Phylicia Oppelt is an interesting choice to take over the editorship of the mighty Sunday Times, perhaps the most powerful newspaper position in the country.
Current editor Ray Hartley is going on “sabbatical” and will return to take up a senior position in the group.
Oppelt has been lined up for this job for a while, so her appointment is not a surprise. What was unexpected was that Hartley would have only 30 months in the post.
Oppelt was made Daily Dispatch editor in East London at an early age. She did well there, leading transformation of what had been a bit of a dinosaur, and then came to edit the Business Times section of the Sunday Times. While it was no surprise that she would move to the flagship operation, the business section was a surprise choice, as she had little business reporting experience.
She inherited a division that was in the doldrums and which had lost much of its standing in the publishing world. She left it stronger and livelier when she went to the new Times daily newspaper. There she has had a good run, giving the paper a strong, outspoken character with a significant market presence. It is impossible to judge her on circulation, though, since most of the copies are given out as part of a Sunday Times subscription.
She has a strong and independent voice, as shown in her regular column, and promises to be an interesting editor.
This position means she will go head to head with another prominent woman editor, Ferial Haffajee at City Press. Haffajee was brought in by Media24 a couple of years ago to change City Press and provide more of a challenge to the dominance of the Sunday Times. She has livened up that paper, and done some very interesting things with it, but this is not reflected yet in the paper’s sales. This puts her under some pressure to deliver not just on quality, but on the numbers that Media24’s stern management demands.
Across town, the Sunday Times’ circulation has shown the same wobbliness of most newspapers, well down from its peak years. The battle is on.
Hartley’s abrupt departure was a surprise, as was his predecessor Mondli Makhanya’s departure in December from the group editor-in-chief position. Clearly, there is a shake-up in the group.
Central to this yet another ex-editor and now publisher-in-chief, Mike Robertson. Robertson remains the key person in the group, and therefore anyone in these editorial positions has him keeping a beady eye on things. You could call him the foremost former editor in a team of current and former editors. (As a former editor myself, I am keenly aware that supply exceeds demand.)
Most notable about Hartley’s time at the paper was how he restored its position as a leading investigative paper. He gave support and encouragement to a remarkable muckraking team who have won our Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Award twice in a row.
The shake-up is not likely over. It will be worth seeing who Oppelt puts around her, as there was not universal acclaim for the team around Hartley.
And at sister publications, Business Day and Financial Mail, there is one acting editor, one acting publisher and lots of people watching who will be left without a seat when the music stops.