During South Africa’s #FeesMustFall movement, in which university students protested for free tuition and the decolonization of higher education, students and other observers criticised the media for not getting to the heart of the story. The feeling was that student voices were absent from the narrative.

I personally felt the students were unfairly labeled as hooligans by people who didn’t understand the context of their protest. In October 2015, social media trainer Gus Silber tweeted a challenge at the Cape Argus and other publications to hand over editorial authority to the students.

I loved this idea and immediately tweeted that Cape Argus would accept this challenge. I called on students to contact me; my call went viral and people loved the idea. 

Student co-editors worked side-by-side with newsroom staff, but the students were given the most control over editorial decisions.
Student co-editors worked side-by-side with newsroom staff, but the students were given the most control over editorial decisions.

My colleague, Lance Witten, and I drove to the University of Cape Town’s lower campus, where a rally was underway. We approached a student representative who had addressed the rally, and gathered together a group of students elected by their peers.

Although the students questioned our intentions, they accompanied us back to the newsroom for a joint editorial meeting between them and my staff. It was after noon, and I was about to rearrange the entire next day’s edition.

I announced that I was ceding half my authority to the student co-editors: Ameera Conrad, Dela Gwala, Leila Khan, Brian Kamanzi, Mbali Matandela, Amanda Xulu, Busisiwe Nxumalo, and Simon Rakei.

I committed to giving them the front page, pages two through five, the lead article, and the main op-ed piece to tell their story of the #FeesMustFall campaign.

The rest of the news space (three pages) would be for other news and world news, as well as the “furniture” pages — all of which would be produced as usual by Cape Argus editorial staff.

I purposely did not prescribe to the co-editors what to write or what content to source for their pages. They had carte blanche over their headlines, captions, subheads, and picture selection.

Mutual trust grew. The students were fast, efficient, and presented compelling content.

The copy was clean and ready before our 6 p.m. deadline. I asked my news desk to keep their copy as authentic as possible; if we had changed five words, it would have been five words too many. Then they set to work writing captions, headlines and subheads, selecting pictures, and proofreading.

It was a massive leap of faith by both sides, but it paid off. Everyone had to leave their egos at the door to make the project a success. It also helped that the student co-editors were clear about what they wanted on their pages, yet prepared to compromise and adapt their copy to fit into Cape Argus format.

By the time we were deep in the throes of production, there was high anticipation for the #FeesMustFall special edition. When the co-editors approved the piece I wrote providing readers with a rationale for why they and Cape Argus were doing this, I knew I had made the right decision.

It worked because we were able to provide authentic first-person accounts from people directly involved in and affected by the protests. I think, in all honesty, we learned far more from the students than they did from us.

They wrote with a kind of unfiltered honesty that you won’t easily find in reportage. They gave raw insight into the issues that reported speech can’t convey. They drove home the point that to be an effective unit as a team, you have to listen, listen, and listen.

And I learned to my horror — other editors may not want to hear this — that you can apparently edit a newspaper by committee!

For those involved in print newspapers, we can’t possibly compete in timing with social media, radio, and TV on news events like the student protests or a fire. But by telling the story in compelling, innovative ways, we can make print relevant and the premium platform for unique, in-depth and critical content.