Workers at Independent Newspapers have not given up hope of claiming a stake in the company, bought by Dr Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium from Irish owners, Independent News and Media, two weeks ago.
Ann Crotty, Business Report editor-at-large and a trustee of the workers’ trust, the Independent Trust for Media Freedom, said the group welcomed “the sale of the South African assets of Independent News Limited by the Irish owners and the possibility of new investment in our titles for the first time in years”.
“Our trust, which has the support of staff in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Kimberley and across all departments from editorial to advertising, marketing, production and circulation, aims to secure a stake for staff among the new owners of the company,” Crotty said in answer to a query from The Media Online. “We are keen to continue our discussions with Dr Survé on this issue.”
Crotty and the Trust are “convinced that a significant stake for staff is the best way to guarantee the independence and diversity of our newspapers and to mobilise the skills, talents and experience of staff in order to realise the neglected potential of this company.”
The Trust was initiated when rumours of an impending sale of Independent News and Media South Africa first started several years ago. Not only is it concerned over the future of the company, but also about transformation of the industry as a whole, and INMSA in particular.
To this end, Crotty presented a submission to the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT) hearing on behalf of the Independent Staff Trust and union, Mwasa.
In the submission, Crotty says the sale of INMSA “presents an opportunity to ensure that the new ownership structure of the company is reflective of, and provides expression for, the ‘diversity of SA voices’”. This, she says, is the backbone of the Trust’s objective to own a 25% stake in INMSA. The Trust wants staff to have some influence on the direction the company takes.
[Unfortunately, the work of the PDMTTT has been severely impacted by the decision of the Times Media Group on Monday to follow Caxton and leave the PDMTTT process that is supposed to give impetus to the transformation of the newspaper industry.]
Crotty told the PDMTTT many of the shortcomings in the group’s newspapers today “are the direct result of relentless cost-cutting over the years which have forced editors to make absurd choices about what stories NOT to cover, put unreasonable pressure on reporters, photographers and sub-editors, as well as sales and print staff.
“This cost-cutting pressure has also sent our circulations spinning downwards as readers inevitably refuse to pay rising prices for newspapers whose quality can no longer be guaranteed. We can barely cover the cities properly; the rural areas are effectively out of our reach,” she said.
Crotty – like many others – believes newspaper groups have failed to meet the transformation challenge head on. “The continued failure effectively to meet this challenge not only risks intervention from the government but will see print media companies become increasingly irrelevant to a growing section of the SA public. This irrelevance will in the long-term threaten the financial viability of even the largest print media companies.”
She says when the Irish group, Independent News and Media, bought what was the Argus Group in 1993, there was hope that Tony O’Reilly would “effect a fundamental break with past attitudes and practices and would generate the energy required to undertake the necessary transformation”.
That didn’t happen. In fact, quite the contrary. While newsrooms ‘transformed’ with young black reporters, cost cutting – and the repatriation of that money to Ireland – meant it was a superficial exercise. Crotty presented to the PDMTTT a report prepared by Mwasa for the National Treasury that “reveals the extent of cost-cutting forced upon the company’s newsrooms and the dire affect this had on INMSA’s ability to tackle any challenge whether from the need to transform or the need to compete with digital media”.
Crotty and the staff Trust hope that if they are given a voice in the new INMSA that it will help temper the short-term thinking so prevalent during INM’s ownership of the group.
“It is important to acknowledge that the Independent Staff Trust believes that the discipline of capital markets – as enforced by the JSE – is very useful. However we also believe that a focus on short-term profit can be destructive of sustainable long-term profits because it inevitably overlooks the investment needed for constant transformation,” she says.
The Trusts also believes that it’s not only the journalists and editors who should abide by a code of ethics, but management and owners too. “In recognition of the importance that ownership and management play in the issue of transformation, codes of conduct in this industry must not be restricted to journalists. We need to develop codes that guide the behaviour of management in this industry and also codes that guide the behaviour of the shareholders.”