In the face of shrinking budgets, newspapers have had to find cost-cutting measures that don’t kill them. Melina Meletakos speaks to Tim du Plessis about Media24’s solution for its Afrikaans titles.
A single newsroom that produces several newspapers: this is the future of integration, according to Media24.
In March, one of South Africa’s leading publishing groups slimmed down, tidied up and modernised the newsrooms of its Afrikaans newspapers to create one multi-title editorial team that puts out dailies Beeld, Die Burger, Die Volksblad and its weekly title, Rapport.
Tim du Plessis, until recently group editor of Media24’s Afrikaans newspaper titles who has now joined kykNET, says the decision was borne out of economic necessity. Circulation figures have undoubtedly taken a knock and while they have stabilised over the last two years, newspaper advertising revenue has continued to plummet.
“We were faced with dwindling resources but we still believe that there is a demand for what we do,” says Du Plessis. “We know people still want to buy newspapers and they still want to read what we provide and what we think of as a valuable service, yet the resources we use to do this are not there anymore.”
Media owners have had to tailor the way newsrooms operate in an attempt to produce quality journalism on a shrinking budget. Cross-media convergence was the first move in adapting to these challenging economic circumstances as it broke down the walls between print, radio, television and the web. But multi-title convergence appears to be the next step in cutting costs, if trends in newsrooms overseas are anything to go by.
Germany’s Die Welt, for example, uses three editors in chief and a single editorial team to maintain a constant workflow that produces five titles out of one newsroom.
Similarly, one editorial staff and one newsroom produce NRC Handelsblad and nrc•next in the Netherlands, two newspapers that cater for two very different readerships.
At Media24, the staff of Beeld, Die Burger, Volksblad and Rapport have merged to form one news-gathering ecosystem structured around three news centres: one each in Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.
This forms the second part of Media24’s consolidation process, which started in 2009 when the Beeld and Rapport newsrooms were combined and resources such as the sport and photographic departments formed one hub that serviced all titles.
Each title still has its own editor, however, as this is the person primarily responsible for maintaining the identity of each newspaper.
“We also assign each of the newspapers a production person who works exclusively on that title because people often think it’s the written content that gives a newspaper its voice and its authentic identity, but it’s also in the layout,” explains Du Plessis.
Du Plessis says that despite these measures, Media24’s challenges are unique.
“It’s very easy to merge the newsrooms of The Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph in London because they’re in the same city. Here, the only thing we have in common is the Afrikaans market. But we have different regional newspapers, and their success and the fact that they are still standing and still going strong depends on each paper still having a specific character,” he says.
The potential homogenisation of news has been one of the criticisms levelled at multi-title convergence. Professor Anton Harber, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the consolidation of newsrooms has a negative effect on content diversity.
“Different newsrooms, even in the same group, used to compete and sometimes take different angles or attitudes to stories – and that falls away if they centralise operations,” Harber told The Media last year.
“Individual titles definitely lose individuality and character and can easily become just outlets at the end of a production line of bland, grey material.”
Du Plessis acknowledges competition is vital for journalism, but says the new combined newsroom ensures that it is better managed.
“We must use our resources to compete against the real competitors like The Star, The Sunday Times and The Citizen, not against each other,” says Du Plessis.
But he hasn’t only had to fight resistance to change from the outside. Du Plessis was also tasked with trying to convince both his supervisors and the editorial staff that a consolidated newsroom could work.
For the journalists who now work for the four publications, part of the challenge was overcoming the idea of being fiercely loyal to the newspaper they had worked for previously, as opposed to the company as a whole.
Du Plessis says that besides the last three years of his career, he too has spent his entire 37 years in the industry thinking about working for one publication.
“At a press conference, I would get up and say, ‘My name is Tim du Plessis and I’m from Beeld’. I would shout it. It becomes part of your identity and the newspaper becomes an extension of your own life, and you of the newspaper in many ways. But that’s an old fashioned way of thinking. That way is gradually disappearing. You’re a journalist, you’re a content creator. You’re a specialist content creator across platforms. That’s the way of the future,” he says.
When it came to convincing Media24’s powers that be, Du Plessis says that Naspers chairman Ton Vosloo had only one question for him about the new dispensation, “Who gets the scoop?”
“My quick answer to that was that Twitter gets the scoop because in the same way that video killed the radio star, Twitter killed the scoop,” says Du Plessis.
But Media24 is not the first company that has had to iron out these challenges. Times Media Group has also integrated the newsrooms of Business Day and Financial Mail, while Independent Newspapers integrated its subs desk. Du Plessis says that this allowed Media24 to learn a few important lessons from its competitors.
“Be very careful of blind copy and a paper losing its unique voice and identity and be very careful that your weekly publications don’t lose out. Dailies, especially with digital, just devour content. You can end up late on a Friday afternoon looking at the cupboard and it’s bare, so make sure provisions for your weekly publications remain solid. And then your core staff who sit there and understand the character of the newspaper and the readers and all that, make sure you retain them,” he says.
A few weeks into the consolidation process, is the new system of working effectively for Du Plessis and his team?
“If I can compare it to an aircraft, we’re airborne. We’re traveling at a certain altitude, but we’re not at cruising height yet,” he says.
This story was first published in the June 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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