The New Age newspaper would have survived one year in the South African print jungle next week. Fienie Grobler interviews its chief executive officer, Nazeem Howa, about the ups and downs of the first year.
The New Age, owned by the Gupta family, will be in existence for one year on Tuesday, December 6. During this time, it went through three editors – the first being Vuyo Mvoko, who famously walked out with four senior staff members, forcing the newspaper to push back its launch date from last October to December.
He was replaced by former Die Burger editor Henry Jeffreys, who, in a front page comment on the launch day, scoffed at media rivals questioning the daily’s editorial independence, amid rumours of Gupta enjoying a close relationship with President Jacob Zuma.
“Contrary to popular (mainly the media) opinion — we are not ‘The New Agent’,” declared Jeffreys.
In January, Zuma welcomed the newspaper as a “new breath of fresh air”.
In May, Jeffreys resigned, with Howa saying he had chosen to go back to his family in Cape Town, his studies and writing his book.
Former Cape Times editor Ryland Fisher stepped in.
Howa, in his interview with TheMediaOnline, seems unperturbed by the high turn-over of editors, or more recent rumours of journalists taking the company to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
Howa said The New Age had delivered award-winning journalism, and its circulation and adverising spend were on track.
Below is an edited version of his interview with TheMediaOnline.
How has the paper evolved editorially in its first year of existence?
NH: The New Age turns one on December 6. Since launch, the paper has undergone several editorial reviews, and innovation has become part of our everyday lives. An investigative team has been added, resulting in us leading the pack on many stories, most recently the arrest of a cop who shot Chanelle Henning.
Some of the changes brought about include: A redesign of page one to provide many more entry points to the story. Based on the successes at the Times of India, we have followed an approach of offering readers at least seven stories as entry points on page one, in addition to the cross-references.
Throughout the year we have also looked for brand extentions for our title. These include: WozaLife on Fridays as a weekend entertainment supplement. Sports Age on a Friday at a time when other publishers have closed their sports supplement. TechKnowAge on Tuesday to appeal to the techno interests we all have.
Our provincial pages have developed to ensure deeper coverage with the addition of a metro page for the three big Metros (Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban).
A cadet programme will be launched in January as part of our investment in the future of journalism.
More importantly, in our first year, we have won two journalism awards. That is an awesome achievement.
Do you have your latest circulation figures? Is it below or above expectations?
NH: We are currently 90 percent through an ABC compliance exercise to prepare us for releasing audited numbers. Currently our sales have exceeded our expectations for year one, and we expect further growth ahead of the year-end. Currently, we are bigger than at least four daily newspapers on the level of core circulation. Naturally, our presence in the market is further bolstered by brand activation in areas frequented by our target market.
Could you give us adspend figures for your first year — and again, is it below or above your expectations?
NH: Each and every publisher wants more. We were very pleased by our November numbers that had us up 50% on September in revenue with notable month on month growth. Most pleasing is the number of new advertisers such as Vodacom, Toyota, Hyundai, Peugeot, Johnnie Walker, etc, the return of advertisers such as Outsurance, Nissan and Game. We are happy with our current share of market, but will naturally continue to push to increase our share.
You have had some innovative front page adverts — what kind of feedback have you received from advertisers and readers on that?
NH: It has certainly given us an edge in our sales pitches, as not many publishers will push the boundaries as we have. For many, it has created a wonderful opportunity for new launches to make a splash. My best anecdote was waking up one morning to condemnation from some sectors of the industry for selling our soul, yet these same people tried to convince our advertiser to repeat the execution in their media. Our approach is to set trends – and that means we will constantly push the envelope.
What have been your biggest problems/headaches in the first year? Would distribution count among those, and what are you doing to overcome these problems?
NH: Distribution will certainly count as the biggest challenge and our real growth only came once we started our own parallel channels. The parallel channels have seen us break new ground which was risky, but highly rewarding. Now we are multiplying these efforts across broader sectors of the market. Postering remains a major challenge due to the current industry processes governing allocation, but we have developed strategies to circumvent these hurdles.
There were media reports of journalists taking The New Age to the CCMA about unexplained salary deductions and long working hours. Is this true and if not, what is the real story?
NH: These reports were really far-fetched and, some would argue, an attempt by competitors to throw further obstacles in the way of our newspaper’s growth. The New Age believes in good governance and the rule of law.
However, we are blessed by many members of our team who everyday work long hours to produce our newspaper. We are really grateful to all of them for their efforts to ensure our success. We know this hard work will be rewarded.
It is general knowledge that a group of your most senior journalists abruptly resigned before the launch of the newspaper, and you have had more than one editor, which seems many considering that the newspaper has not been around for long. Has that affected your operations negatively, and if not, why not, or if so, how?
NH: We have a simple philosophy. Every resignation provides an opportunity to hire someone better. We live by this and we wish those who leave us all the best. But we will ensure that we hire great people to fill these vacancies.
Fienie Grobler is deputy news editor at the South African Press Association (Sapa).