Tim Cohen Senior editor: Business Day

This is my last column in this space, so I beg your indulgence if I pay my dues and reminisce a bit. Discounting a short period when I worked as a freelancer, partly for Business Day but for other publications too, I’m one of the longest-serving employees of the paper. Of my 34 years in journalism, I have spent 27 or so at Business Day, and consequently I have seen six editors and acting editors come and go, including myself!

There are one or two others who have worked on the paper longer, but we are now a small group and I therefore have something of a unique view of the paper’s trajectory. I was hired by Ken Owen, a fearsome man with a fearsome intellect. I actually interviewed him as a writer for the Wits campus newspaper Wits Student and wrote a slightly sour piece about it.

The Business Day office then was in the glass-diamond building in Diagonal Street, which were very modern offices at the time. They had a lift that announced which floor you had arrived at in slightly creepy, subdued tones. It was a new thing then. My pay-off line in the piece was that if you were looking for a conversation, you would probably be better off talking to the lift.

But Owen hired me anyway a few years later; I think he liked the cheekiness of it, or perhaps he just wanted to get me back, because his editorship was fiercely demanding. Yet his attention to detail was fabulous, and his enormous personal integrity infused the newsroom with high ethical standards and true journalistic ambition that I think have never left it.

He was followed by two more really great editors; Jim Jones, whose shambling style disguised a razor sharp news sense. Jim piloted the paper through the most turbulent time in South African politics during the transition years, and did it with great comradery and good sense.

He was followed by Peter Bruce, perhaps the classiest of Business Day’s editors; he had indirectly come from the hallowed Financial Times. His love of editing, both in the direct sense of managing written news and also in the larger sense of guiding the entire ship, were palpable. He stayed the longest, enjoyed it most, and his love of great writing was inspirational. He was, and remains, Business Day’s beacon. 

His editorship coincided with the paper’s glory years. Circulation was rising, money was flowing in, and the paper’s part ownership by the Financial Times group insulated it from the hurly-burly of what was to follow.

I took over the paper at perhaps its lowest ebb. During the 2010s, technology began to catch up with the “dead tree press”. People’s tastes changed and suddenly new delivery mechanisms for news began to proliferate. The whole definition of what newspapers provide and how they do so was ripped out from beneath them.

The result was that the newspaper’s management were now forced into high gear. My delightful predecessor, Songezo Zibi, I suspect got bored of the battles and left. The paper was suddenly thrust into my hands at a crucial moment, with circulation declining and advertisers finding better ways to spend their money.

I wish I could say I did better, but I think now the trajectory is turning upward again. Circulation has stabilised, and the paper is respectably but not especially profitable. But to get there was just brutal, so my first round of thanks goes, surprisingly perhaps, to the MD of publishing, Andy Gill, and Tiso Blackstar CEO Andrew Bonamour.

Operating a growing and profitable company is, let’s face it, comparatively easy. It takes a special set of skills and great personal fortitude to manage a declining business. They attacked the problem with great vigour. With a new digital team, we merged newsrooms, redesigned the paper, changed to become a “digital first” publication, changed the editorial system and built a paywall, among many other things. And depressingly, we cut staff and salaries. But the result is a set of publications facing forward. In all of this, we maintained, I think, a high quality of journalism and my excellent successor, Lukanyo Mnyanda, is taking that further.

My second “thank you” goes to the business community of SA, and particularly the readers of Business Day, including this column over the years. We are, the old and the new, a tough nut to crack; glimpses of excellence vie with some appalling disasters. Yet, overall, there is a level of sophistication here that would make many countries proud. And my third but most heartfelt “thank you” goes to my colleagues over the years, too many to mention, dead and alive. I wish I could name you all but really it would be just ridiculous. The writers, the editors, the columnists, the advertising department, the circulation department: you know who you are. My most humble thanks.

In my view, the greatest fault of humanity is the preponderance of pessimism over optimism. Almost unnoticed, the world is becoming richer and the degradation of life is easing just a smidgeon.

My biggest regret is that journalism often exacerbates that pessimism. But there is no doubt in my mind that by highlighting the explosion of corruption in SA during the Zuma years this newspaper, its staff and its management, have changed the history of the country for the better. It’s been an honour.

• Cohen is Business Day senior editor.