City Press newspapers turns 30 this month and on Sunday, the newspaper is celebrating its birthday with a “beautiful supplement” – according to editor Ferial Haffajee – that shows the “evolution” of the paper. It’s opening position was, and is: “It’s black. It’s beautiful. It’s ours.”
When [Golden] City Press launched back in 1982, South Africa was in a different place. PW Botha was president. The state of emergency was a way of life. Gags on the press were a way of life. Thirty years later, South Africa is a different country. Yet once again, we face threats against media freedom. But City Press hasn’t changed its style in those intervening years.
“The City Press style has always been fiercely political, a campaigner for social justice with a firm fun streak running through it. It’s also a paper of sport and entertainment. We retain those qualities but have added investigative and magazine flair. The opinion section called Voices is also growing in importance as a place of national conversation,” Haffajee says.
Haffajee believe City Press has in all it years “held up a mirror to society’s warts and we have always campaigned for freedom”
Now, with calls to ‘manage’ the press becoming ever more strident, Haffajee sees City Press’s role as a “critical patriot, able to celebrate all that is wonderful about our country (and there is so much) while also being an unapologetic watch-dog for democracy (and there is so much that needs watching).
“I’m not of the view that we are back to the future. Media corporations, along with and as part of civil society, have mounted an excellent campaign of tactical protest with strategic engagement to fend off both threats. I feel no intrusion or fear about these two incursions – the Info Bill and the threat of a Media Appeals Tribunal – as we have so much arsenal in our belts to fight it,” she says.
Besides the Protection of State Information Bill and the investigation into the feasibility of a Media Appeals Tribunal, Haffajee sees the biggest threat to the media as complacency. “It cannot possibly be business as usual when we are living through the most exciting media revolution yet (and there have been a few). Mediocrity is another,” she says.
She believes readers of the paper have “grown with their country”.
“They are wealthier, more powerful and influential than in the paper’s founding years. Readers are increasingly younger and we have altered the race demographic. While City Press is still a place of black excellence, we have made it a comfortable read for all readers with its values of democracy, debate and fun,” she says.
Still, City Press like many other weekly papers excluding the Sunday Times – suffered losses in readership in the last quarter of 2011. “We are in the process of repositioning, so expected to lose readers as we developed a new audience,” she says. “It’s not easy saying goodbye to readers and it’s a tough task to win over new readers. But we are on the right track and if we make it work, well…that would be fantastic.”
Like many newspapers, City Press grapples with its digital offering. Haffajee believes their progress is “Slow, but sure”.
“We run a platform agnostic newsroom (on good days) and there is now City Press on Twitter, Facebook, online and there is an app. It’s all built not as stand-alone but to inform a week-long conversation that culminates in a big-bang Sunday read.
“Our ambition is to own the Sunday news agenda – it’s tough because the Sunday Times is an excellent and formidable competitor, but I feel that we have each made the other stronger. I enjoy the weekly race with Ray Hartley and believe he does too,” she says.
The paper recently launched a glossy magazine supplement custom edited by New Media. The publication, i-magazine, is [sadly] not national yet. “It needs to go national. The i-magazine is the essential Sunday read. As a prolific weekend paper reader, I feel that it is on the path to being among the best in the world. I know that world-class can be used in clichéd ways, but we really want City Press to be a world-class read,” she says.
In the meantime, readers can look forward to a special supplement this weekend, one that Haffajee is proud of. “It is a gorgeous, pictorially driven trip back through 30 years of a fine newspaper and it tells the story of a nation that lifted itself from so much sadness and pain to such hope and good cheer.”