Times Media Group has resigned from the South African Press Association, bringing to an end its longstanding relationship with the news wire service.
The Group’s managing director of its media operations, Mike Robertson, confirmed the move, saying the decision was partly for financial reasons – “it’s an expensive service” – but also because “we were not happy with the quality of the service and the papers had either completely stopped using Sapa copy or were using it less and less”.
Robertson said the decision to give notice was “supported by all our editors who will use the money saved to bolster their reporting staff”. Without giving the exact number involved, Robertson said the Group’s Sapa membership amounted to “millions of rands” per annum.
Sapa’s editor, Mark van der Velden, said TMG’s decision was not as simple as it seems. “The intricacies of Sapa’s membership is quite arcane,” he said. “Yes, TMG has told Sapa it will not be using our copy, or paying its share, and will be doing its own thing. They will be investing massively in staff, which is all admirable, but for my sins, I’ve seen them come and go over the past 30 years.”
Van der Velden said Sapa is a section 21 not-for-profit company that was set up in 1938 by member newspapers as a cost saving mechanism for its member titles to share copy, with a mandate that stories covered would be “in the public interest”. Over the years, titles were bought and sold and eventually, the four major newspapers groups – Times Media Group, Caxton, Independent News and Media SA and Media 24 – became the its shareholders.
“A shareholder group – one of the current four – has either registered titles, which makes them “member newspapers” and equals a vote at Sapa board meeting, or non-registered titles, which makes them in effect “ordinary” subscriber newspapers to Sapa content. The M&G, for example, does not belong to a Sapa shareholder so it is neither a registered or an unregistered title; it is a subscriber to the Sapa service,” Van der Velden explains.
The Sunday Times, in that case, is a voting member but its daily newspaper, The Times, is a registered member but has not voting rights. The Mail&Guardian is a registered title, but as it falls outside the major four groups, is not a voting member.
“So this makes the TMG decision a bit more complicated,” says Van der Velden. “TMG has given notice that its print titles will no longer use our services, but that its free websites, such as TimesLIVE, will. Which begs the question: How can they guarantee there will be a Chinese wall down the middle of the newsroom to prevent content spillage? Sapa has never worried about spillage when our members various titles used copy but it does raise questions now.”
Robertson told The Media Online Sapa is “of more use to our websites”. He said free sites, such as TimesLIVE will still subscribe to the wire service, but the Daily Dispatch’s content, for example, and is behind a paywall. He said the Sunday Times didn’t use Sapa at all, and use was “negligible in the case of other papers”.
Van der Velden said Sapa’s services offered far more than text and pictures. “There’s tip-offs, the daily diaries to help planning, back up, contacts… I always say when our clients get their invoices, for every R100, R95 is spent on copy and the other R5 pays for the right for clients to pretend they don’t use Sapa,” he said.
“The question is: do we do it more cheaply than the cost of two junior staffers,” he asks.
TMG seems to think so. Robertson says the savings on Sapa will help them build capacity. “Our titles share already content and where we don’t have titles we have expanded and will further expand our bureaus,” he says.
“Money saved from spending on Sapa will go back into editorial to produce unique, original content. This is addition to the expansion of the court, local government hubs, which you recently wrote about.”
The Group will still use content from foreign media titles, such as the Financial Times and the Telegraph.
Van der Velden says TMG’s withdrawal will be an opportunity for Sapa for look at how it operates. “The ball is now in the court of the other member groups. They will have to meet to decide where to from here,” he says.
Whether that means stripping costs at Sapa, or finding a new member to take the place of TMG remains to be seen.
“This is by no means a death blow.”