As a PRO of a government agency, I knew little about the working practices of a newspaper editor. To find out more, and to improve my own work as PRO, I job-shadowed the Managing Editor of New Era Publication Corporation (NEPC), Toivo Ndjebela, for two days this week.
It proved to be an eye-opener and something I would recommend to any PRO. One can see how a specific story is looked at from the news producer’s side and how it finds its way onto a newspaper page.
I asked myself: How does a typical day of the managing editor of this national daily look like? What does the managing editor do? To answer these questions I approached New Era to ask if I could job-shadow the managing editor. My request was openly welcomed.
The newspaper has an open approach to outsiders. “We have nothing to hide. We are open like a book to anyone and the whole world could zoom into our newsroom because what you see is what you get,” Toivo said.
And this is exactly how they treated me in the New Era newsroom. Warm, understanding and explaining along the lines of what a normal working day looks like.
It all begins early in the morning with checking last emails in the inbox. Are there any new developments which need to be looked into or covered for news? Then, the team meets at 08h00 in the newsroom to review that day’s edition.
Toivo and New Era Editor Chrispin Inambao lead this session. Which story was covered nicely, which one could have been better? Any mistakes or flaws to be avoided in future editions? Is there maybe an angle to a specific story which hasn’t really been looked at properly? Feedback from the team? This then leads to the tasks of the day. Which stories to follow up? Which journalist is assigned what story?
Toivo, chairing the meeting and being overall responsible for what goes into the paper, then calls the regional reporters in Keetmanshoop, Rundu, Tsumeb, Swakopmund and Ongwediva, to update the editors in Windhoek on the stories they are working on in their respective regions.
Toivo then agrees – or disagrees – with the regional reporters on the items they have diarised.
Once this meeting is finished, all reporters are clear on what stories the editors expect from them.
All reporters have to submit a minimum of three stories per day. Yet, not all will find their way into the paper – let alone get space on the front page.
Even page three, the most important news page after the front page, is never guaranteed any story as they all have to compete for prominent placement.
In fact, some stories might never see the light of day, while others may be parked for a different edition – for reasons which may include the timing of the particular story.
Once you know the rules, the game is clear. Your story doesn’t have a guaranteed space in the paper, be it for a permanently employed reporter of freelancer. Not for tomorrow, not for the next week. Some even never.
Yet the time you spend on researching them is forever lost. Some journalists don’t take it too well. Despite having being assigned to cover a specific story, and you sat at your desk and typed up the story, the story never appeared in the paper.
It might have been pushed aside by bigger news, or last-minute events unfolding. Your story might just end up in the dustbin, especially if it does not meet set standards. That’s life. A newspaper is also a factory – producing a paper with strict deadlines each day.
The editors need to look at the production process with pragmatism, and in a rigorous way.
The editors, sitting above the whole process, need to make responsible judgements on the whole paper. Do we cover the main national news? Is the mandate of the paper, which according to the NEPC founding Act of Parliament is to cover developmental and community news, met?
Editors also have to look at whether 60 percent of the stories in an edition are from outside Windhoek – an in-house target the newspaper has set for itself to ensure broader national news coverage.
If not, adjustments and stories need to be swopped, dropped and others added at the last minute. Not an easy task for the editor, I should hasten to state.
Back in his office after the diary meeting, Toivo checks his inbox again. He also answers numerous phone calls – either by interested members of the public, institutions, politicians or even from people who appeared in the paper.
It can be anything from congratulations to complaints. Some callers might be quite angry about a certain story which portrayed them in a particular light than they would have wanted.
Now it’s the managing editor’s job to look into the complaint. Does the caller have a case? Is there merit to his claim? If so, the reporter who had produced the story will most likely be directed to clean up the mess by rectifying the story.
Not all reporters enjoy the task of rectifying stories they had gotten wrong, but the managing editor’s directives are to be complied with. During such moments, Toivo emphasises time and again the ‘principle of fairness’ to the reporters, saying members of the public must feel they are being listened to when they contact the newsroom.
Toivo’s office door is always open. At any given time a reporter might drop in and ask for clarification and guidance on a specific story. Toivo gives some leads and makes suggestions and instructs on the angle of the story. He clarifies any remaining uncertainties in regard to why the story is to be written in this way and what the reader should get out of it.
As the day goes on, some admin work comes across the managing editor’s desk. This ranges from leave applications, claims for S&T to any other administrative chores. Overall, the managing editor also monitors the general performance of each journalist over time, enabling him to align the performance agreements to each employee under his watch.
Around lunchtime, the first stories trickle in. Now the sub-editors, in partnership with Toivo and Chrispin, look into the articles and check for content, style, and spelling. The proofreading continues until the end of the day. Toivo and other editors go over each text and cut, and adjust and add to the existing piece.
Once the stories are confirmed and back from the reporters, Toivo can now decide where each story goes, what needs to move where, and what might not find its way in the upcoming edition. Layout sheets are passed around. The production team now sit over the articles and place them with image (or not) as indicated on the dummy page by the editors.
Sub-editors and editors go over them again and as the pages are filling up with content, Toivo needs to see the full pages and the complete paper, before he finally approves and signs them off for printing. By now the offices seem empty. Only the sub-editors and he are left with the layout team.
It is now past 18h00 and I wonder how Toivo – who looks after his six-year-old daughter and a five-year-old nephew – copes with family duties.
Who cooks a meal for them? Won’t he be too tired to do all that when the final page is only expected at the printers by 21h00?
Once home, Toivo still awaits emails with the final proof-read page for his last approval before print.
Come the next day, we as readers see the product in the shops and the streets. As the previous day, the editorial team assemble again to review the previous day’s work. The good, the bad and the ugly of the previous day’s work would be addressed there and then. And the cycle of bringing news to the people begins yet again.