Thursday, December 4, 2014

SPI’s graduates take centre stage in shaping African media

Peter du Toit (PdT), the Deputy Director for the Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership, has been with the institute since its founding in 2002. He shares some insights on the SPI’s development and where it is going with Katharine Holmes (KH).

(KH) What inspired the development of the SPI in 2002?

PdT: The Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership was the brain child of Professor Guy Berger, the former head of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. At that time the Department was getting frequent requests from organizations supporting media development in Africa to provide management training for journalists, and the Department was responding to these requests on an ad hoc basis. The idea of setting up a management training institute was hatched and Prof Berger was able to secure funding from Atlantic Philanthropies. This funding made it possible for the Department to launch an institute with a grant that covered the costs of maintaining a small core staff, including a director, a deputy director, an administrator and a fulltime researcher. The SPI was officially launched in late 2002 with the appointment of its first director, Govan Reddy. Its activities included taking over the NSJ courses – these continued for about five or six years after the Institute was launched – and developing new offerings. The Institute was also positioned to conduct research into questions confronting managers in the region. Prior to the launch of the SPI, the Department had also been granted permission to launch a new Postgraduate Diploma in Media Management (PDMM) and the task of developing and teaching this course became the SPI’s flagship activity. I joined the SPI about six months after its launch and was responsible for developing the initial Postgraduate Diploma in Media Management (PDMM) and running several of our short courses.

KH: What are the SPI's major achievements from 2002 up until now?

PdT: Without doubt, I think our biggest achievement has been developing the PDMM into a very strong programme that is responsive to the dramatic changes that are happening in the media industry. I’m also especially proud of the successes that have been achieved by our graduates, many of whom have risen to influential positions as journalists, managers and entrepreneurs in the media industry. I also think that we have been able to develop a very strong basket of short courses targeting managers and editors from the print, broadcast and online sectors which attract top level participants from South Africa and across the continent. The course we offer to Government media leaders is also very strong. The Institute’s research arm has also produced a number of exceptionally useful reports and papers that inform our teaching and which have benefited people in the media industry. Perhaps our biggest achievement is the fact that we are still able to offer services to the media industry in the region. We are operating in a challenging environment and keeping an institute like ours going has taken real dedication from our small core staff.

KH: What are the biggest challenges that the SPI has faced since its inception?

PdT: Our biggest challenge has to do with the fact that we are operating in turbulent times when many media organizations are struggling financially. It’s unfortunate that companies will often be reluctant to spend money on training their staff when times are tough and this has a knock-on effect on us. Another of our challenges has been the ongoing struggle to find scholarships for our students. We would love to attract more students from across the continent, but many simply cannot afford to spend a year in South Africa completing the PDMM, although we receive constant requests from people who would like to do so. From a staff point of view, the SPI has always been lean and mean. We have a small staff and everyone has a multitude of different responsibilities. This has been good in terms making the organization sustainable, but it can be difficult to make time to develop new opportunities.

KH: What contribution does the SPI make to the African media market?

PdT: To my knowledge, we are the only organization in Africa exclusively dedicated to educating and training media managers. We have seen close to 200 people graduate from our PDMM programme and well over 2,000 people will have completed our short courses by the end of this year. All of these have taken valuable knowledge and skills into the media industry and many have drawn on these lessons to ensure their organizations become sustainable and profitable. We have also been able to make some very valuable partnerships over the years which have enabled us to make an impact. For instance, through our partnership with the Open Society for Southern Africa we have seen more than 20 women from Southern African media organizations complete the PDMM programme. Our recent work with the International Research & Exchanges Board in Mozambique has also enabled us to train more than 80 media managers in that country.

KH: Where are the opportunities for the SPI to grow?

PdT: From a growth point of view, the SPI will be exploring different ways of reaching managers and editors who need support in running their organizations. There are tremendous opportunities out there for us to provide distance learning and to make use of interactive technologies to run courses with media leaders in different parts of Africa. There is enormous demand for this kind of training. At the same time, I’d loathe to see us lose the value that comes from having people coming together in the same room to thrash out their problems. We will need to find a balance here. The SPI also needs to be providing relevant training to people that equips them to deal with rapid change. This does not just mean helping organizations to find workable business models in response to the online environment, it also means helping people to deal with the way these environments have changed work places. Tomorrow’s leaders will require a very different skills set. We need to be conducting research into the ways in which media managers are responding to these challenges and to draw on this research to develop programmes that enable managers to respond to these changes.

KH: Where is the SPI going in the future?

PdT: I think we will want to continue to grow our PDMM class, offer a wider range of innovative short courses and to continue conducting relevant research that informs both the industry and our teaching. We are exploring the possibility of offering a more advanced qualification in media management, possibly offering a course at a master’s level. This is an idea that still needs a lot of work.

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