Veteran newspaper man Henry Jeffreys has jetted in to Johannesburg like a knight on a white charger to restart the Gupta family’s stalled presses. He may just be a wise move for The New Age, as he brings experience, pragmatism and a tough, no-nonsense approach. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Not satisfied with starting just another newspaper, Jeffreys wants to mould The New Age into an investigative paper that will break, not just report on, the news. Speaking to him, one gets a sense that the editorial walk-out at The New Age might just be the best thing that has happened to Gupta’s press in recent times. In Jeffreys the Guptas have found a pragmatic, experienced and fairly hard-nosed editor likely to get the show on the road.
“I don’t know why people are surprised when during a trial-run period one picks up problems,” Jeffreys says, studding the conversation with a big belly laugh. The former editor in chief of Die Burger was due to head off for retirement when he traded peace and a view of Table Mountain for the challenge of getting Gupta’s bedevilled press off the ground. The New Age has already had two launch postponements. The paper’s September launch faltered due to technical problems after editorial systems shipped in from India were difficult to bed down. Then in October on the eve of The New Age’s premier editor Vuyo Mvoko, deputy editor Karima Brown, news editor Amy Musgrave, opinions and analysis editor Vukani Mde and arts and culture editor Damon Boyd suddenly walked out. The presses stalled again.
“You bring in new people and you bring in new systems that people may not have worked with before. The New Age hired people from different newspaper houses so I am not surprised they ran into some difficulty. But we are now working hard and making good progress sorting out those difficulties. We are now in a position where we can, if we need to, produce a 32-page newspaper,” says Jeffreys, who officially takes up his position as editor at the beginning of December, but didn’t waste time. He rolled up his sleeves and is working to get the paper closer to rolling off the presses.
However, the veteran newsman won’t commit to a new launch date. “We haven’t finalised a timeline and I would not want to commit immediately to a launch date until I am convinced that the management, the team and all our systems can back that up. This is not an open-ended issue. We’ll announce a launch date and it won’t be in the distant future,” says Jeffreys.
A reporter who started out at Naspers’ Beeld, Jeffreys rose through the ranks and left journalism in the mid-nineties to become executive director of the National Business Initiative. He’s also served as executive director of the Urban Foundation and Soweto’s Funda Centre. Returning to journalism, Jeffreys became deputy editor of Beeld and held the chair of the South African National Editors’ Forum before becoming editor in chief of Die Burger, a position he held from 2006 until April this year when he suddenly resigned.
The reasons for Jeffreys’ departure were never made public. “I was the editor of Die Burger and I am not going to dwell on my departure. I have an agreement with Media24 that we will not talk about what happened surrounding my departure. I am not going to comment any further on that,” Jeffreys says in what is a rare serious moment in an otherwise amicable and jovial interview.
Jeffreys will be leaving his family behind in Cape Town and moving to Johannesburg to face what he sees as a challenge to which he can’t say no – that of launching and making a success of a new paper in the highly competitive newspaper market. “I would have preferred better circumstances in which to start out. A lot of things happened, but it is not an insurmountable set of circumstances. The priority now is for me to gather the team, mobilise them and bring the first edition to the market.”
At the time of speaking to Jeffreys he was in Johannesburg and had been spending time with the newspaper’s management, but had yet to meet the staff. “I guess this sort of disruption does affect people, but from walking around the floor and watching people working, they are pulling out all the stops. They know their reputations are at stake as much as the forthcoming newspaper that everyone is expecting.” Jeffreys says The New Age has yet to achieve a full staff complement. “We still need to fill gaps, but I must say that we have been overwhelmed by applications.” The New Age’s new editor reckons some of these are from heavyweights from which he can draw to build a strong team.
Like the issue of his resignation from Die Burger, Jeffreys diplomatically won’t be drawn on the matter of the Gupta family’s close ties to Zuma nor on the fact that Atul Gupta’s arrest was ignored by The New Age online. “The relationships between the family, the president or anyone else should be taken up with the family. I don’t think that that should be an issue the newspaper has to deal with.” When asked about Gupta’s arrest, Jeffreys laughed broadly and said he was loathe to speak about issues that went down before his arrival. He did take some time during our interview to stress his editorial independence.
“I have said it over the weekend and I will repeat this – I have been given a firm undertaking with regards to editorial independence and the manner in which we will position the newspaper. The other issue a lot of people bring up is of the newspaper ostensibly being broadly supportive of government. I think that has been interpreted by some people as there will be a hotline between the Union Buildings and our offices, or between Luthuli House and our offices. Nothing can be further from the truth.”
Jeffreys says that there won’t be links between the paper and any political party, although The New Age will be broadly supportive of the ruling party and what government is trying to do in terms of taking the country forward. “We will be looking out for what government is doing well and try to give more praise for that than what normally comes from the press. But we will also be very keenly watching those people who are not performing in government and critically report on them as well.”
One issue Jeffreys claims he will take a hardline approach against is the plague of corruption washing over South Africa. “We will be entirely against corruption and we will do our bit to try to rid the country of this scourge. We don’t really care about where the corruption comes from. I don’t care whether it is government corruption, white-collar corruption. Where ever the problem is, this paper will be part of the fight to stem corruption in this country.” The editor-in-waiting says a big investment will be made in investigative resources so that the paper not only reports stories, but breaks them to become an agenda-setting medium. “The New Age will break investigative stories and I have undertakings in that regard that I will have all the capacity I need to do so.”
The New Age is set to become another newspaper that investigates corruption and keeps an eye on government? If Jeffreys gets The New Age to roll off the press and fulfills his promise to make it an agenda-setting title that breaks investigative stories, it will be good news for South Africa’s young, troubled democracy – despite what people think of the Guptas and their relationship with Zuma. One can only wish him all the best in that specific endeavour. DM
Read more: Editors ditch The New Age at the altar in The Daily Maverick, Mystery surrounds Jeffreys’ resignation from Die Burger in BizCommunity, Behind the New Age meltdown in Mail & Guardian, The New Age announces new editor in Mail & Guardian.
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