While announcing the death of newspapers is perhaps premature, it’s true that these are straitened times for print, and that for years newspaper publishers have been looking at ways to cut costs and inefficiencies.
One thrifty move has been to combine newsrooms and other resources, like sports or photographic departments, into one hub servicing all the papers in a group. Independent Newspapers by 2009 had centralised all its sub-editors across the country into one hub. Avusa (now Times Media Group) last year brought Sunday Times sports staff into their sports hub.
Most recently, Media24’s Afrikaans newspapers are continuing with the centralisation of their services, a process begun in 2009. The latest development was the integration this year of the newsrooms of Beeld and Rapport. It was, Media24 head of Afrikaans news Tim du Plessis tells The Media, a “significant restructuring… that merged a slew of editorial services such as photographic, digital, sport, business and supplements into ‘M24’ entities, providing content to three dailies and a national Sunday”.
Switching to shared services is in line with global trends. “Our approach is informed by the ‘one kitchen, many restaurants’ approach that’s currently being followed in newsrooms across the world,” says Du Plessis. “As we all know by now, the business model for newspapers is changing rapidly. We have to adapt to survive. We must do the same, or more, with fewer resources.”
In Britain, the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in March merged to become one seven-day title. This meant the retrenchment of 80 of their 550 editorial staff, but the Telegraph group claims that 50 digital jobs will be created. The Guardian Online reports that this seven-day structure is already in place at the British Independent, the Sun and the Mirror titles.
Du Plessis adds that it’s about more than just cutting costs. “It’s also about getting our newsrooms and our journalists into ‘perpetual change’ mode, preparing them for a radically new working environment, completely different from the comfortable one we’ve had as recently as a decade ago.”
Media24 has implemented a number of changes. Photographic departments became one: Foto24. Business titles Sake and Finweek were blended (though this was later reversed as it wasn’t working). Sports reporting was combined, as was day subbing. Du Plessis adds that, “At some titles, daily supplements were changed into special pages in the main body, thereby saving on paper and printing costs. Expenditure on contract workers and freelancers will also be reviewed and reduced where necessary.” Media24 was hoping to finish the restructuring process by the end of May, with the further integration of Die Burger and Volksblad.
The integration of services has saved costs for Afrikaans newspapers, but it was not painless. Some senior (presumably more expensive) staff members took voluntary severance packages, depriving the newsrooms of their experience and juniors of their guidance. A hiring freeze is now in place and positions have been merged, increasing the workload and putting more pressure on existing staff. When asked if more jobs will be lost this time round, Du Plessis replies, “There is no intention to retrench specific staff categories, senior or otherwise.”
Professor Anton Harber, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, says he is not aware of any case where the integration of newsrooms has made for a better product. “The consolidation of newsrooms has a negative effect on content diversity, as it means an increasing homogenisation of news across titles. Different newsrooms, even in the same group, used to compete and sometimes take different angles or attitudes to stories – and that falls away if they centralise operations,” says Harber.
“Individual titles definitely lose individuality and character and can easily become just outlets at the end of a production line of bland, grey material.”
Additionally, the transition to shared services can be difficult for reporters and sub-editors. Journalist Gill Moodie of the website Grubstreet wrote that she felt sympathy for Avusa’s sports staff. “One day you’re working for one newspaper, expected to serve and promote the brand with diligence and enthusiasm – the next you’re told you’ll be working for a bunch of titles, some of which you might seldom read as they are published in different towns to your own.”
Anyone who has been a newspaper sub-editor knows the importance of a nuanced knowledge of local geography and politics for accurate editing and eye-catching layout. And reporters face challenges of their own, such as
switching their style and tone between publications. There is apparently a certain level of unhappiness at the changes in their newsrooms among Media24’s journalists. Some are reportedly in fear of their jobs. The Media was also told that there are issues of allegiance, with some reporters said to be holding back scoops until they can be used in “their” paper, or until they can be used on the weekend, where they will be given more space and prominence. When asked about this, Du Plessis responds that ultimately “our journalists will understand that Beeld must compete against The Star and against the Sunday Times, not against each other”. But, he says, the idea of the scoop itself has changed.
“Loyalty and allegiance to a specific title served us well in an era that is now coming to an end. In the news ecosystem now being created by Twitter, to name but one, the traditional news scoop takes on a whole new dimension. The traditional scoop’s ‘currency’ simply ain’t what it used to be.
“But, yes, there will be heated debates at the top table when it is decided who gets the scoop. That’s fine. If it’s truly a ‘Twitter-proof’ scoop, at least a Media24 paper will get the benefit,” says Du Plessis.
“The experience we’ve had so far in working as a joint Beeld/Rapport team has made us fully aware of the challenge to editors, reporters and subs. But they’re not insurmountable, as the journalists who have been working on shared teams for the past three years will tell,” he says.
Rather, a bigger challenge is maintaining the individual brand of each title. “Having edited both Rapport and Beeld, I can tell you despite a shared language and target market, the two papers are vastly different animals. They also have different personalities, so to speak. Title editors, news editors and page designers will have to take exceptional care to ensure that Beeld remains distinctly Beeld and Rapport remains distinctly Rapport in terms of content, tone and look and feel.”
There can be surprising benefits to consolidation – and not just to the bottom line. Harber says that the cuts have paradoxically benefited investigative reporting, which is expensive and the first ‘luxury’ to be cut at many newspapers abroad. “Sometimes [consolidation] enables a specialist staff shared across a group where it was not possibly for one title. For example, it may be that a single title cannot afford an investigative team, but a few titles together can do so and this can be a positive.” Media24 and Independent both have investigations units.
However, all in all, Harber doesn’t feel that consolidation is the way to go. “Many news operations are cutting costs to meet the challenges of the internet, but this usually puts them into a downward spiral of shrinking relevance, audience and revenue,” he says.
“Those outfits most likely to survive these challenging times are those that invest to ensure they produce content that has worth and value to their audience. Producing grey, characterless news may be cheaper, but it is no way to hold an audience. Producing great content that people are happy to pay for is the only way to survive into the future.”