Using journalism to facilitate public service to the masses

Heather Robertson came to Rhodes University to complete an MA in Journalism and Media Studies two decades into a very successful career as a journalist. Her career has taken her from Elle magazine, to features editor on the Sunday World, to a decade-long stint at the Sunday Times, where she deputised for the editor, Mondli Makhanya, from 2007 to 2010. 

From August 2010 to December 2015, Robertson was editor of the Herald in Gqeberha, previously Port Elizabeth, a role in which she pioneered a new form of journalism for the paper by drawing on similar work done at sister paper the Daily Dispatch in East London. 

At the time of her appointment, the Herald’s readership was undergoing a demographic shift, and the newspaper’s owners had informed her she would need to work hard to transform readership from the traditional white, suburban audience to one that served and represented the diverse Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. Throwing herself into the challenge, Robertson decided to engage her readership on a personal level, through mechanisms such as community dialogues. 

At the same time, Nelson Mandela University was engaging in a process of breaking down the barriers between the university and the inhabitants of the city. Robertson worked with Alan Zinn, from the newly-created Centre for Non-Racism and Democracy (Canrad), to achieve the overlapping goals of the two organisations. From 2011 to 2015, they held around 50 dialogues across the city, using church and community halls and going deep into the townships of Gqeberha. “We got to listen, reflect and change our thinking around issues and we got leaders to listen and engage with ordinary people and learn about the impact of their decisions,” Robertson said in 2016. 

After five years as editor of the Herald, Robertson made the decision to enrol at  Rhodes University to complete an MA in Journalism and Media Studies. At this time, she was also acting as director and partner for Change Routes Publications. In May 2020, Robertson became the editor of the Daily Maverick publication DM168, renowned for moving from a digital-only format back to a weekly print edition, bucking the trend in news journalism today.  

During her time at the Herald, Robertson outlined her philosophy succinctly with the following statement: “Journalism should be a service to help facilitate participation in our public lives.” In 2022, Rhodes University honoured Robertson with a JMS50 Alumni Award for her pioneering work in news journalism via listening and engagement with the local community.