The Times Media Group (TMG) gave notice that it was resigning its membership of the South Africa Press Association (Sapa) in July 2013, pulling its print titles’ subscription to the wire service. And Caxton, through its mainstream title The Citizen, resigned its own de facto membership of Sapa at the end of 2013 and will leave officially on 30 June this year.
Mike Robertson, TMG’s managing director of media operations, said the group was pulling out because Sapa had declined in quality and TMG wanted to focus its resources on building up its own quality, original content. The Citizen’s management has not told Sapa why it is withdrawing and declined to speak to The Media.
These resignations raise questions about the agency’s future and the role of news wires in an age when media consumption is undergoing massive change. This leaves Media24 and Independent News and Media South Africa (INMSA) as the remaining member owners (shareholders).
The immediate question is: How is Sapa surviving without TMG? Sapa editor Mark van der Velden insists that the resignation was “not a death knell” for the agency. For a start, TMG’s online properties now subscribe to Sapa. “Yes, it certainly is a big dent in the revenue, but already TMG is coming back to the party quite substantially with its online [subscribers], who now no longer have a free ticket through their uncle who owned a share of the shop. Some of their newspapers were freeloaders,” says Van der Velden.
More profoundly, though, the issue has forced a “maybe complacent” Sapa to take a good, hard look at itself. “[TMG’s pull-out has] spurred the other members to say, ‘Look guys, Sapa’s 75-year-old business model of a nice collegiate membership actually started to fracture years ago and in effect has already changed and Sapa must now review, revamp, reinvent itself’,” says Van der Velden.
Sapa has been reviewing a lot of its business relationships, he adds, to weed out the use of content that has not been paid for. “The DNA of Sapa was always: get the news out there, it doesn’t matter if you really get all the value back… Now we have got to start tightening up,” says Van der Velden. “Already the revenue changes as a result of this are quite noticeable, though I can’t go into any figures. It’s not a quick sweep through the spreadsheet and you’re fixed, but there is huge potential.”
TMG itself should beware, he claims. There has to be a ‘Chinese wall’ separating their online and offline products, so that Sapa content doesn’t leak to those who are not subscribing. Sapa will be strict about levying penalties on transgressors, but there is a degree of absurdity in this, says Van der Velden. “Joe Soap who writes for [TMG titles], will he have a little wall through the middle of his brain?”
Sapa was formed by member newspapers in 1938 with a similar model to Reuters or Associated Press – what Van der Velden calls a “wholesaler” of news and other copy written in a neutral tone to appeal to a range of publications. It is now a Section 21 non-profit organisation with a complicated membership structure.
Van der Velden says The Citizen’s withdrawal won’t be a further blow because, while the newspaper may be pulling out so it won’t have any more voting rights or liability for Sapa, it is actually expanding its subscriptions to the wire service. Media24 and Independent have also pledged their support, he adds.
Newspaper folk do acknowledge Sapa’s role. Sapa prides itself on being more than just news: it also carries press releases and provides daily diaries. Over the years, many a sub has bolstered weak in-house reporting with Sapa copy; many a news editor has been tipped off to a breaking story; many a sports sub has got the cricket results on the wires first. Yet there are general complaints that the level of reporting and subbing at the agency has declined.
A former news editor still working at a major daily who asked to remain anonymous says, “The quality of copy has definitely declined lately, especially on the smaller stories like crime and accident briefs. Sapa stories used to be examples of great subbing; now that is no longer always the case.”
Andrew Trench, editor at The Witness, disagrees however. “I have heard people complaining [about a decline]. But there doesn’t seem to be a marked drop in quality.” Trench says Sapa has always been good at “the bread and butter stories” and stories that newspapers find expensive to cover, like long-running court cases.
Van der Velden acknowledges that the cost-cutting and juniorisation hitting other newsrooms is a factor at Sapa too. But if there is a decline in quality, it – and indeed TMG’s resignation – must be seen against a broader context of a print industry under massive strain. “The print industry people are saying that what’s happening now is not the kind of crisis that we had before. The texture is very different. It’s a political dimension, it’s a business model dimension, it’s a technical dimension, it’s a mindset. It’s not just,’ Oh there’s a downturn, guys, we need to save 10%’.”
The future of Sapa, then, is an uncertain one. But newspaper people still think it has a role to play, especially in tough times, says the anonymous source. “It’s understandable that outlets want to build their reputation for original stories and the brands of their reporters, and it’s all fine and well to have your ‘own story’, but if it’s just going to be a rehashed version of the same facts out there already, it seems like a waste of the ever-dwindling resources in all newsrooms.” Readers don’t care if content is syndicated or not, as long as it’s reliable and relevant, he adds.
Another news editor who wanted to remain anonymous says that Sapa “at least makes it possible for outlets to cover news over a much wider geographical area than their limited budgets would normally allow. I think the readers are the ones who are going to suffer if papers drop Sapa in favour of focusing solely on the copy their in-house reporters can produce, simply because you suddenly massively decrease your scope of reporting.”
For media expert Anton Harber the question is, are agencies redundant in the digital age? The answer, he believes, is yes – but not if they redefine their roles. “Information spreads so quickly in so many ways that agencies are no longer a primary source, just one among many. The value they offer is now more about editing and checking to ensure reliability,” he notes.
Sapa fills a “news vacuum”, he adds, that would otherwise be filled with international copy or with news with a political agenda. “Let’s hope Sapa can remake itself and find new ways to add value. Instead of just cutting costs, it needs to redefine its role for the age of social media.”
Van der Velden says the future is unclear. But he points to the Australian Associated Press, built on a model much like Sapa’s, which has redefined its role and now provides all sorts of services, such as sub-editing, newspaper layout and content for corporates. He would like to see Sapa shake off its constraints as a “backroom” wholesaler to become a brand in its own right. Sapa is finding ways to use Twitter; for example, by tweeting a teaser to a story a customer is carrying and driving traffic to that customer’s page. “It’s no ‘ching’ of the till at Sapa, but we’re adding value to our members and they appreciate that. And we saw a few times that once we started to do that, we would trend… We’re finding that every now and again we’re top of the pops.”
Sapa would be much missed if it disappears, says the news editor. “Wire agencies have an immensely important role to play, and it would be a shame if Sapa dwindles away over the coming years. Look at the massive overseas agencies like AFP, Reuters and AP. I don’t think you’ll hear the argument made by the New York Times or The Guardian that the existence of these agencies diminishes the quality of journalism or the value of newspaper offerings in Europe and the US.”
This post was first published in the April 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Sapa newsroom / Wendy Beukes