The problem with newspapers in South Africa today is not online media or any other external threats, it is poor content and bad editing, says Mike Robertson, Times Media Group (TMG) managing director of the media division.
Robertson has until recently been acting CEO of Avusa (now renamed TMG). He is an old hand in this industry, and one with impeccable editorial credentials. He was a political reporter back in the last days of the National Party government and later become the Sunday Times political editor. He was then appointed Sunday Times editor before moving into the business side of the newspaper company through all its iterations, from Times Media Limited and Johnnic to Avusa.
He was appointed acting CEO shortly after Prakash Desai resigned from this position under a cloud in September 2011. Robertson held all the pieces together until TMG restructured and appointed Andrew Bonamour as CEO, allowing Robertson to resume running the media division.
While the doomsayers abound about the supposed imminent demise of newspapers. Robertson is not concerned about that, saying: “What has happened to newspapers in Europe and the US is not going to happen in South Africa. We have a different economic cycle. We are far more like India and Brazil, whose newspapers are holding ground. We are a part of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), after all, and we are not showing huge losses in circulation at all.
“Editing in South Africa is the major problem. We have lots of mediocre editors who are producing unacceptable newspapers. So who can blame people for not wanting to buy something that isn’t even good.”
He cites the lead-up to the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung at the end of 2012 as an example. “There were screeds of endless copy that nobody wanted to read… It is simple: we have to appoint great editors who will ensure we have engaging and compelling stories instead of long, boring articles where facts may not be accurate; and [then] people will buy newspapers.”
Since this interview, he appointed The Times editor Phylicia Oppelt to the hot seat at the Sunday Times, TMG’s most prized newspaper. There have been a number of senior editorial resignations and appointments since then. Word has it there will be more.
Robertson also believes that many newspapers are too expensive for the local market. He includes the Sunday Times in this, saying that because of this they are not increasing the price now until it balances out.
“Once we get the price and content right, we will achieve growth in circulation. It can and has been done,” he says.
Daily Sun (when it was under Deon du Plessis), Isolezwe and The Times have achieved good editing and pricing and now have excellent circulation.
Another complicating factor in South Africa, says Robertson, is distribution. He explains that in a country roughly the size of Europe, getting national newspapers to rural areas is not an easy task. “And then you still need to sell them,” he says. “When I was growing up, there would be five or six cafés within 500 metres of our home, but now those are mostly gone and there simply aren’t the outlets for us.”
So, with a clear understanding that “you have to actively sell newspapers”, Robertson says he and his team “are constantly trying to find unconventional and innovative ways of selling”.
While distribution is one TMG issue, another is that of printing presses, primarily because the company spends a fortune on paying for this service. Universal Print Group and Hirt & Carter, bought by Avusa in 2010 for over R925 million, handle only a fraction of the company’s printing needs.
“In the market now, we have such a huge print through-put that we get the best print prices (from Caxton) and we would rather invest in the quality of our journalism than buy presses,” says Robertson.
In terms of improving their journalism, TMG runs a cadet school. Also, Robertson says they are always looking out for mid-level talent and potential news editors who they can train as managers to do the job.
“Being a great journalist and writer does not automatically make you a great editor. Many great craftsmen make lousy editors. Being a journalist is the most independent task, one where you don’t consider breaking stories and page leads; but become a news editor and your job is to make everyone else shine.”
Robertson explains they regularly consider who their target audiences are and what stories would most interest them. “But these stories haven’t been finding their way into newspapers. Why?” He speaks of a phenomenal doctor who has performed 400 heart surgeries in the midst of the collapsing health-care system.
“Surely that is a story that should be told. It is content, content, content that we need to concentrate on,” he says. “We have drifted away from where our readers are and we need to get back to them. We must recognise that the bulk of our readers are reading in a second language so we need to tell stories well, simply and quickly.”
He says it is about writing short, sharp but brilliantly, and not rewriting press releases or, worse still, printing them as is in the newspaper. “That is shocking and it happens. But having said that, there are people who are breaking the mould as unbelievably good journalists.”
Robertson pooh-poohed the threat of online. “It wasn’t a threat, we all willingly committed mass suicide. I mean, who goes and puts their valuable stories online for the world to see for free? When television started, we didn’t give them our stories for nothing, nor did we do that when radio came about. So, why did we do this?
“Online isn’t getting the advertising – the big brands have gone from print to television. And it is difficult to compete with television because they give such huge discounts. We get up to 75% discounts for Sunday Times advertising on TV.”
Having said that, Robertson believes online should not be ignored, and says that TMG have looked at various subscription models for its publications and matched each one to its own fit. The Sunday Times, Daily Dispatch and The Herald have closed off their sites and the only way to read any them is to pay.
Of the Sunday Times, he says, “online sales are growing steadily”. The TimesLIVE is a free brand. BDLive is completely linked and the model is you get so many free stories and then you pay for more, much like the Financial Times.
As for media via cellphone, Robertson says, “People say that is the next big thing. Cellphones may be great for free information but not as a big brand advertising medium.”
As TMG is part owner of BDFM (Business Day and Financial Mail) and owner of Business Times, Robertson admits that the demise of the financial advertising in business publications (as of January 2013 listed companies no longer have to publish financial results in the press) “will hurt” their business publications. But, he says, Peter Bruce (BDFM publisher) has been planning
“Again, as long as we produce compelling content, we will get top-end advertising. In Malaysian business newspapers there are no financial ads and big brands advertising in them.”
Is he concerned about 2013? “Last year was the most unpredictable year, it went up and down. We had a fantastic December and November, but October was abysmal. Following Marikana, people went into a depression and stopped spending,” he says. “So I am utterly cautious about this year and believe it will be a tough year.”
As for any more imminent change in TMG, Robertson says, “On the media side, it is minimal. We continue to run media, doing our best to produce compelling content. We want to make sure we are in the green and not red in the ABCs. We are also making sure we have good quality sales staff, which is why we brought Trevor Ormerod back,” he says. Last month TMG engaged media guru Virginia Hollis as a consultant. “And we will bring in other big industry players as well.
“In terms of media, we are primarily in newspapers and we have big and profitable products. We would love to be in television, but we aren’t anymore.”
Avusa’s board made a decision to sell its valuable shares in M-Net in September 2009.
As for its magazines, TMG relinquished its licence to publish the successful Stuff magazine late last year to publisher Gisele Wertheim Aymes.
“It is an internationally licenced magazine, which follows a formula. When it came up for renewal, the international licensee wanted a great deal more from us to keep the licence and it simply wasn’t worth it. It was an unsustainable model. So, instead, we are going to produce Business Class, which will be our own local formula that will go our to our Business Times readers in the more affluent areas. Besides, those laddish magazines have reached their sell-by date.”
He says that in general it is difficult to take on international magazine licences because they are not geared enough to locals. “Look at the biggest sellers, You, Huisgenoot and SARIE: they are totally homegrown. Our SAHomeowner is like that, a totally indigenous format that appeals to all South Africans.”
From the outside, it appears as if over the last few years TMG has been on a business-buying spree, acquiring, for example, Airports Media (2008), Boo! Alternative Media Communications (2009) and Universal Print Group and Hirt&Carter (2010).
“While Hirt&Carter has a printing component, is actually a business intelligence service. This enables people at Checkers or Spar to create leaflets and get feedback on how well they worked. And their clients are all the big retailers who are big spenders,” he says. On the Universal side, they create forms and labels for fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Other than a small component in Durban that prints publications, the rest are all FMCG.
And while the readers may not be giving up on newspapers, according to Robertson, if they make sure the content is exceptional, the government is not going to let up pushing their buttons.
“In terms of ownership, we are the most transformed in the sector,” says Robertson. “Most editing floors around the country are totally transformed and have been for a while, but we play a confrontational role with the government and their pressure cannot be avoided, so we must just make sure all our houses are in order. No matter what we do, we are not going to satisfy the government, which simply does not like our content. Fortunately, we have the Constitution on our side and, unless they pack the courts with tame judges, we will manage.”
With Robertson at the helm, they at least stand a decent chance.
This story was first published in a special Newspaper supplement published with the March issue of The Media magazine.