Editing a newspaper is about motivating a team of people to give of their best, and produce gritty, powerful journalism, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Judging by the air of depression that seems to be pervasive in many newsrooms, too few editors are succeeding in doing that.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

ARE our editors giving up the fight for a journalism of quality and credibility? Last week, I listened to two of our leading and most respected editors, Ferial Haffajee of City Press and Tim du Plessis of Beeld, respond to visiting speaker Nick Davies’s critique of British journalism.

Haffajee gave a devastating description of our media. We have become slaves to the public relations industry, she said. Since most journalists use private education, health and security, we don’t know the public sector, which serves most South Africans, except when we parachute in for quick reports. We cover urban and not rural areas, we give more space to the easy lifestyle issues than the tough hard news issues, we rely on the awful e-mail interview, internet research and the rushed mobile interview rather than getting out there and practising what she called our “tactile craft” in which the engagement of all the senses is vital to bring across the mood, the atmosphere, the personality and all the details.

She had praise for those few journalists who, sometimes in their own time and at their own expense, went to get the stories and pictures from Haiti, exposed corruption, found President Jacob Zuma’s new girlfriends and called him to account, which would not have happened, she said, if it was not for what she called “good old-fashioned muck-raking”. But it was noteworthy that she was citing just a few individuals.

Haffajee said we could not easily blame management and owners for this. She had resources, staff and training in her newsroom. “We can’¢t assume bad journalism is just the result of the greed of Mahogany Row,” she said.

So, then, who do we blame? Editors?

Du Plessis cautioned about trashing our own work when we are one of the most important counterbalances to a ruling party with way too much power. Our media is under pressure and we have a government which does not like us, he warned. “We must be careful of going into self-flagellation,” he said.

Du Plessis cited stories that illustrated what had happened to our journalism  and it was not always the fault of journalists. His paper had made a big story out of an incident when police took five days to respond to an emergency crime call. When they put this to the authorities, it took them two days to come back and point out that the call had gone to the wrong number. By that time the story – half true and quite unfair – had already gone out.

I don’t wish to target these two editors, after all they were the ones who took the time and trouble to read Davies’s book and engage with him carefully and thoughtfully. Many editors did not even bother to come for what was a fascinating discussion.

But I know from the many mid-career journalists who pass through our department at Wits University that there is widespread despondency in newsrooms. Reporters feel disempowered working at the mercy of complacent editors, rampant cost-cutting management and markets that want mush rather than the rough, tough stuff that excites journos.

One seasoned reporter spoke to me this week about an editor who forever chants the mantra: “We are a business, we are about making money.”That is about as inspiring to journalists as telling a racing car driver that his job is to sell sponsors products.

Editing is about protecting the space of journalists and encouraging them to do what Haffajee described: going out into the thick of the story, getting all the details and using all your skill to put it down on paper or in a three-minute audio or visual piece that captures not just the facts, but something of the truth of an event.

Those who think editing is about deciding what goes into the paper are like those who think conducting is about telling musicians what to do, or setting the beat for them.

Editing is about motivating a team of people to sense the zeitgeist, find the stories that capture it, and process them into short, sharp pieces that engage readers and audiences in the world around them.

How many of our editors are doing that?

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 17 February 2010.