‘Redeploying’ Cape Times executive editor Alide Dasnois had less to do with her decision to publish a front page story on the public protector’s report on the fisheries minister, Sekunjalo and a dodgy patrol boat tender and more to do with implementing changes promised when he bought the controlling share in Independent News and Media South Africa, says Sekunjalo chairman Dr Iqbal Survé.
“The need for change is indisputable and borne out by the simple fact that judged by all the relevant performance indicators for a media company, Independent lags behind its competitors and is caught in a vortex of stagnation that will require immediate bold action and substantial financial investment to halt,” Survé said in a statement explaining his actions.
An internal memo to staff said, “Alide Dasnois is no longer executive editor of the Cape Times and is currently considering other options offered by the company. The group is awaiting her response.
“Gasant Abarder, who recently agreed to return to Independent, is now appointed as editor of The Cape Times. We are delighted to welcome Gasant back to the group and wish him all the best in his new role.”
Media backlash on the news that Dasnois had been fired (Survé says she was offered another position but Dasnois is busy with her lawyers, which seems to suggest she was not convinced as to his motives) has been substantial, with everyone from editors to media unions and the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) weighing in on the story.
Sanef called on Survé to explain his decision, which he did in a lengthy statement later on Monday, but also questioned the way in which he implemented his decision.
“The Independent Group is a signatory to the newly-formed co-regulatory press mechanism, which is a product of a public process led by the late Chief Justice Pius Langa. Sekunjalo, the group’s new owners, should lead by example by using this system to lodge its grievance against the newspaper or seek other editorially permissible remedial mechanisms instead of taking actions that raise the spectre of shareholder interference,” Sanef said.
Staff at Independent shared Sanef’s concerns. They took the unusual step of issuing a statement themselves.
“We, the overwhelming majority of editorial staff of the Cape Times, wish to register our deep anger and protest at the dismissal of our esteemed editor Alide Dasnois,” they said in the statement.
“Although Dasnois was told three days ago not to return to work, staff have still not been officially informed of the reason for her sudden dismissal.
“The staff’s concern, from the sequence of events, is that the new owners of the newspaper, Sekunjalo Independent Media, are attempting to compromise the editorial independence of the Cape Times.
“If this is so, this is a direct threat to the standing and independence of this proud newspaper.” Editorial staff at the Cape Argus and The Star supported the statement.
In the meantime, new editor Gasant Abarder came in for a tongue-lashing by former employer, Primedia. In what has become a battle of the statements, Primedia, which owns Eyewitness News where Abarder was employed as a news editor in Cape Town, accused him of “absconding”.
“Eyewitness News can confirm that Gasant Abarder has absconded from his position as EWN news editor in Cape Town, despite a contractual obligation to work three months’ notice,” it said.
Abarder apparently resigned in November but agreed to serve out his contractual three-month notice period. But on Friday evening, the night after Dasnois’ was removed from her position, Abarder wrote “a late-night e-mail to management informing them that he was leaving with immediate effect and would not be returning to Primedia Broadcasting”.
He referred all enquiries to the management of the Independent Group.
“We are disappointed that Abarder has chosen to leave on these terms,” said editor-in-chief Katy Katopodis. Primedia are “assessing their options” in terms of Abarder’s “violation” of his contract.
Survé insists his actions are all part of his vision to “arrest the decline” of the newspapers in his group. He insists the changes at the Cape Times have nothing to do with the “story published as the lead in the paper last Friday, regarding adverse findings by the Public Protector against a government minister in the award of a tender to one of the companies in the Sekunjalo Group”.
“For the record I and Independent deny this version of events categorically. Ms Dasnois was not fired. When she was removed as executive editor she was offered various other positions in the company to which I still await a response,” he says.
Survé said he would “not tolerate under performance of titles especially if it undercuts the paper’s ability to grow market share. Given the distorted picture now being peddled in the public about the motives for the changes at the paper, it is necessary to remind everyone of the wholly unsatisfactory sales performance of that title over the last few years. Between 2008 and 2012, the Cape Times‘ compounded loss of sales amounts to 28%.”
Now, for the first time since he took over the group, Survé has made clear his intentions. He says Independent suffered years of neglect and under-investment by its previous owners, the Irish media house Independent Newspaper and the O’Reilly family. He says it would not normally be his practice to discuss staff changes in public, but the “sustained campaign to vilify me and INMSA has forced me to outline some aspects of the strategic repositioning of the business publicly”.
“Because of a lack of funds and the absence of a strategic vision from the owners, our print titles still look and feel much the same way they did before the turn of the century, and have predictably lost readership and circulation share to both our traditional competitors and newer print entrants,” he says.
“Our online offer is suboptimal and cannot hold its own against the diverse and often innovative offerings available on the web. We have so far failed to make any substantive steps towards the technological convergence that is key to the survival of the business.
“Another undesirable outcome of neglect and underinvestment has been the virtual balkanization of Independent into various regional entities, with no coherent corporate structure, identity and no internal systems of cooperation and direction,” he says.
His intention is to “arrest the decline through reinvestment in technology and human resources, as well as articulating and driving a new vision for the group which will allow for greater enhancement of our editorial content so as to become attractive to the groups consumers and advertisers. The new plan for Independent’s future is in the process of being rolled out and communicated to internal stakeholders”.
He says internal workshops designed to move the process forward were stopped by the death of Nelson Mandela.
He says appointments have been made to complement that vision. Karima Brown has been appointed group executive editor and will drive the turnaround plan. Chris Whitfield, former Cape regional editor, is now group executive “in charge of launching new regional and national titles as well as vernacular offerings and other initiatives aimed at expanding Independent’s reach and market share”.
Abarder has been appointed Cape Times editor with Anees Sallie as his deputy.