So many people deny there is a future for newspapers, but former group editor-in-chef of Independent Newspapers, Peter Sullivan, gives a no-holds-barred analysis of what is wrong and how it can be fixed.
Leaders of newspaper groups need a head, a heart, nerves of steel and testicular equipment of even harder stuff.
More important than all of these is optimism, optimism, optimism: dear Lord, please keep the bloody pessimists away from deciding what news is!
What’s wrong with journalism in our papers? What’s wrong with management? Let’s get some real perspective on where we are, and then I’ll offer some radical resolutions.
Of about 220 countries in the world, where does South Africa rate in terms of the size of our economy? If you don’t know, guess.
This is not a digression; it is relevant.
Top or bottom 100? Between 50 and 100? If you are given the answer (especially journalists) you’ll nod your head and say, “that’s what I thought”.
If you first have to guess, you can see just how wrong you were, and may actually learn something.
For decades I foolishly believed everyone knew where we stood in this most important economic league log.
When the question was asked to a bunch of Wits professors and they hadn’t a clue (guesses were 150th? 99th? 10th? 80th?). I put this down to ivory tower ignorance.
But my mates, even the smart ones, made similar guesses. Not a clue! How wrong I have been, cocooned in the comfortable belief that this was basic knowledge shared by all.
Most Koreans know where they are on this log – and where they want to be. We should know too, better than we know our football, cricket or rugby global positions as it is much, much more important.
Whose fault is it that we don’t? The education system? Yes. TV? Yes. Radio? Yes.
And of course it’s the bloody newspapers’ fault with their silly preoccupation with Juju, Lady Gaga, rape, murder and President Zuma’s next wife and his spear.
Why do we have such appalling newspapers?
Are they struggling financially because of incompetence, idiocy, their accountants’ narrow profit mentality or could it (gasp!) be possible that they – like our economy – are not that bad?
Every day as The Star arrives, the lead story looks wrong to me. A single dead baby has made headlines, or some politician’s fart has edged global news off page one. You can lay your most sensitive organ on a block that the story is depressing: crime, corruption, political claptrap. Breaks my journalist’s heart.
The country’s leading daily seldom leads with the most important story in the world on that day, something you used to rely on the paper to do. (I’m smart enough to know that’s a predictable reaction from an ex-editor; it’s why we are called reactionaries by our successors.)
Like most journalists, I am furious at the erosion of competence and the savage cutting of numbers of reporters, resulting in poor coverage by a staff too thin to survive.
Readers may not have noticed when reporting staff was slashed, then slashed again, but now the bones are showing as staff becomes skeletal.
Blame global financial crisis, the internet, short-term profit, debt repayment, poor management. But blame doesn’t get us better newspapers.
Newspapers rely on managers and editors. Looking at our papers as a manager, I see fat papers over Easter and May, big fat papers filled with juicy advertising, made even juicier for management because they no longer have to print so many papers: circulation is down, yet you can still charge the same for advertising space and inserts.
Management is bottom-line driven; short-term profits are the order of the day; debt either here or abroad must be serviced.
Understandable, but lacking vision, innovation, solutions and resolve.
I’d love to suggest “fire ‘em all!” but that won’t help either.
While I whine with the rest about our junky papers, I continue to devour them, from Business Day to, Beeld, City Press to the Sunday Times, mumbling my criticisms as fast as I faithfully turn the pages.
And Die Son and Daily Sun don’t shine for me, while the Mail & Guardian is too up itself to enjoy, but the rest…hey, they’re not so bad, y’know?
Like my premise that everyone knows where our economy’s size lies on the global log (what’s your guess? Make it now, please), perhaps, just perhaps, the premise that our newspapers are awful is also wrong.
Name cities you know with better newspapers than Johannesburg. Not that many, globally. Pretoria has all of Joburg’s, plus some. Durban and Cape Town are more difficult to defend. Their offering is often pretty rubbishy. But nor are they global cities; they’re as parochial as their papers.
It is a pity the Independent Group dominates the daily market, a shame that Ireland’s woes have been inflicted on newsrooms. No wonder the giddy heights of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s journalism is creating wonderfully nostalgic waves to be surfed on the internet, largely because there was no internet then to decimate readership, fewer TV stations, 50 not 500 magazines, 20 not 200 radio stations.
Newspaper reporters were so self-righteous in those days. We were the ‘voice of the people’. Quite rightly too, as the government represented the most foolish and tiny majority of a white minority.
Now the ANC is the voice of the people, elected to this position. Our big claim is gone. Newspapers still talk for the people, but let’s admit: in reality, only a fraction of them.
In global competitive indices our press freedom is rated highly, a ghostly, nebulous thing, but not a bad reflection on the management of our newspapers. The big question is: could our precious titles be managed better? Of course. Like the country.
From Avusa to Media24, Caxton to Independent, far far better.
Visionaries instead of staid accountants at the top would be a start. A Richard Branson at the top would be great, a Steve Jobs or an Alan Sugar. Working conditions like Google, bright and innovative thinking – yes!
That’s dreaming. We live in a real world. Journalists tell good tales, have great courage, are constantly critical, have integrity, can write and are fearless. They will tell nuclear scientists how to nuke and presidents how to govern, so giving advice, insight and analysis to their own employers is second nature.
But believe me, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, rather like the ludicrous advice constantly unasked for but freely given by university professors.
Just look around the world to see how newspaper proprietors are struggling to survive, let alone turn a reasonable profit. Would I like to see more reporters, better stories, greater competence among journalists? Of course! Will it happen? No. The world has changed, hugely. Are South African dailies dying or is it simply that those in charge have run out of money and ideas?
Some say figures are dropping because management is not being innovative and the quality of reporting is declining.
Both statements have some truth, yet remember the many innovations since 1994 that we tend to forget about: Daily Sun, Die Son, Isolezwe. Avusa introduced a free daily, The Times. Media24 bought 10cent in China and is now just about the biggest South African company there – that’s serious innovation.
Business Report, one supplement for four dailies, was a world first. All groups have excellent news websites.
As for the former SAAN (which I joined in 1973), now Avusa, its management gets a great income from the Sunday Times, and has a dismal record of squandering it instead of reinvesting it in its newspapers. The group changes names and managers like I change socks. Stick to your knitting boys, or appoint a woman.
Newspapers elsewhere in developing areas like the Far East are excelling, while in the developed world they’re tanking. ABC figures show our numbers are dwindling.
Young people get their news from the internet, Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio. We eagerly awaited delivery of a daily bundle of balanced hard news, sport, features and finance.
What to do?
Some radical ideas:
Give government a few free pages a week to tell their story. You must engage with politicians, not just criticise all the time.
Give Cape Town and Durban just one good daily title.
Get some good news on page one. People want to wake up to optimism. Good news sells better than bad.
Lead the paper with a reader’s letter sometimes – they do it in Russia all the time.
Do weird and wacky things like a race across town by solar car, an air race, anything: make newspapers generators of fun.
Take the trouble to tell South Africans where we are in world standings.
We are one of very few countries with the capacity to host a World Cup; Johannesburg is one of only 20 world cities; we are a remarkable mix of people not at war.
Where do we rank? South Africa’s economy is the 28th largest in the world (World Bank and IMF figures by GDP), out of 220 countries.
Peter Sullivan is a former editor of The Star and group editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers South Africa. He was chairperson of Print Media South Africa’s Awards Committee for many years.