A ground-breaking initiative
The editor of the Cape Argus responded positively to a challenge from students that they co-edit an edition of the paper. On 23 October a student editorial team arrived and a fascinating experiment got underway.
It started with me accepting a challenge on social media to allow the Friday 23 October edition of the Argus to be co-edited by students involved in the #FeesMustFall protests.
I noted the critique by students that the media wasn’t getting to the heart of the story and that student voices were absent. Someone tweeted a challenge to the Cape Argus for the paper to let students tell their own story. My acceptance of the challenge was met with a positive and incredible student response. But while everyone liked the idea we couldn’t identify a group who could represent the students because they did not identify themselves under any leadership structure.
Acting deputy news editor Lance Witten and I hopped into a car and drove down to UCT Lower Campus. We spoke to a student organiser at a rally, a quick caucus was held and six bright sparks put up their hands. They were sceptical of us initially but I gave them carte blanche to choose their content, pictures and dictate news hierachy. They would have final approval on headlines, captions and subheads.
The student co-editors – Ameera Conrad, Dela Gwala, Leila Khan, Brian Kamanzi, Mbali Matandela, Amanda Xulu, Busisiwe Nxumalo, Simon Rakei – said in statement: “In response to the Cape Argus who made the offer to lend its resources to the voices of student protesters we have gathered at their offices and made an effort to provide context by pooling together articles and perspectives from various contexts to help start what is clearly going to be a long national conversation.”
We collectively call into scrutiny the handling of the student protests by the media thus far and we urge the relevant parties to reach out to young people with the intention of listening instead of re-creating harmful ill-disguised colonial stereotypes of masses of young Black people who are painted as violent and unthinking but in reality are making a resolute stand for justice.”
The front page of the special edition of the Cape Argus, as well as pages 2, 3, 4, 5, the leader article and op-ed pages were written and edited by the students.
As soon as the student co-editors arrived I called a joint editorial meeting for my staff and the student co-editors in order to thrash out the parameters. It was afternoon and I was about to rearrange the entire plan for the next day’s edition. As the day grew on a mutual respect was forged and we ended up learning lots from each other.
I had decided that we were either going to go big or go home. I announced to my staff and the student co-editors that I was ceding exactly half of my authority as editor to them. I had to be generous and stick to my word.
The rest of the news space would be produced as usual by the Argus editorial staff.
I undertook not to prescribe to the co-editors what to write or what content to source for their pages. Once we had reconvened they were more than ready and came up with a lucid and intelligent plan to fill all the pages we had given them. We had to give them a few more minutes to assign stories to pages but that took no longer than 15 minutes.
They were fast, efficient and presented cogent and compelling content. The copy was ready by 5pm – beating our own 6pm deadline for copy. I had asked my news desk to keep their copy as authentic as possible.
By the time we were deep in the throes of production, there was high anticipation in the form of hundreds of Twitter and Facebook posts from people looking forward to the #FeesMustFall special edition. When the co-editors approved the piece I wrote providing readers with a rationale for why they and the Cape Argus were doing this I knew I had made the right decision.
They set to work writing captions, headlines and subheads and selecting pictures and proofreading. Their bit was done and dusted by 7pm – two and a half hours before our off-stone deadline.
What did they do then? They joined up with their fellow protesters. They almost characterised the spirit of the #FeesMustFall protests – organised, disciplined and focused.
All credit to the Cape Argus staff. They understood the importance of this project and wanted it to succeed. Because our reporters had covered events involving the protest, it was agreed that this content (copy and pictures) would be made available for the student co-editors to consider. But it was made clear it was their call and our reporters were happy to brief the student co-editors and take editorial direction and briefs from them.
This was unprecedented and as someone put it on Twitter, I was going where no other editor had gone before. The next day, we would either be lauded or may have been without a job!
It was a massive leap of faith – by both sides – but it paid off. It required all involved to leave their egos at the door to make the project a success. It also helped that the student co-editors were clear about what they wanted on their pages but were prepared to compromise and adapt their copy to fit into the Cape Argus format.
For those involved in newspapers, this kind of moment helps to make the penny drop. It gives life to the “digital first, print best” mantra. We can’t possibly compete with social media, radio and TV on news events like the student protests or a fire. But by telling the story in compelling, innovative ways we can change the game and make print relevant and the premium platform for unique, in-depth and critical content.
I have never seen such a response to any newspaper edition in my 15 year association with newspapers. The Cape Argus was trending on Twitter on Friday morning, content was shared by thousands of people on Facebook, the articles were the subject of radio talk shows and a number of people – including from outside the Western Cape – called into the newsroom or emailed us to find out if they could reserve a copy because it was being regarded as a keepsake, souvenir edition.
We have since followed our special edition by having a worker involved in the #EndOutsourcing protests write our front page lead – which I believe is another first for newspapers in this country.