Riding the storms: Anver Versi was appointed African Business editor in 1994. This coincided with massive changes in Africa's modern history and also in the way news was transmitted and distributed. Here Versi describes how African Business itself changed in order to adapt to the new demands.

Author:Versi, Anver
 
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In 1994, I was suddenly asked by the publisher, Afif Ben Yedder, to abandon my duties at New African and New African Life and take over the editorship of African Business from Linda Van Buren who was leaving for personal reasons.

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I accepted although I was a little sad to be leaving New African. Working for New African had been exciting. We had decided to change the face of reporting on Africa and had taken an uncompromising stance on putting Africa's interest first. We took very strong positions on African issues which went down very well with readers but elicited howls of protest from the 'Africanist press' in London whenever our line was diametrically opposite to the 'mainstream view'. African Business, in contrast was well meaning but rather dull.

Yet this was the norm in those days. For some reason, there was a prevailing belief that coverage of business and economics had to be grim faced and full of figures and pie-charts.

This had been true, around the world, until about the mid 1980s when an event of such magnitude occurred that all previous theories of journalism were stood on their heads. This was the IT revolution. News could now be conveyed to all parts of the world in the blink of an eye. News poured into newspaper offices 24 hours a day. This meant that our former role as news and current affairs reporters was dead and buried. The problem would become even more acute when satellite television with non-stop news coverage became the global norm.

PRINT MEDIA IN CRISIS

But, while there was an avalanche of news, there was very little in terms of interpreting the news. People were left wondering: what is the relevance of this piece of information to me? What does this item imply? How can I use this information? In short, the supply of analysis was far below the demand for it.

This lead to a revolution in the way news was reported and presented. Instead of simply giving us the facts, newspapers and periodicals editorialised (i.e. gave an angle) even to breaking news stories. The business print media, papers like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and others now emphasised the intimate relationships between business, politics, arts, culture and sport.

They came to the conclusion that business does not, in fact, cannot exist in a vacuum. Every aspect of life affects business. Victory in a soccer or cricket tournament has a direct impact on the performance of the stock market, on retail sales, investments, productivity--you name it. So the business press found itself reporting on and analysing all sorts of current affairs.

The best publications survived and even thrived. But there was a wholesale massacre of the traditional business press everywhere, including in Africa.

Business and economics oriented publications have always been very thin on the ground in Africa--except for South Africa. When it came to pan-African publications, even general interest magazines suffered. After a brief period of flowering in the 1970s to mid 80s, one after another pan-African publication bit the dust. The only business oriented African publication for the general reader to still remain alive was African Business.

Yet the need for a good, analytic pan-African publication had never been greater. Globalisation had created all sorts of confusing and complex international relations. What happened in Chile could have a direct impact on whether or not you were able to sell your stock of groundnuts in Banjul! In addition, the OAU had declared in 1994, following majority rule in South Africa, that the political battles had finished but the fight for economic emancipation had just started.

OUR TASK WAS CLEAR

The world was becoming more interconnected but it was also becoming more chaotic. In the developed world, a host of new publications arose in an attempt to make order out of the chaos and thus give their readers a competitive edge in global business. In Africa, where the need to analyse regional and international trends was most acute, only African Business was still hanging in there.

The task that lay ahead of us was clear. We would champion the cause of Africa's economic renaissance. We would do this by critically examining Africa's economic and political performance, judge it by African rather than developed world standards, give praise where praise was due and criticise when that was deemed necessary.

By this time, it had also become crystal clear that for Africa to progress, it would have to take a regional approach to development. Ironically, the OAU had been formed long before anyone had even thought of the European Union but while the OAU was fragmenting into squabbling nation states, the Europeans were burying their differences in favour of greater unity.

This placed an additional responsibility on us. As a pan-African publication, it was our duty to foster greater cooperation among African nations. For starters, we could simply give our African readers more information about other African countries. The amazing fact was that Africans seemed to know more about the UK, France, Spain and other countries than they did about their own neighbours.

We knew that business opportunities were going begging because people did not have information. The scope for intra-African trade and investment was vast--if only people knew it.

We also knew that if African Business was to be taken seriously, not only in Africa but internationally, we would have to lead by example. The magazine had to look, read and feel like the best from anywhere else in the world. We would not be able to convince Africans that they can be just as good as anyone else if our own product looked grubby, was boring, or crucially, if our independence was compromised either through pressure from governments or big companies on whom we depended for advertising revenue.

We knew that African Business, as it existed then in 1994, had done its duty but henceforth, it would have to adapt to the new realities and change.

We knew what we had to do. The only thing left was to actually do it. This proved more difficult than I had ever imagined.

BIRTH OF A NEW CONCEPT

The birth of the new African Business was a problematic delivery. The technical aspects were fairly straight forward. We changed the body and headline fonts to lighter, faster-paced combinations of serifs and sans serifs; we increased the number of colour pages; we used bigger, bolder and far more interesting pictures.

And we set about looking for writers who could discuss complex economic issues through lucid, engaging and entertaining prose. My biggest headache was where to find these paragons!

The vast majority of our correspondents in Africa worked either with local newspapers or national news agencies. They were good, faithful reporters, but they were not analysts. Even worse for my purposes, there were only a handful of journalists who could write intelligibly on business and economic matters. Most of these were in South Africa. But, while they were experts on matters South African, they knew next to nothing about Africa north of the Limpopo.

Writing on business and economics and analysing trends is the most neglected journalistic area in Africa. This came as a blow to our aspirations to give Africa its own voice in the field of international economics and business. Nevertheless, I invited all the correspondents I knew to submit articles and sent them all a detailed style-guide to help them identify the type of stories I wanted.

The response was impressive but the stories needed considerable sub-editing work before they could be published. At this point, I was running a one-manshow--commissioning, editing, writing and laying out the magazine on desktop--not to mention having to proof read the whole thing.

This meant I sometimes had to work for 72 hours on the trot. On one occasion after another marathon, my wife decided to give me a break and took me to a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner. I relaxed for the first time in several days and promptly fell asleep, my head buried in a plate of spaghetti! The owner helped me to a small bed he kept just off the restaurant and let me sleep the night through.

While there was no shortage of trained sub-editors available in London, I was looking for someone who was sensitive to African needs and could see the big picture. This was proving to be a...

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