While I am pleased at the flurry of interest in Sapa, I think one needs to take a sober look at what is on offer.
Sapa has long played an important role since 1938 as a shared resource among news media, assisting with coverage that might not otherwise get done. But at a time when news agencies have had to reinvent themselves (sometimes with remarkable success), Sapa has only seen cutbacks and short-term survival strategies. It has a small staff and outdated technology. It is not engaged in the internet and social media at all. Recently, three of its core members have pulled out: Times Media Group, Caxton and Independent Newspapers. This means that it has been reduced to a shell and would need major revamping and reinvestment for it to carve out a new space for itself.
Sapa could continue to have an important role to play, particularly at at time when all news operations are having trouble with some of the more routine, daily news-gathering functions, such as running news diaries, covering courts and municipalities. But it would require radical change from a committed, serious and well-financed long-term owner. One key question is whether it can be owned by a single media owner. It has always been a co-operative, serving all its members and customers on an agreed formula. If it is owned by one news company, will competitors stay in? And if it is owned and funded by one player, why would they not just take this operation in-house?
Three offers for Sapa are reported to be on the table (though only one appears so far to be a firm, detailed offer):
- Gallo Images, which distributes photos and is therefore in a related business. It is 50% owned by Media24, and it has the advantage of being a service provider rather than a direct competitor with the other media owners.
- Sekunjalo, the new owners of the Independent Newspaper Group, which would put it into the hands of a major player. I am sceptical of this bid because Sekunjalo has so far shown little respect for the kind of editorial independence on which a news agency depends and appears to be breaking its promises of large-scale investment in its newspapers, where it is continuing to cut costs and retrench staff. If it cannot invest in its newspapers, why make bold and extravagant promises to invest in another venture? Why not rather spend this money first on developing in-house capability? It makes little sense, particularly when you know that Independent had already given notice to resign as a Sapa member.
- KMM, a consortium led by Moeletsi Mbeki. Mbeki is a publisher who has long had an interest in newspapers, but never found a way into the field. Little is known about why he would have an interest in it and what he intends, so this bid is hard to comment on.
I would welcome a serious bid to invest in and revamp Sapa. But it has to be serious. I hope that at least one of these bidders fit the bill.
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