It may be the home of legends but many don’t even consider the Eastern Cape in terms of media. Just what is the province made of?
The Eastern Cape is a land of contrasts, from the gently rolling hills of the former Transkei to its wild coastline, from pockets of extreme urban opulence to mass rural poverty spread across the country’s second-biggest provincial land mass.
It’s the ‘home of legends’ – among them Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Victoria Mxenge, Robert Sobukwe and, of course, Nelson Mandela. It is often neglected by today’s politicians; the number of mud schools awaiting replacement is one stark reminder.
It’s also the home of a feisty print press. From the frontier wars and through the dark days of apartheid, it forced the nation, and on occasion the world, to sit up and take notice, and it continues to earn accolades today.
Compared to publications elsewhere, the Eastern Cape’s two major dailies have relatively small circulations, with The Herald at 21 446 and Daily Dispatch at 26 501 according to the third quarter of 2013 ABC report. This is hardly surprising, considering the province’s widespread poverty, but both newspapers have earned the kind of trust others aspire to achieve.
Heather Robertson, editor of Times Media Group-owned Port Elizabeth daily The Herald and the Weekend Post, says that what gives her publications their edge is the “quality read” they provide about local people and events.
“That’s what gives us our flavour,” she says. “We strive to serve local news first and foremost.”
Just 300km away in East London another TMG publication, the Daily Dispatch, is bucking newspapers’ downward circulation trend. Its ABC total circulation in third quarter of 2012 was 26 390, 111 less than in the same period last year.
Bongani Siqoko, who has been Dispatch editor since July last year after working as the news editor and managing editor, is the personification of what his newspaper demonstrates daily.
“I love East London with all my heart,” says the Eastern Cape-born editor, and his paper’s masthead motto reflects that sentiment: ‘Your paper. Your Community. Your Life.’
“The Dispatch must be a radically local newspaper,” says Siqoko, “but it cannot be parochial. That is the challenge.”
Recently, the paper added another legend under its masthead: “National and international award-winning journalism”. Siqoko insists it’s not just the kudos their many award-winning investigations garner that makes them proud. It’s the real changes the investigations have brought to the community.
“After we published our [2007/08 Taco Kuiper award-winning] investigation on why babies were dying at East London’s Frere Hospital, minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang came here and announced a bag of reforms,” he says. “Within months of us breaking the story, the maternity wards at Frere were transformed.
“In 2012, we published ‘Hostels of Shame’, which looked at conditions in school hostels around the province. (See page 36.) Like the Frere investigation, it has won major investigative awards [the 2012 Taco Kuiper and the 2013 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year awards]. Soon after we published the investigation, an official from the department of education was suspended and government announced a budget to give most of the hostels a facelift.
“It is a huge honour for me to edit my hometown newspaper. It is really humbling … joining that exclusive club of editors who have come before me, like Donald Woods. I grew up reading this paper and it has a special place in my heart.”
Robertson concurs that emotional ties which engender life-long loyalty among readers are a vital part of the success of The Herald, the oldest running newspaper in the country, which was founded in 1845. “It’s got longevity [and] a faithful following,” she says.
“Unlike East London, there is a lot of competition in Port Elizabeth, so even our local space is quite contested. Some of them [local newspapers] serve suburbs, some serve townships… we serve everybody.
“We provide a quality read about local people. We cover everything and everyone…. We act as their watchdog on council matters, on health, education, crime. We act as a friend who shares in their celebrations… both the tragedy and the joy.”
Robertson tells the news editors of both The Herald and the Weekend Post she doesn’t want doom and gloom dominating from the front to the back pages, even though the bad news is often much easier to gather.
“We have the cops to give us crime reports; the courts, where the scum of the earth appear; the council, where councillors slug it out …. But news doesn’t only happen there; it happens in the classroom, on the sports fields, in universities, etc. It happens in the good deeds people do. We need to reflect all of that.”
The Weekend Post is far less news oriented. “We have some common readers,” says Robertson, “but not that many. The two papers have different identities and very different readerships.”
Robertson is upbeat about the future, seeing new technology as an ally rather than a threat. “The content we provide will survive on any platform – even if we end up producing holographic news. People still want to know about that accident down the road, who got married… [and by using technology to disseminate content] we have immediate engagement with our readers. They argue with us, agree with us. They can tell us what they like and what they don’t like and we can act on it. It helps improve the function we serve.”
The Dispatch also embraces new technology and social media, with a healthy presence on platforms such as Twitter, but the newspaper has taken drawing closer to its readers to a new level with such innovations as Dispatch Café Newsroom. Led by the publication’s metro desk, reporters literally meet with readers to chat over coffee at various venues around the city, helping cement its relationship with urban readers.
There’s also a traditional affairs beat. “The readership of the Daily Dispatch is 80% black,” explains Siqoko. “Though they are mostly found in urban areas, they have a lot of respect for traditional authority. Many still retain strong links to their rural origins and families. So for us it is important that we talk to and about this sector of our community.”
Another hugely successful innovation is Dispatch Dialogues, public gatherings at which members of the community can listen to and question leaders from all walks of life.
The initiative started at the end of 2007 with a book launch. Leader page editor Dawn Barkhuizen remembers, “I saw the audience diving to get hold of the microphone during question time and that showed me how much they wanted a chance to speak out.”
Partnering with the University of Fort Hare, the Dispatch has held 89 dialogues to date, with speakers including public protector Thuli Mandonsela, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and academic Raymond Suttner.
The most harrowing night, she recalls, was the Gwede Mantashe-Bantu Holomisa ’Battle of the Generals‘ when 1 000 people who could not fit into the hall threatened to storm in through the glass doors.
“Hosting Thuli Mandonsela, who brought her team to help people with their problems, was deeply satisfying. But probably the overall highlight has been to see the audience mature and become more open to different viewpoints. In the early years we had to have the police on standby because things got so hot. That is seldom necessary nowadays,” says Barkahuizen.
Making voices heard is, of course, also the domain of radio, and the vastness of the Eastern Cape makes it an ideal environment for the medium, communicating with audiences far and wide.
Serving individual communities within its large footprint is important to Port Elizabeth’s Algoa FM, part of the African Media Entertainment Group, which has been broadcasting in the Eastern Cape for over 27 years, and along the Garden Route since December 2011.
Predominantly a music station, but including many talk show features, along with news in English and Afrikaans, it splits its weekday transmission between 3pm and 7pm, with presenter Gordon Graham’s ‘Border Drive Show’ for listeners in the Border/Kei area beaming out from studios in East London, while the rest of the broadcast area tunes in to ‘The Fast Lane’, with Wayne Hart and Lauren Mungur.
The split allows the station to produce specific content and news, while providing businesses in the area with affordable options for advertising specifically to their market. “It’s incredibly important to us,” explains managing director Dave Tiltmann, “and having an Algoa FM presenter stationed [in East London] brings our brand ‘home’ to the community [there].”
Operating in a less affluent region comes with its own challenges, particularly as the station targets listeners in the LSM 7-10 range, although it makes no real difference to how the station communicates and relates to listeners, says Tiltmann.
“We benchmark ourselves against international standards because our vision as a company is to aspire to become the leading and most admired media brand.”
The strategy seems to be paying off, with the station scooping three major awards recently: MTN Radio Award for Best Breakfast Presenter, Daron Mann; MTN Radio Award for Best Music Show, Wayne Hart; and the Telkom Business Golf Journalist of the Year Award, Neil Bisseker.
They were no fluke, says Tiltmann. “The station is world class and national media executives are often blown away by our team and the facilities we have in the Eastern Cape. The downside to this is that my team [members] are often poached by bigger commercial stations, which can offer more lucrative contracts and opportunities in other media such as TV,” he adds ruefully. “But we are very proud of our past graduates, who now work and grace the airwaves elsewhere.”
At the other end of the LSM spectrum is SABC youth radio station, trufm, which boasts it is “like no one else”.
Broadcasting in Xhosa and English from Bhisho, the provincial seat of government, trufm’s primary target audience is the province’s youth, aged 16 to 24, with a secondary target of 25 to 34 year olds. The bulk of the audience is in the LSM 2-6 range, “a market in transition… the future market”, according to the station’s website, offering advertisers access to the “upwardly mobile and trendsetting youth of the Eastern Cape”.
It is successful, says marketing manager Sbongi Ngcobo, because of its community–oriented, “peer to peer” approach with “young, relatable presenters who introduce empowering and inspiring content that speaks directly to the people”.
The presenters, all from the province, introduce empowering content. And its
youthful and playful delivery of ‘edutainment’, Ngcobo says, not only empowers but also encourages them to take charge of their destiny by sharing success stories about people who come from humble beginnings.
“It drives the message that you are not your circumstance, and that living in a province of legends means that, with the right mind-set and determination, the world really is your oyster,” says Ngcobo.
The Eastern Cape is also the natural home of the SABC’s national Xhosa service Umhlobo Wenene FM, based in Port Elizabeth, which serves a countrywide weekday audience of 2.5-million Xhosa speakers. But it is a burgeoning local “amateur” radio sector and new-kid-on-the-block Bay TV, broadcasting terrestrially in the Port Elizabeth area and also on the DStv bouquet, along with weekly papers and hyper-localised news sheets, that complete the picture of a community focused provincial media living up to old standards and setting new ones.
This story was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Media Magazine.
IMAGE: The Eastern Cape’s Home of Legends campaign / Oryx Media