Arena Holdings, the owner of multiple legacy brands in South Africa, including Sunday Times, Business Day, SowetanLIVE, and Financial Mail, recently announced significant management changes to its Eastern Cape titles. Notable changes include that Ryan Megaw, previously the general manager of Daily Dispatch, takes on the role of general manager of all Eastern Cape titles. Chiara Carter, formerly the editor of Daily Dispatch, is now the editor-in-chief of the EC titles. Arena Holdings EC titles include Daily Dispatch, Daily Dispatch Weekend Edition, The Herald, and The Weekend Post. The community titles include Talk of the Town, GO! & Express, and The Rep. Cheri-Ann James, who has worked for Daily Dispatch for 13 years, previously as the deputy editor, is now the editor of Daily Dispatch. The decision comes during a difficult time for the media industry, where declining advertising revenue and circulation has been the norm in the media industry in South Africa. Despite the challenges presented by Covid-19, Daily Dispatch’s print readership has remained buoyant. The company has seen remarkable and consistent growth in its digital audience during the period, giving the company a competitive edge in the media industry. Learn more about the new editor of Daily Dispatch in the Q&A below, where James shares more on her background, strategy, and vision for the editorial division of Daily Dispatch.
Q&A WITH THE EDITOR OF DAILY DISPATCH – CHERI-ANN JAMES
WHERE ARE YOU ORIGINALLY FROM AND WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I am a born and bred East Londoner. I grew up in Parkside.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BECOME A JOURNALIST AND WHY DID YOU BECOME ONE?
Truth be told, no. Just like any other teenager, I was indecisive about what path to follow after high school. Journalism was an option though. While in matric, I participated in a workshop run by Border Technikon (now Walter Sisulu University). The workshop entailed a brief introduction to journalism and visiting the Daily Dispatch newsroom. After a few hours observing journalists I walked out of the building at 35 Caxton Street certain that journalism is where I wanted to be.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR STUDIES, STARTING FROM WHEN YOU MATRICULATED?
I matriculated from Grens High School in 2001. My first wish was to study at a university but I was very aware of our financial situation. In 2002, I enrolled for a National Diploma in Journalism at Border Technikon’s Journalism School. In the 16 years that I have been in the media industry, I have completed numerous media programmes and courses, the most recent being WAN-IFRA’s Strengthening Media and Society programme.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN JOURNALISM AND WHERE DID YOU GO FROM THERE?
At the age of 20 I joined the Mail & Guardian newsroom as an intern journalist for a year. Not only did I have opportunity to cover a wide variety of topics but I was mentored by some of the best journalists and editors in the country. The lessons I learnt as a cub reporter are still relevant today. After completing my internship, I joined Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger in Port Elizabeth. I worked there for two years covering council and at times the provincial legislature before being approached by the Daily Dispatch. Thirteen years later and I am still here.
IF YOU WEREN’T WORKING IN MEDIA, WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU BE DOING AND WHY?
It would most probably either be something in the medical field. In high school I was obsessed with how the body works and would not only read books on the topic but built up a folder highlighting ailments, treatments and medical breakthroughs.
YOU MOVED FROM NEWS EDITOR TO DEPUTY EDITOR, TO EDITOR OF DAILY DISPATCH IN A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME. HOW DO THESE ROLES DIFFER?
The news editor position is probably one of the most important roles in a newsroom. You are essentially responsible for the content that goes into the paper the next day. It is a high stress job where you not only have to focus on filling empty pages and maintaining a good news balance, but also managing a team of journalists; each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It is a juggling act.
As the deputy editor, the focus goes beyond just the news desk. You have to look at other aspects of the operation such as production, sport and features, etc.
Administrative responsibilities also include budgets, contracts and fostering relations with other departments in the business such as marketing, advertising, circulation and special projects.
My editorship is fairly new but one thing I have come to understand is that the focus needs to be more than just what is going into tomorrow’s edition but also how do we grow our footprint in the Eastern Cape. It is about taking a more holistic view of the product and finding ways to grow subscriptions and circulation and ultimately profitability. Business acumen is an essential skill for the editor of today.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE THREE BIGGEST CHALLENGES SOUTH AFRICAN NEWSROOMS, IN GENERAL, ARE FACING AT THE MOMENT?
The challenges facing newsrooms are numerous. A decline in revenue and circulation has resulted in newspapers and magazines shutting operations and journalists being retrenched. Primedia and Media24 recently announced that they would be retrenching staff while hundreds of jobs at the SABC may also be at risk. These declines are not solely because of Covid-19. News organisations have for years seen a steady decline in print products as readers migrate online for their news.
The question the media industry has grappled with for years is: with the shift to digital, how do newspapers make money from online?
Media organisations have for years offered news free of charge on their digital platforms. The challenge now is getting readers/consumers to pay for the news.
Many newsrooms are still print-focused. We need to find new and innovate ways to tell stories in a digital space. This will require training journalists in digital story-telling and news managers being able to think outside of the box.
The digital space holds many opportunities, but it has its downfalls. News organisations are under immense pressure to be first to break news. Not only are we competing with other news outlets but with social media users in general. However, the drive to be first should never be more important than getting it right. In a time of fake news, our role as the media to be a tried and trusted source of news becomes even more crucial.
WHAT WILL BE YOUR IMMEDIATE FOCUS AREAS AS YOU START IN YOUR ROLE?
It is about stabilising the ship and focusing on growing print and online circulation.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE IN THE NEXT THREE YEARS AS THE EDITOR OF DAILY DISPATCH?
The media industry is in constant flux. No one can really say what the future holds. Regardless of the uncertainty, I will be driven by one main goal: to produce good quality local journalism that our readers can trust.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES THE DAILY DISPATCH NEWSROOM UNIQUE?
The Dispatch has over the years made a name for itself for top-shelf investigative journalism that has had a meaningful impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Our small newspaper has long punched above its weight but it’s not only about the big, award-winning stories. It is also about covering the ‘bread and butter issues’ affecting readers in the eastern half of the province. Our readership is diverse – ranging from the residents in the suburbs and townships of the Buffalo City Metro, to surrounding smaller towns and the remote and rural villages on the other side of the Kei River.
YOU RUN A NEWSROOM IN EAST LONDON, EASTERN CAPE, A PROVINCE THAT FACES MANY CHALLENGES – WHAT DO THINK ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING THIS CITY SPECIFICALLY?
Being a regional newspaper, our newsroom is often inundated with calls, emails or even texts from desperate readers who turn to us to help with problems. Illegal electricity connections and electricity theft, water leaks and hugely inflated water bills, illegal dumping and general cleanliness of the city and the state of roads are everyday challenges experienced by our readers.
WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK DAILY DISPATCH PLAYS IN TACKLING THE CHALLENGES FACED BY THE CITY?
As a community-driven newspaper, we tell the stories of the communities we live and work in. For us it is about highlighting the issues that matter to them – whether about the hyacinth choking the Nahoon River, illegal electricity connections or the bungling of municipal bills – and through exposure hopefully see action from those in power.
WHAT ROLE DOES DAILY DISPATCH PLAY IN HELPING BUSINESSES IN EAST LONDON?
Through our platform like the Dispatch Dialogues and Business Summit, we are able to highlight the true challenges faced by our business community. This platform also provides an opportunity for networking among firms based in the Eastern Cape. As a newspaper, we also emphasise the successes of our businesses – both in print and online. We take this even further by connecting businesses via corporate social responsibility programmes such Charity Golf Days, Local Heroes and Public Service Hero Awards. We also rely heavily on our business chambers to provide valued insight into our news coverage of matters relevant to our readers.
WHY DOES A LOCAL INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM BRAND LIKE DAILY DISPATCH MATTER?
A free and independent media is the cornerstone of any thriving democracy. In SA in general, and the Daily Dispatch in particular, we are fortunate to be able to tell stories without fear or favour. This has become particularly important as corruption in government is rife. Further, as the print media has faced a barrage of criticism as more erroneous rhetoric floods social media, it has become essential that investigative journalists hold the powers-that-be to account.