Fergus Sampson sits in the hot seat of the biggest media group on the continent, but who is he? Editor of The Media magazine, Peta Krost Maunder, finds out.
Fergus Sampson is a very powerful man in the media world, but he shies away from publicity for himself. He prefers to call the shots from behind the scenes, letting his editors and journalists get the limelight and kudos.
He is the chief executive of Media24’s newspaper division – the section of Africa’s largest media company most likely to be debated, discussed and criticised.
He is happy to take the punches but not the spotlight. This is evident by the fact that he is reluctant to be interviewed and avoids revealing too much about himself.
But, there are insights into this newspaperman who is very clear that while “newspapers are still very powerful and influential”, the physical publications “will eventually disappear”. The last physical newspapers, he believes, “will be free community papers”.
Sampson is positive the future of newspapers is digital and we are merely in a transition phase. “The trends are unequivocal,” he says. “We must prepare to compete in the digital world.”
And over the next five years, he says, “we must complete the transition to digital media and create a stable portfolio of news products – both physical and digital.”
Sampson has an astute understanding of the business of newspapers. He and the late newspaper icon Deon du Plessis were inspired by the idea of a daily tabloid newspaper and together they took the concept of the Daily Sun to Media24 and launched it there in 2002. This has been the biggest newspaper success since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994.
“Fergus made his name at the Daily Sun, alongside the legendary Du Plessis, turning it into the biggest daily newspaper in Africa,” says Media24 chief executive Esmaré Weideman. “It is an accomplishment that has earned him a place in media history, not only in South Africa but on the continent and perhaps even wider. Few newspaper executives understand this market as well as Fergus does.
“His current challenge, not unlike that of any other newspaper executive around the world, is to steer the successful transition to digital media, and to do so profitably amid declining advertising revenues, smaller digital advertising margins and a tough economic climate generally,” says Weideman. “This takes fearless determination, a characteristic Fergus has in abundance.”
Laura Kaufman, Media24 newspapers market research consultant, describes Sampson as “driven, charismatic and magnetic, a true visionary and different to other CEOs”.
She explains: “He pushes you to your maximum capacity. I have never felt as fully utilised in the workplace as I have working for Fergus. He inspires loyalty and in turn makes you feel he will be loyal to you if you match his passion, drive and commitment.”
But as a youngster growing up in Eersterust, a small coloured community east of Pretoria, Sampson had no plans to work in the media. He had a “strict, religious, tough and hopeful” upbringing. He always wanted to be a medical doctor because, he says, “it seemed so much cooler than teaching – my only other realistic choice at the time”.
But as soon as he matriculated from Eersterust Senior Secondary in 1985, he flew to the United States to attend university, not a typical path for someone from that community.
His mother had immigrated to the US in the early 1980s, having been recruited to a nursing programme in Columbus, Ohio. His brother left with her and Sampson remained in Eersterust with his grandmother.
“I lived and studied in the US for five years, where I completed a Bachelor of Science degree at Ohio State University. “My stay and studies in the US greatly enhanced my appreciation for diversity and helped me to discover and understand myself,” says Sampson.
But he came home soon after to marry his high school sweetheart. He got a job in a timber company in Pretoria as an assistant to the CEO in 1992. But before the year was up, he had been recruited to work at The Star newspaper as a management trainee. He wasn’t drawn to newspapers as such but it was rather the fact that “they offered me more money. I was young and broke”, he says.
He started in the marketing and promotions department where he got his first exposure to the business of “selling newspapers and advertising”. A few years later, he moved into new product development, becoming manager of this department. “There,” he says, “I launched a couple of soccer magazines and managed the London edition of The Star.”
It was while at Independent Newspapers that he met Du Plessis, then managing director of the group’s Gauteng region, who became “a very good friend and mentor” to Sampson. “He taught me useful stuff about business, people and life in general,” says Sampson.
“We tried to flog the idea of a daily tabloid to a wide range of fairly sceptical potential investors. Media24 saw the potential and grabbed the opportunity immediately.” Du Plessis and Sampson then moved newspaper companies to launch the Daily Sun.
“The idea of this newspaper was simple and the timing was right,” he says. “Life in South Africa was more than just politics. There were a large number of people whose lives were ignored by the mainstream media of the time. If the newspaper is crafted and executed in the right manner, working class South Africans would support a newspaper that covered their lives entirely.”
His recollections of those heady first days of this newspaper were “a rollercoaster of emotions: angst, frustration, hope and intermittent bouts of joy”.
Sampson was general manager of the Daily Sun for five years and helped guide it to becoming the biggest daily in the country. “I learnt a lot about business, its people and the inner workings of markets through my involvement with this newspaper.
It also taught me to always question and challenge convention.”
Media research doyenne Jos Kuper, who has worked with Sampson throughout his career, says, “Fergus literally shepherded the Daily Sun through all the difficulties to success. He is very knowledgeable in all aspects of newspapers, even editorial. While Deon was an editorial genius, Fergus often had to put out fires and he did it so well. He has a particularly good strategic head and business sense.”
This has since been recognised at Media24. Although now he controls many newspapers, Sampson still sees the Daily Sun as celebrating and legitimising the lives of ordinary South Africans and “a friendly companion to the working class”.
One of the criticisms of his newspapers is that there are a number of very young editors, something that in the past was unheard of because of their lack of experience. “The youngsters are accomplished journalists and managers in their own right. Youth is completely incidental to their appointment,” he says.
“Similarly, the older editors are there because they deserve to be there and not because they are older. I can’t think of any single attribute that outweighs experience in this game. It is therefore critical that we maintain a healthy balance of talented youngsters and battle-hardened journeymen/women in our newsrooms.”
And while he is responsible for print products, he faces the challenges of ever-increasing costs of distribution, paper and content. How is he dealing with these? “Work smarter. Find the most cost-effective and shortest route to the customer,” he says.
And once he has overseen the transition to digital, he plans to “build new and exciting things”.
Sampson serves on the boards of directors of the Natal Witness, the South African Press Association, Print and Digital Media South Africa and MultiChoice.
This story was first published in the June 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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