Friday, September 03, 2010

Ode to an Editor

Credit where credit is due - by Nick van der Leek

I think we're all familiar with the fairy tale, you know the part where the young man goes somewhere - bravely - to seek his fortune.  On the way he encounters a wicked witch, a dragon, tricksters, a princess and a castle.  Well, that pretty much sums it up for me.

During my stint at AVUSA there were a couple of interesting stories that made national news headlines.  One of them was the Reitz 4.  Since I had been attending lectures at UFS just the previous year, and had photos of Reitz, and since I knew one of the Reitz 4 [I even happened to have photos of Danie Grobler, and video] I thought I could bring a bit of sanity to the hysterical debate.

The editor wasn't interested of course, and simply shovelled up the usual SAPA headlines, and so I found that one story could be repeated in 4 different newspapers, often the same photo too.  No, quite literally.  So you'd have The Times, Sowetan, Beeld and The Star all vomiting out the same text in their printing presses.  I don't know about you, but if I really wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes, the nitty gritty, I would make some effort to find someone [ me] who had firsthand knowledge about these guys.  So unfortunately that one got away, and let's be honest, the Reitz story is still in the news now [they're appealing their sentences].

What Credit Crunch?

Another story I sent around was about the impending deterioration of the markets. [Sent in June 2008].  After the markets crashed I then reminded some of the editors of the emailed information, but to no avail.  It's a credit to the media that after missing the story of a lifetime [no one saw the credit crunch coming bar a few hacks like me] 2 years later they're a bit more open to revolutionary terms like 'Peak Oil' and 'Hindenberg Omen' and weird off the wall stuff like Wind Power and Electric Vehicles.

My job at AVUSA wasn't to write articles per se, it was to edit newsletters, compile statistical reports with a focus on being as invisible as possible, and specialising in disappearing into the background.  My intention wasn't to become a journalist, merely to give my writing a voice occasionally.  My mission is to build my personal brand as a noteworthy writer and commentator, someone who brings an unusual depth of insight and understanding [through extensive background reading, research and analysis] to a given topic.

What's this new Batman movie all about?

For example, when The Dark Knight came out I approached the Sunday Times Magazine's Damon Boyd, saying that this would be the #1 movie of the year, and since I'd read a book on the philosophy of the Dark Knight, could I write a feature on it.  As it turned out, and as we know now in hindsight, Dark Knight set numerous records during its theatrical run, it was the number one blockbuster [by some margin] in 2008. It broke the record for the biggest opening week ever. To date it is one of only three films to have earned more than $500 million at the North American box office, and it reached this mark significantly faster than Titanic.With over $1 billion in revenue worldwide, it is the seventh highest-grossing film of all time.  The film had 8 Academy Award Nominations and won two, many were sickened that it didn't win best flick. All IMAX theaters showing The Dark Knight were sold out for the opening weekend. I was spot on in advance of all these accolades but it didn't change one small thing - who was I?

Horton Hears A What?

So, unfortunately I only ever got to publish my precious Dark Knight thoughts on overseas websites, but then, I was just a nobody, right?
When movies like Horton Hears A Who came out, which also went to the number one at the local and international box office, AVUSA decided to go with disparaging reviews, shovelling New York's A.O. Scott rather than publishing what a South African living in Johannesburg thought about it.  As it turned out, Free State university wanted to use the movie as part of their integration strategy, to demonstrate how, despite one's differences, one could work together.  I remember The Times' Aspasia Karras and Rob McKay saying they 'hated it'.  This says a lot, wouldn't you say?

Hansie Who?

When I had interviews with people like Frans Cronje [who had just made Hansie] I endured more headshaking, when these were published by other newspapers [who, although I was a nobody to them, recognised a good read when they saw one] then AVUSA paid attention, attention enough to insist I had violated my contract.  Oh we don't want you to write for us, but don't write for anyone else either.  Oh but I am not employed to write for this company.  Yes, but we reserve the right to prevent you from writing for anyone else, even if that's not your job.  Really?  So a freelancer can't offer his work to anyone else?
And the reason why I was passionate about covering this story?  Because Hansie Cronje was my head boy.  I went to school with him.  What better position can a writer be in to write about someone who has the touched the lives of so many.  And once again, I had read Hansie's biography to insure my insights into this story were at an 'expert' level.  Didn't matter, did it?

Ryk That

I learnt my lesson though, a disciplinary hearing for offering a story no one wanted to the Sunday Independent, I then went back to the drawing board and offered stories to my boss, to our own publications.  Of course it was all turned down.  All they wanted to do was shovel SAPA stories all day and wag their fingers at me, "You can't write, you're not a journalist."  Ryk Neethling off to the Olympics?  Oh I used to swim with Ryk, how about getting - No.  Funnily enough, in Ryk's own autobiography, he took a few pot shots at my boss' husband, who accused Ryk in the Sunday Times of having no big match temperament.  Mr Isaacson, if you've ever met him, is not the sort of person you'd imagine has ever been capable of doing anything besides write about sport.

Korea Move

I lived and worked in South Korea for 4 years, and South Korea has the world's best [the fastest] broadband connections on Earth.  I offered to write about some of the things we could learn from them - But No.  A few months later one of the company's Board Members returned from a trip to Korea and wrote exactly the story I had been pitching all along. So it's taken a really long time to get a trickle of the stories out that have wanted to see the light of day. 

My question is why do editors do this?  Is it spite?  Is it ADD?  Is it stupidity?  Is it a superiority or inferiority complex?  Is it too much time living in a cave filled with words?  Is it because editors are bitter?  Or simply because they don't know any better?  Or is it a case that this process takes time.  It takes time to suss someone out, to trust that their words might look good to others, if not to oneself. Are editors generally for truth, justice and the South African way, or is it a case of trying to keep the door closed so they can hold on to their own jobs?  Is that what they teach you in Grahamstown? 

Do you know in my efforts to write for this company that I worked for I was finally fired?  Yep, I made the mistake of offering to write a story for the Sowetan.  A reporter [Bruce Fraser] who thought I was trespassing on his courtyard then turned this offer which he was privy to, into an accusation of me misrepresenting myself - saying that I was saying I was employed as a journalist by Sowetan., I simply offered to write a story in the Sowetan, a company that I did work for, just not as a journalist.  And through this hijacking of circumstances, I was fired. Upstanding chaps like Mike Tissong saw tremendous merit in all the hearsay accusations.  Remember, just a few months earlier I was almost fired for writing for another publication.  Here I am being fired for trying to write for them.  Nice one.

I did win myself a nice settlement, and as I understand, I was due to be retrenched anyway.  In fact a few weeks later the team that was 15 strong when I joined was down to 3.  Yes 3.  Frankly, if this is how you run a business, if this is how you treat people, if this is your response to talent and effort, if all you can do is defend your turf in the name of 'Corporate Politics', or turn down contributions in the name of 'editorial independence' but really at the expense of good journalism, the demontration of an ongoing and ugly disdain for morals and interests beyond one's own, then you don't deserve your audience or your employees.  I discovered this disdain, this decayed value system right through top management all the way down to some of the born-nosing journalists.  I think the share price reflects that.  I think staff migration reflects that. 
I think the atmosphere reeks with it.

So we come to end of the fairy tail and I'm happy to say that I survived my wicked witch.  In fact she's the inspiration behind a book I'm working on [THE DEVIL IS A CHAINSMOKER].  I'm still out there seeking my fortune, I struggled to make even a little progress in spite of working for a publishing/media company.  In fact I published more work before and since working there.  It's a world where the dragons outnumber the knights, and the witches and the dragons are colluding.  But like the internet, information wants to be free, and in this industry, if you don't know what you're doing, or can't do what must be done, or you're unnecessarily difficult about things, you get punished.  Eventually.

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