Val Boje embodied the trinity of qualities to be a great editor, and so much more

On Monday, Val Boje died. There have been many public tributes to her since and she deserves every single one of them. She was a journalist who spent her entire working life at a single newspaper; from cub reporter to editor. Hers was a tough act to follow. It probably won’t happen again – the newspaper industry is in freefall, disrupted like never before; editors are battling with a fraction of their staff for an audience that is fast past caring, addicted instead to the click bait of social media.

The other reason is that Val edited the Pretoria News. It’s been an incredible newspaper; the Capital’s Daily, it used to trumpet. It’s a family paper, literally, for the staff who have worked there, married there (like Val) and some even had their kids work there. It’s a small-town paper in the country’s capital – its greatest strength and often its fatal weakness. The Pretoria News was always under threat of being subsumed by its bigger sibling, The Star or run remotely from Johannesburg. Its staff were perpetually being poached across the Jukskei, onto radio or TV. Some of its editors would go onto the highest jobs in journalism. Many didn’t stay long at all.

The great editors of the Pretoria News fought tooth and nail to keep the paper alive, successfully fighting off the grasping efforts of the bean counters and the management illuminati – well before the advent of social media. Val was among them, keeping the editor’s chair – only the second woman to do so in the paper’s history – for eight years before stepping down in January after 41 years full time on the paper that she actually began working on during her vacations from studying journalism at Rhodes.

You might ask what makes a great editor. In the old days, the fast track to the top (apart from the old school tie), was through the ranks of the reporters, who would dazzle with their words. The slower, less guaranteed, route was through the ranks of the sub editors, the technocrats who knew exactly the arcane arts of how the paper was put together. And then there were the ambassadors, who knew how to get everyone to do anything, as they went about ensuring the paper was read, talked about and seen by making sure they got out about themselves. 

A great editor would normally combine two of the three qualities. Val was all three – and a fourth, pure Pretoria. She could write, she could sub and she could sing and dance. But most of all, she never lost sight of the primary duty of a newspaper: to get the readers to see it as their own.

Her career encompassed Total Onslaught to State Capture and the Great Pandemic; she influenced countless careers in journalism through her counsel and care and she ran a great paper in incredibly difficult times. We are all the poorer for her passing – far beyond the distribution area of the capital’s daily. 

She’d be amazed – and a little shy – by all that. 

Rest in peace. 

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 9 October 2021.