Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the savviest members of the KwaZulu-Natal media are reinvigorating with survival tactics and new approaches, writes Patricia McCracken.
Typically low key, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) media surprises with successes from radio’s world-player Ukhozi FM and rising star Vuma FM to Zulu tabloid Isolezwe. Currently, it’s also diversifying to accommodate changes in the market.
“I’ve seen KZN contribute to forming the news agenda as well as supplying media talent,” says media commentator Mary Papayya, who has worked for the SABC, East Coast Radio (ECR), The Witness and Times Media Group. “The province has the country’s second biggest economy, but tends to allow its voice to be drowned in media terms by the traditional economic hubs in Gauteng and parliament in the Western Cape.”
The current narrative is divided between boosting morale and finding creative solutions in tough times. The upheaval affecting Independent Media’s editors reverberated equally through KZN when Philani Mgwaba resigned as The Mercury editor in June. At the time of writing, the post had yet to be filled, while Mgwaba has joined the rival Times Media Group.
In April Aakash Bramdeo, who edited the POST for three years, became editor of Sunday Tribune. In August, Yogas Nair, previously news editor at the Daily News, was appointed the first female editor of the POST. Under Bramdeo, the paper had acquired a reputation for investigative journalism and community advocacy.
“I’m really excited to be taking the paper forward and the response from readers has been wonderful,” says Nair. “Even one 80-year-old said it’s about time we had a woman editor.”
She’s looking to strengthen the newspaper’s offering, from columnists to promotions.
“Yogas has a strong nose for news, is very competitive and hardworking – it’s going to be interesting watching what she does,” says a former colleague.
Despite the vigour that Nair, Bramdeo and other longer-serving editors bring to their posts at Independent, there is a sense of uncertainty while new chairman Dr Iqbal Survé and his management team re-orientate the business. Independent Media is currently Durban’s single biggest media employer, with about 500 staff.
While deliberations have been ongoing at Independent, some media folk have made their moves. Andrew Trench, for example, joined The Witness as editor in October last year, returning to the province where he headed the Sunday Times KZN bureau in 2005.
The Witness daily sales last June were 17 908 but had slid 3% by June 2014. Elsewhere, The Star slid 1% and Beeld fell 7% year-on-year in the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) second-quarter (Q2) figures for 2014. Trench claims his plan for reinvigorating circulation has just begun to bear fruit.
He has taken the unusual step of producing two different newspaper editions for two different cities in two different formats – but in a single production cycle. The Witness in Pietermaritzburg remains broadsheet, instantly distinguishable from The Witness Durban edition, which has become tabloid, like the Weekend Witness.
“I’m trying to focus on re-establishing the relationship with readers in the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands because that seems to have drifted a bit,” he says. “We need to raise the profile of the paper and give those readers more of the bread-and-butter local reporting they enjoy.”
Trench’s experience heading the Sunday Times investigative unit has spiced up The Witness reporting, also allowing some content-sharing with other titles in the Media24 stable.
The initial launch of The Witness into the Durban market took place shortly before Trench joined and he led a relaunch in early August.
“Initially, it was difficult to satisfy the local needs of both Pietermaritzburg and Durban readers in one hybrid package,” he says. “It clearly makes sense, though, that this nearby city would be where we’d look with greater urgency for new readers.”
The Witness Durban edition has been carefully researched and targeted at female readers – “many of whom have no particular allegiance to any Durban papers”, says Trench.
“I’ve felt the Durban newspaper scene has been a bit static so I’m happy to be the next person throwing a stone into that pond. We don’t believe existing Durban papers really capture the city’s flavour – they tend to be too generic. Our new Durban edition is much more aggressively focused on the city. Early signs are very good with a significant sales increase in the first two weeks.”
Part of that may be due to readers being attracted to the R4 cover pricing, made feasible, says Trench, “by very smart costing”.
Trench is one of Isolezwe’s many admirers, despite its figures shrinking by almost 5% annually in this round of ABCs to 104 860. Its figures for the previous ABC period, however, were 119 846. On the other hand, competitor Ilanga fell by more than 12% over the year, from 107 102 to 93 914. Both newspapers saw sales of their weekend editions slide, too.
“You simply can’t say reading is dead when there are success stories like Isolezwe,” says Trench.
In October last year, Isolezwe editor in chief Sazi Hadebe celebrated passing the milestone of one-million average-issue readers. Trench hopes in time some of those readers will try other titles, too.
KZN’s radio sector continues to show its legendary vitality. At 7.6 million listeners, Ukhozi FM still has South Africa’s highest overall audience – and the second highest in the world – according to Radio Audience Measurement Survey (Rams) Q2 2014.
One of the KZN innovations Trench admires is ECR’s venture beyond radio and social media into TV.
“The market is volatile and we can’t rely on past successes,” says ECR managing director Trish Taylor, alluding to the station’s slide from a listenership of 1.9 million in June 2013 to 1.65 million in Rams Q2 2014. “We must be sure we keep innovating and experimenting. Sometimes the experiments will work, sometimes not. The consumer is a constantly moving target so we need to focus all the time.
“Setting up our own in-house TV centre allows us to do more video to extend our entertainment offering by creating proprietary content that people can’t get elsewhere.
“We can also bring people closer to the talent through video and deepen their relationship with our personalities – but, equally, we have to be very careful about what resonates and what doesn’t. Fortunately, having the content online means we can track responses and make decisions fairly quickly.”
With this extra layer of multimedia, much more is expected from DJs, notes Taylor.
“As well as presenting, they’re now expected to write, tweet and perform on camera – and do it all very well. Great talent can make this transition quite easily. Darren Maule, for instance, is that full package. That’s the kind of talent we’re looking for.”
ECR is often admired in KZN media circles for investing consistently in training. “We particularly work on new media training,” says Taylor. “We see the need to surround the talent with the right training and coaching to support them in this space so they can tell great stories across platforms.”
Also working across platforms, Independent Media has added to its radio partnerships by experimenting with Urban Brew and community TV station 1KZN. The newspaper group’s KZN and Eastern Cape operations director Greg le Roux says: “We’d like our reporters and stories to work more across multimedia platforms.”
By contrast, Vuma is KZN’s little station that could. Originally co-founded with Urban Brew, its mix of current gospel music and celebs behind the mic has propelled it from zero at its launch in November 2012 to hero, with a current listenership of 175 000. Now under station manager Ferdinand Mabalane, its 23.2% growth in the last quarter (Rams Q2 2014) outperforms Power FM, which showed 16.5% growth to reach 106 000 listenership. Vuma’s performance ensured it was snapped up by the Times Media Group at the beginning of the year.
A longer-standing competitor for Ukhozi’s market is edgy urban rival, Gagasi FM – which currently outstrips ECR with a listenership of 1.8 million (Rams Q2 2014). These latest figures haven’t yet shown any real impact, says Vukile Zondi, former Gagasi FM programming manager, who took over as managing director in June and introduced a well-received new programming line-up.
As with ECR’s Breakfast Show Tour of KZN or its high-end Women’s Day motivational breakfast, Gagasi also uses events both to connect with listeners and as a marketing opportunity. Significantly, they were selected as media partner for MWeb’s launch of South Africa’s first WiFi high street, Durban’s Florida Road. This was a South African first, according to Nathier Kasu, MWeb WiFi general manager.
The WiFi high street launch – complete with Durban’s finest, DJ Tira, and Gagasi FM DJs – is emblematic of digital media coming of age in Durban and a shift in the media landscape.
“Cape Town used to be thought of as South Africa’s Silicon Valley hotspot but growing numbers of digital companies are starting to pop up in KZN,” says Taylor. “A lot of great digital work’s being done here, which is really refreshing and exciting.”
More boutique film and news providers, such as Earth Touch and Julie Laurenz’s award-winning Nguni Productions, have also made the most of the move away from major media employers. Even the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) has experienced a rise in interest from KZN-based freelancers over the past year, says the Durban-based national vice chairwoman Lyse Comins.
Specialised training opportunities have expanded to cater for shifts in local media. These include both the Centre for Fine Art, Animation and Design and the Durban branch of the SA School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA).
A film by AFDA Durban screenwriting lecturer Janet van Eeden was selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival Shorts.
Blossoming interest in print alternatives is partly due to media evolution and redeployment. In recent years, Durban SABC staff numbers have fallen from 250 to about 160. Caxton’s community publishing and printing concerns remain, but two years ago it completed transferring most of the 13 titles inherited from Republican Press to Johannesburg.
Some feel that a sense of history makes the chill wind of uncertainty blow colder around Independent Media. Le Roux and the group’s chief strategy officer Vasantha Angamuthu are cagey about specifics of the new Independent blueprint. But both emphasise that national functions will be headquartered in different regions – with HR and strategy based in KZN, for instance.
Angamuthu rejoined Independent in February after 10 years. She’d spent the previous five years at the Hindustan Times in Delhi as vice president of content and product development.
The Independent building, with many familiar faces around, still feels like home to Angamuthu. But, like Trench, the biggest change in the market for her has been Isolezwe’s surprise runaway success. Educated guesses suggest Independent would like to replicate this success somehow, especially as readership of the Daily News and The Mercury have dropped below the psychological 30 000 barrier in the Q2 2014 ABCs.
For the time being, though, Angamuthu echos Le Roux and Taylor with talk of strengthening and improving offerings across multimedia platforms – and reinforcing training to cope with that.
Image: Trish Taylor, Darren Maule of East Coast Radio
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