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‘This may sound cliched, but I am truly inspired by ordinary South Africans who wake up every day to hustle to make a better living for themselves, despite structural challenges that confront us.
Journalism, to me, is a public good, a service to a nation conversing with itself. What inspires me as a journalist (and editor) is the privilege to influence that conversation.’ –
Nwabisa Makunga

Q: You are one of the very few female editors of a national newspaper in South Africa. What factors would you say contribute to the dearth of female newspaper editors?

A: It is a combination of factors which are all unacceptable. There is a huge number of female journalists in South Africa who do an incredible job. To be an editor, however, requires a certain level of leadership experience, which many female colleagues, good as they may be, aren’t given.

Those who are given such opportunities to lead, are at times not given the adequate support – both technical and social – to be able to thrive regardless of the increasingly challenging newsroom environment. Other female colleagues self-limit, perhaps out of fear of failure.

Furthermore, there is an inherent apprehension or distrust in the abilities of female journalists to take up strategic leadership positions in newsrooms. In South Africa, we have moved the needle to some degree compared to many of our global counterparts, but not nearly enough as we should.

Q: Again, there are perhaps two or three women who sit on the boards of newspaper/media groups. Why aren’t there more women at that level, in your opinion? What will it take for more women to “be seen” at board level?

A: There are two ways this can be done. It is either through a deliberate effort to support women to develop further through the media organisation’s value chain, or to appoint businesswomen who have not necessarily come up through the Editorial channels, but have the acumen and capability to lead businesses.

The reality of the latter is a situation similar to the rest of corporate South Africa, where women do exist in decision-making positions, but disproportionately fewer than men. (Not acceptable). More action is needed to advance women from middle to executive management in news organisations.

Q: Did you set out on your journalism career with the idea that you would edit a big city newspaper? What were your goals originally?

A: Definitely not. I really was passionate about journalism and storytelling. I respected the craft and the audience we served from early on in my career. I worked exceptionally hard. I was fortunate to have leaders (mostly male) who became invested in my development.

They gave me the support and guidance I needed. I pursued opportunities for me to learn and grow. With every effort I put in, they opened the next door of growth. And now I’m here

Q: How did you ensure you were “seen” as you pursued your goals as a journalist and editor?

A: To be honest it was never about “being seen”. I was just eager to learn, to use every opportunity to be better than my previous self. I was genuinely interested in what I could do to perform better.

I took notes of feedback from my editors, I referred to them in my next assignments, I watched videos of some of the best interviewers in the world, I tried to understand what made them effective. I wrote regardless of whether I would be published.

I also inherently believed that my voice too, mattered. So I did not self-censor. I spoke my mind, regardless. If I was told to “shut up” I respectfully asked “why”?

Q: In terms of today’s crop of young women journalists, what advice would you give them now should their goal be to edit a large daily newspaper or a big Sunday title, for example?

A: Understand how much our industry and the media landscape in general is evolving. Understand the unique role of journalism to empower people with credible knowledge.

Premise your work on the principle of service to ordinary readers. Obsess over THEIR information needs, THEIR consumption patterns, understand THEIR interest and tailor your journalistic offering towards that.

Read. Learn. Try not to be distracted by praise or ridicule. Focus on the reader. Take care of your mental health.

Q: Do you think the media houses themselves should be doing more – or is their job simply to deliver the news to South Africans?

A: I think this is an individual company choice, based on its vision and mission. And that’s okay. What is most important for media houses, though, is to continually seek solutions to our economic (and political) challenges that undermine the work of journalism as a public good.

We should look for credible ways to invest to close the skills deficit we have in newsrooms, ways to protect the mental health of colleagues and ways to invest in the technologies we need to suitably deliver credible content to our audiences.

Q: How are you “seen” as an editor? Do your reporters see you simply as an editor, or as a female editor?

A: I’d like to believe they see me first as a colleague and editor and then a black woman in a corporate environment. Those three descriptions and the experiences they bring to the team vary.

Q: Have you even taken flak from male colleagues as a woman, who perhaps dislike taking instructions from a woman? If so, how do you deal with it?

A: Absolutely, I have previously experienced resistance from male colleagues on the basis, it appeared, that I am a woman. My approach has always been to engage the behaviour, the language and tonality of the resistance I receive.

I open room for discussion but ideas and arguments from both of us have to be competent to be considered. That way, the culture is not “do as I say” but “I will engage you on the merit of your argument rather than your inherent biases.”

I engage language that is unacceptable and call the harm it is causes – intentionally or not; I engage irrational tones whether overt or subtle. I allow colleagues the opportunity to confront and change their behaviour, failing which there must be consequence management.

Q: Who inspired your journalism journey, and who inspires you as an editor?

A: This may sound cliched, but I am truly inspired by ordinary South Africans who wake up every day to hustle to make a better living for themselves, despite structural challenges that confront us. Journalism, to me, is a public good, a service to a nation conversing with itself. What inspires me as a journalist (and editor) is the privilege to influence that conversation.

Q: How do you want to “be seen” as you continue that journey?

A: I’d like to be seen as a professional doing her part to promote a culture of self-expression.

Q: Any other insights into “being seen”?

A: I’ve learnt that one of the most impactful ways to be seen is to truly understand who you are, to embrace it and to continually work on being better than your past self. When you stumble, be quick to forgive yourself but be careful never to centre yourself in what ought to be the service of others.

Nwabisa Makunga is the Editor of the Sowetan, a national daily publication in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been a journalist for 19 years, with a keen interest in politics, socio-economic development and gender equality. She is the former editor of The Herald & Weekend Post and former news editor of Business Day, South Africa. 

Makunga has vast experience in newsroom leadership, change management and systemic migration to digital platforms. She is the Deputy Chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum, a member of the SA Press Council and a Board member of the World Editors Forum.

This article first appeared in  Women in The Media, a special magazine produced by The Media Online, and is republished with permission.

The post SEEN and heard: An editor inspired by the hustle of ordinary South Africans appeared first on WAN-IFRA.