Nazeem Howa gave up his position as chief operating officer of Independent News and Media to be CEO of The New Age. Editor of The Media magazine, Peta Krost Maunder, finds out why.
Nazeem Howa understands newspapers from both a management and editorial perspective. So when the announcement was made that he was jumping ship from second-in-command at Independent Newspapers to become CEO of The New Age (TNA), the media was abuzz with questions, suppositions and amazement.
Why would someone who was potentially the next in line as CEO of the biggest English-speaking newspaper group in the country take the risk of joining a start-up daily that was lambasted in the media as a ‘government mouthpiece’ and had its fair share of scandal before it even launched?
“I moved for all the right reasons,” he says. “I have been at Independent Newspapers for 15 years and I have done so much there, from editing newspapers to running a region’s newspapers and then managing the group. I had to say to myself, ‘I am so far from retiring at 48 that I need a new challenge’.
“Atul Gupta – who has become my close friend – romanced me over four-five months until I bought into his vision,” explains Howa. “There is something really exciting about being on a mission to create a newspaper that is a ‘national asset’, don’t you think?”
He admitted there was risk attached to his move, but says, “Any job has its risks, and I thought about this long and hard.” Besides, he says, he has established a deep respect for his new bosses, who he describes as “ordinary down-to-earth people who have done extremely well in South Africa and are so committed to this country”.
Howa believes they have received uncalled for bad press. “Nobody knew who the Guptas were before they spoke about the newspaper and suddenly they were vilified. We are an interesting industry because we feel threatened by people who are going to join us,” he says. “They were called pro-government because they have relationships with the previous and present leaders. So what? When Gavin O’Reilly comes to South Africa, who do you think he has meetings with? And do you think Koos Bekker doesn’t have relationships with government? It was simply convenient pigeonholing.”
However, he says, all the scandal has been ultimately been good for brand awareness, which was high long before the newspaper was launched on December 6, 2010.
“This newspaper is definitely not about sunshine journalism and, if you read it, you can see that the government is certainly not being let off the hook, particularly when it comes to corruption.”
He explains that the idea of TNA is to act in the best interests of the people of this country. “The government is meant to do that, but if they don’t, we will be the first to point it out,” says Howa. TNA is in the process of setting up a five-person investigative bureau to deal with corruption. “The government is an obvious target here but we certainly will also be looking at white-collar crime, which is so often neglected.”
Howa says TNA is determined to offer quality journalism and explains that, on the newspaper’s third day, editor Henry Jeffries apologised on the front page for spelling errors. “If we make mistakes, we will be bold and apologise.” Howa says that he is vehemently opposed to the Media Appeals Tribunal, but he does believe that standards and quality of journalism have really dipped and “it is essential to fix this”.
He says the newspaper will “buck convention”. In his view, “newspapers are doing things the same way they did them since before television and online, and it is time for change. As a start-up, we can do things differently from day one and we will.”
In its first week, it strategically “starved the market” so that it would create “a hunger” for the paper. “By 7am on the first day our papers were gone, and all week we had retail outlets calling to ask for a guaranteed regular supply,” he says. “We have arrived – and you can depend on our continued journey.”
He describes the paper as “a fleet-footed gazelle” that will adapt to the market. For this reason, it was a strategic decision to launch in December, traditionally ‘silly season’ for the media. “We didn’t do this lightly. We deliberately launched in December so we would have time to settle in and get over teething problems.”
Howa says he has learnt a great deal in launching TNA. “For the Independent Group to launch The Daily Voice, it was fairly painless because everything was already in place with the other publications. But in launching TNA, we started with an empty room. We had no library of photographs nor a regular distributor.” The latter, he notes, is one element that can cause the failure of a newspaper. “We will manage it and we will build our archives and establish the right relationships.”
Having said that, TNA started off with a bang in terms of advertising. “When people say launching a daily eats money, they’re right. But that is if they are struggling to get advertising,” he says with a wry grin. “Did you see the adverts in our paper in the first week?”
One of the big questions in the industry is, who exactly is TNA’s market? Howa explains: “We are aiming at the mid-market – the upwardly mobile, aspirational and educated of all races and backgrounds in their early 20 to 40s. They are the economically reactive people of the country, many of whom are driving Mercs and BMWs and who may have grown up in Koffiefontein or Cape Town.”
For the likes of the Koffiefontein guy who wants to know what is going on in his province, TNA has made a big effort to ensure regional news on a daily basis, opening offices in each region. “So we will always have small-town stories with a national interest.”
Why the focus on this market? Because, Howa says, TNA has done its market research. “We have done 20 times more than was done for the launch of The Daily Voice (in which he played a key role). But if market research was definitive, those who do it would be running our newspapers.”
To get more input, Howa sent out e-mails to various influential and knowledgeable people in the industry when the paper was launched, asking for feedback on TNA. He says he is open to feedback from anyone – Helen Zille, Jacob Zuma et al. He won’t necessary follow their lead, but he will listen.
Being at the helm of a start-up newspaper where you really have the freedom to do things the way you really believe they should be done is “thrilling and the biggest challenge and learning curve” he has ever faced. “It has been a rude awakening,” he says, “but fortunately we started with an incredibly motivated and talented team.”
Speaking of which, what of the five editors who walked out in September? “I started here with a clean-sheet approach – whatever happened before I arrived is not important.”
In leaving Independent Newspapers, Howa says that each region gave him a send-off party.
In response to the rumours that he left because of problems with CEO Tony Howard, he says: “If people didn’t have different positions, things would get very stale. Yes, we had different views, but that is never a bad thing. Tony was responsible for much of my growth and development.”
When Howa first went into journalism in the 1980s, he did so “to change the world and contribute positively to this country”. Now, he says, it feels like he has come “full circle” and he has regained some of that excitement.
Howa says that his wife Arlene has commented that he has a new spring in his step. “You could call my move a mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a Z4 or having an affair with an 18-year-old blonde, I left Independent to start The New Age. Everybody’s life needs to take a step up somehow…”
This story was first published in The Media magazine.