what they want and need. The arrogance of both is astounding. I believe that the cost cutting that has taken place in media that has led to green reporters being sent out to cover stories that they have no real knowledge of has led to a shallowness in reporting issues. I believe young reporters should work with mentors to help them develop that expertise, and the ability to ask the right questions, to dig deep into the issues.

AA: Do you think the Press/Media freedom is in any danger?

GN: Well, we saw how quickly Zuma’s government managed to get rid of the Scorpions, that awkward bunch of people who made their lives so difficult. That’s the problem with having a government with such a majority in the house. They can virtually do what they want. So yes, I think unless the media and government start talking to each other and ironing out issues, media freedom could be in great danger. This kind of adversarial scenario that we have at the moment is not going to help us develop the media nor democracy.

AA: Do you think the media’s self-regulatory system, the South African Press Council, is effective and that it should not be tempered with?

GN: As I said earlier, I think all our media regulatory systems need to be looked at and improved.

AA: On the self-regulatory system, do you think it can or should be strengthened as Press Ombudsman did with a couple of week’s public presentations around the country?

GN: I think the Press Council hearings were hugely important and can’t understand why the ANC wasn’t there to give its views. It was an ideal opportunity for both sides to engage with the issues but the ANC’s glaring absence makes me wonder whether they want to deal with the issues, or simply push ahead with draconian legislation.

AA: Press Ombuds was disappointed at one point during the Presentation, saying he was worried about the media absenteeism. Didn’t then the government and media lose an “ideal opportunity” to engage one another on how best the self-regulation system could be strengthened?

GN: You’re right. Perhaps both parties should have taken up the chance to debate, via the process of the PC hearings. I think the difference is that at least media attended. Maybe not in the numbers we could have hoped for, but they were there. They were tweeting. They were talking. But the ANC was a no-show. Full stop.

AA: Or that absenteeism was an indication that they (the media) were no longer interested in making any input because it seemed the government had already taken a decision to go ahead with MAT & POIA and therefore disregard, if not get rid of, the self-regulatory mechanism of the press in place?

GN: I really hope not! Both parties need to come closer together, not become more polarised.

AA: Briefly, what is the job of a newspaper Editor? I’m asking this at the backdrop of Kuli Roberts’ column in the Sunday World newspaper more than two weeks ago now. The newspaper editor Wally Mbhele and newspaper publisher, Avusa, have since discontinued the column as it was “not in keeping with Avusa’s commitment to building a non-racial and non-sexist society”. Should Mbhele have known better, as the editor, because surely he would have had to oversee most, if not, of what goes to print?

GN: I absolutely believe that the buck stops with the editor. I think this was true in the David Bullard case at the Sunday Times too. There are checks and balances in the system that should prevent material “not in keeping with Avusa’s commitment to building a non-racial and non-sexist society” from being published in the first place. If you choose to publish, then you stick by your reporters or columnists. You don’t fire or chastise them after the fact. That means YOU have not done your job and YOU should be fired, if anyone has to be fired. Unless of course it was a strategy to get rid of a columnist that you no longer wanted!

AA: As editor of The Media Online don’t you think a discontinuation of any newspaper or magazine column – just as that of David Bullard by the Sunday Times, John Qwalane’s by Sunday Sun and now Roberts’ – is some kind of a censorship on the part of columnists and against their freedom of opinion and expression?

GN: Yes I do.South Africais a country made up of many cultures, many people with diverse views. And even if they’re unpalatable to you or me, they too have to be heard. That’s why media – from radio to print – have that disclaimer that ‘the views of so and so don’t necessarily reflect that of the publication blah blah’. It’s the catch all that allows alternative views to be heard while distancing yourself from them!

To my readers and followers: I hope you have all enjoyed this as much as I did. I therefore look forward to your comments.

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