The Spear from a journo's point of view

2012-05-28 14:37

A Thursday afternoon at City Press has that low-intensity buzz that only an approaching deadline can cause.

Some parts of the paper was due to go to bed the next day, so the production editor was issuing instructions in her no-nonsense way while the rest of us were starting to chew our nails about whether by Saturday all our stories will be done.

Then the statement by the ANC landed, announcing it is outraged about a painting City Press published in the past Sunday edition of the paper depicting president Jacob Zuma as a modern-day Lenin, but with his genitals exposed.

Although we are used to an outraged Jackson Mthembu penning angry statements about the issue of the day, this one took us by surprise because it was four days after the fact. We immediately started speculating about why the statement comes only now. Later we’d learn the ANC was called for comment by another newspaper and that sparked the torrent of anger. Our representation of it in Sunday’s edition completely passed them by.

Suddenly the low-intensity buzz turned into a sizzle. Mthembu’s statement that the ruling party instructed its lawyers to tell us to take the offending portrait of our website, made us nervous about what this would mean for the broader debate – press freedom and freedom of expression.

But no amount of thinking could have prepared us for the wrath that would be unleashed, and how some within the ANC would attempt to use us for their political gain.

From there everyone had to think with two hats – the staffer and the journalist: What do we do in the face of these threats and how do we cover this story properly and fairly?

Here at City Press think of ourselves as a consultative democracy.

Editorial meetings are open to everyone – from the intern to the editor-in-chief – while often decisions gets taken by a vote. Anyone in the newsroom can weigh in on an issue relating to the paper – from a caption on a photograph to the headline, from our choice of Saturday lunch (also called the Ferial Haffajee Feeding Scheme) to what the paper should do in potentially explosive situations like this one with “The Spear”.

Since the dreaded statement almost daily staff meetings were held to brief journalists about where we are in the process, and to ensure everyone is on board.

Some of us have louder voices than others, and therefore the editor, Ferial Haffajee, would sometimes notice when someone’s facial expression changed during the course of a debate, and would compel them to speak up. Sometimes that view changes all of our minds.

But sometimes even the editor can’t change our minds - a suggestion by Ferial last week to put a flower in the offending spot on the Spear was rejected at another staff meeting.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday all the TV screens in the newsroom were switched on to eNews, where the trial was broadcast live.

The superdesk in the middle of the newsroom, where a group of editors work, would feed the rest of the newsroom with tweets from the courtroom, so we can stay up to speed while doing the work we get paid for.

It felt as if the onslaught would never stop. First the statement, then the lawyers’ letter, then the court hearing, then the insulting name-calling, then the call for a boycott.

We are a born-free newsroom, almost all of us are under 50 years old.

Most of us were kids during the apartheid years, so we don’t know what it is like to be this scared. To live with a constant fear of what could be next; but at the same time knowing slacking will not be tolerated. Your story needed to be as interesting, well-researched, properly written and insightful as it would need to be any other day.

Saturdays are our crunch-days. That’s when posters, headlines, lay-out and pictures are decided. This past Saturday was quieter than before. There was no debate about what we want for lunch and we ordered pizzas. We weighed our options for the front page and inside pages carefully, talked them through soberly. The news editor reminded us we had to “drizzle some light pieces throughout the paper” to balance out all the bad news, and we happily obliged.

By the end of it we were a little shell-shocked, and exhausted. We tried our best and satisfied ourselves that excellence is the best kind of journalism.

Follow Mandy on Twitter: @MandyRossouw

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