Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

Working on that pig’s ear, baby

Copiers are buckling under the strain of CVs being prepared at Johncom these days. Maybe not so much at FM and Business Day, but at Sunday Times and Sowetan the pace is frenetic.

An official email has now hit the screens banning all new appointments with immediate effect. Oh, of course, except for absolutely vital positions like chief assistant to the assistant chief or something that critical. And even those need the MD’s say-so.

The tiny handful of competent people left at one newspaper are hanging on for dear life and thanking their lucky stars they bit that permanent employment hook when it was dangled in front of them — even though it meant their salaries plummeted by as much as 50%. Incidentally, it’s interesting that newspaper sub-editors (usually graduates with 10 or more years’ hardcore journalism experience) on average only earn between 70% and 80% of the salaries paid to so-called “PAs” with less than five years’ experience and/or a diploma at most larger companies.

A Johncom-wide “Climate Survey” conducted earlier this year revealed — surprise, surprise — that morale among the various editorial echelons was so low it rivalled even the SABC. The happiest dudes at an outfit supposedly worth R7-billion are at Exclusive Books and Nu Metro.

Elsewhere? Well, let’s just say morale of staff and faith in its leadership are such that were Johncom staff the Persians at Thermopylae, they would be thrashed if half the Spartans were asleep and the other half on sick leave.

In one case, management has responded to the landslide vote of no-confidence by installing a “suggestions box”.

Every day there are two crucial editorial meetings held at one paper. In the past two years not one meeting has ever started on time, had an agenda or finished in anything other than dazed and confused hacks trickling out like the extras at the end of a B-grade sci-fi disaster flick.

Last year, they brought in a tabloid boffin from Britain at mammoth cost. The last time I spoke with him, he asked: “How are things going? Still making shit shine?”

I replied that every day we take decomposing, maggot-infested sows’ ears and turn them into silk purses. It’s a metaphor for much of what is happening in South Africa today.

The cause is generally agreed as “lack of skills”, so “skills development” is all important. Problem is it’s taking much, much longer than anyone anticipated — and now the question is being asked, quite legitimately, whether we will ever catch up. There’s one outfit where the entire scope of editorial staff training in 18 months consisted solely of a morning seminar on defamation.

Will we ever catch up? Not while Pandor and cock-eyed crew are pumping through woefully underskilled matriculants and bullshitting them that they are good enough for the real world.

I don’t blame the kids. It’s not their fault. But they are just not good enough. We’ve got reporters for whom the basic tenets of English grammar are as alien as the five Ws and the H. That’s where “shit-shining” comes into it. And that vapid excuse of English not being their mother tongue is just rhetorical litter: they wanted to be English journalists. No one forced them.

But now there are to be no more new appointments next year. How the hell are we going to keep publishing quality newspapers of integrity with senior writers who blabber on incoherently and incomprehensibly about a “different cattle of fish” — as the best shit-shiners in the business head for fairer pastures?

  • Former Journo

    Interesting to hear comment lamenting the lack of basic language skills in South African journalists, as a Graduate in journalism from the premier journalism school in South Africa I was declined employment at every newspaper I applied to on the basis of my being a pale male….
    Employ writers who have mastered their primary language and you won’t have the lack of skills you describe

  • Anne

    lack of language skills isn’t the issue – that’s why you have subs – it’s how i make my living and i’ve got nothing but admiration for the men and women who can string a semblance of a sentence together in my language – when i cannot even say hello in theirs.

    the problem is a lack of foresight by media companies to produce print media in the country’s official languages, and the lack of adequate training in basic journalisim skills.

    journalists aren’t masters of a language, but observers and reporters who have a duty and the ability to present the facts and events as astutely as they can.

    i know eds who can’t write to save their lives and spell atrociously, but whose nose for news is undeniable.

    it might be time to stop thinking of media as the airy fairy domain of english doyennes, and see it as an information delivery system – in whatever language is most appropriate.

    Of course, “lack of language skills” is not the issue, but competence in the language is a prerequisite. Too many commentators fixate on the “Queen’s English”. What rot! When I refer to pigs’ ears I’m talking about major errors in basic journalistic skills – like not getting the person’s name, or where the event took place, is the victim dead or not, do the babies in the picture live in Cotlands or “Courtlens”, & how did “the man that shot the other man … get out the coffin he was in at Phalaborwa … report his death to police in Mthatha.” (One of my faves & all ex-Sowetan!)
    Or the classic: reporting in the opening par “the mother of the child that his hand was cut is considering legal action against at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital”. The story continues “that the (unnamed) mother could’nt find its child with the couch (cough)”. A security (presumably guard also unnamed) is mentioned in the ninth par “as he found it (the baby) in fact tossed away with surgical waste”. After phoning the reporter to check why a child with a cut on her hand was thrown away with garbage, the sub-editor discovers she had been admitted with pheumonia, died from neglect and nurses hacked both arms off and sold them for R500 each to a sangoma!

    I would suggest such shortcomings are more than just a lack of language skills! The reporter in question on the Daily News had a diploma from what was then Durban Technikon and the incident took place a mere three years ago.

    And I agree completely about new kinds of media – but until a holographic disembodied presenter of your choice can tell you what you’re interested in in your language and dressed according to your culture anywhere you are – I’m afraid we’ll have to keep shining shit just to get it to the readers. C’est la guerre, mon cherie.

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za Ray H

    “vapid”, now that’s a dead giveaway! Hehe

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za Ray H

    But seriously, though. Aren’t the readers the right judge of whether or not a paper is good? Or should we listen to anal disgruntled sub-editors who have been fired for being nutters?

    You have a valid point, Ray. I often debated with students the chicken-&-egg question of publishing any old rubbish as long as that’s what the readers want OR setting a standard and seeing if the market takes to it. I’m a hook ‘n cast fisherman and land dozens of throwbacks (“lokaas” the menere call them), but I’ve always been impressed that the laaities who spend 20 minutes meticulously preparing their bait until it’s jus’ raait catch the biggest and best tasting fish.

    Like I say – interesting question, Ray. Have you found an answer yet? ‘Cause I haven’t read it in your books?

    As for, what! … “disgruntled sub-editors who have been fired for being nutters”. My, my! I wonder who he means? Oh, and one last thing, dear boy, we don’t call them “nutters” anymore. Tsk tsk. They’re “editors” or if that’s too close to home, what about just “mentally ill” and leave it there?

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/llewellynkriel Llewellyn Kriel

    Hey thanks for reading guys. This is much more fun than other things I do – now I gotta grab my piece of cardboard and hit my intersection. Traffic is building and it’s Friday afternoon, so chow4now. LK

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  • ex journalist

    Understanding the mentality of the guys you work for Lew I know why you are being crucified. Didn’t you think about that before you spilt the beans? You know how neurotic and small-minded they are. My word, but you are brave – or may I say a “nutter” although I know you aren’t. If you were you would have been promoted long ago and telling the minions what to do without having one bit of knowledge about how to do it. But then again who is going to promote a pale male. And one who knows more than all the others in the upper echelons to boot. All the best. They are all only a bunch of Johnnic-come-latelies anyway. But unfortunately they old the power and the purse strings.

  • K-lo

    Don’t get me wrong- I am a HUGE proponent of free speech but being outright mean and rude is something else. Blogs like these don’t offer solutions they just perpetuate alienation and frustration. In my opinion, this is irresponsible journalism (blogging in this instance) and the comments made here are as destructive as the one that Oprah made about not eating anything but potatoes while in South Africa in fear of WHATEVER it is that would make her sick in the 5 star hotels that she frequents while in this country.

    This really depresses me because it’s like a personal attack on me and what I stand for ESPECIALLY since I am a product of this education system…I think that my sentence construction is pretty decent and English is one of the 7 languages that I speak, read and write.

  • Donald Paul

    Kriel makes a number of valid (and dispiriting points); the respondents have been, in the main, even more soul destroying.
    I quote one dismal example: “lack of language skills isn’t the issue – that’s why you have subs”. You want to bloody well weep. If language is not the issue what the hell are you doing writing? I could go on but I re-read what was being said and could only wish that there were more Kriel’s in my newsroom (though I could never afford him – he seems worth his weight in gold). As he says: “And that vapid excuse of English not being their mother tongue is just rhetorical litter: they wanted to be English journalists. No one forced them.”
    Young black journalists have the world in front of them: yet where are our generations’ Studs Terkel or Gerald Shaw?
    Keep on writing Kriel.

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  • http://blogs.uct.ac.za/blog/media-flaws Unathi

    I hate to say it, but you had whatever you got coming bhut’
    Clearly the concept of blogging hasn’t fully sunk into minds and souls like yours. If you feel the urge to express such sentiments rather get a diary and a pen. And besides didn’t or doesn’t your employer actually have codes of conduct on discussing matters pertaining to their internal affairs being disseminated in public.

    you, my friend, committed employmentability suicide on a public platform and you probably did it intentionally – knowing full well the repurcussions. You only reap what you sow. And by the looks of your 500 word or more rant you harbered too much hatred towards your job.

    Attacking English unmother-tongued kids won’t get you anywhere and spilling employer gripes just doesn’t cut. Maybe ya’ll need a lesson in Blogging. I somehow think people think blogging shields – is some untouchable freedom of expression vehicle. Well, it isn’t in your special case.
    I hope my english was not too shabby for you – if it was please bear with me, it isn’t my mother tongue :-(

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  • http://www.spirituality.org.za/blogger.html Dion Forster

    I feel your pain, I share your frustration, and I dismay at the consequences that have befallen you for speaking the truth.

    In solidarity with you for a new South Africa that truly is better than the old South Africa… I don’t want to settle for second best…

    So, where the truth must be spoken – let it be spoken boldly! We cannot accept hash jobs and condescend people into thinking it is good enough…


    aluta continua



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  • Zygote

    Dear Anne suggests language skills are not really needed “thats what subs are for”. This completely misses all the points around which journalism pivots.
    Language skills are key — all down the line; from reporter to news-editor to chief sub to subs. You cant tell the story without language skills. And if you are in a situation where language skills are lacking, the obvious next move is to outhouse and inhouse train and mentor – and weed – the hopefuls to produce well-oiled, fluent, story-tellers. Otherwise we all just as well might go out, get drunk, and talk the usual BS which half the party cant understand and 50% is not interested in.
    Language skills are paramount in all narrative.
    So, dear Anne, give the subs a break, willya. Subs are supposed to polish diamonds, not to launder counterfeit currency.

    Peace (& integrity) shall rule the world!

    But you wont know it from the daily news.

  • http://www.scross.co.za Günther

    A standing ovation while I’m leaping up and down for Zygote’s comment.

    And English is a language I didn’t grow up with either.

  • Liansky

    So, according to you, who is “the best”??…

  • http://www.izzonline.co.za Izz

    Why aren’t you telling all your friends that you got axed for being racist!

  • pete

    Suppose I work for the New York Times. And I write a blog which in effect says that at NYT they are just a bunch of benighted idiots who dont even know what they are doing; and I am a brilliant star among fading morons. The fact is anywhere in the world, you’ll get axed whatever it takes. The irony is that Kriel didnt see it coming or should we say he is in fact the moron? The most sensible thing was to pack your bags and leave and then blog them to your heart’s delight.