News that the Times Media Group is launching a newswire service, as are rivals Media24 and Independent Media, has media commentators questioning why the South African Press Association (Sapa) has been put out of business by large media owners no longer wanting to pay for its services. Glenda Nevill reports.
“I think it’s madness,” says Raymond Joseph, newsroom trainer and media consultant. “The people who brought down the house are now building their own as there will now be a gap when Sapa closes its doors at the end of the month. They’re rebuilding the house in their own image.”
Times Media Group is will deliver Rand Daily Mail News Wire or RDM News Wire by 1 April, it says. “Our news wire will provide original copy to our online titles such as timeslive, bdlive, sowetanlive and Rand Daily Mail – and it will serve our print news desks. The reality is that Sapa was a very expensive way of getting the same wire copy as your competitors at the same time. We would hope that our news wire would be quicker than our competitors and deliver better quality copy,” says Ray Hartley, who will manage the service.
Media24 has announced the creation of News24Wire, also due to deliver its first stories in April. “We were planning on building an original newsroom prior to the closure of Sapa, and News24 editor-in-chief Andrew Trench was already well on the way to doing that, as part of our plans for improving and refining the News24 offering,” says Lisa Macleod, head of digital publishing. “We decided to use the opportunity to rehouse some of the Sapa staff, and expand our planned team to fill the gap that Sapa will leave, and we’re delighted to have had literally hundreds of applications to choose from to fill our reporting and news editing positions. This is really credit to Andrew’s draw and strength as a respected editor.”
Independent Media owner, Dr Iqbal Survé, is behind the launch of the African News Agency (ANA), which is already in business. The Media Online sent questions about the agency, but the company had not responded at the time of posting. In a story on the eNCA website, Survé said, “At a time when competition and hostility amongst media houses is at its most intense, we at Sekunjalo Investment Holdings have been completely open about our intention to incorporate Sapa into the Ana syndication service and to invest considerable resources into establishing a quality African news agency.” It made its news stance clear in a Cape Times editorial: “It is a matter not only of anger that this paper, like so many others, has had to rely on Europeans and others to provide it with news about its own continent… That is first and foremost a matter of shame. Now at last we Africans can tell our own stories in our own words.”
The service will carry 60 percent of content from sub-Saharan Africa and 40 percent on North Africa.
Professor Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism and media studies at Wits University, told The Media Online he was pleased to see three competing news agencies, but was not convinced this was “realistic”.
“Are these three companies launching real news agencies, or are they just opportunistically repackaging material they are already generating?” he asked. “If it is the latter, as I suspect for at least two of them, then this is an in-house marketing operation rather than a true news agency and together they will not replace a national news agency like Sapa.
“These companies have all been cutting back drastically on their news coverage in recent years, but a news agency would require serious investment in technology and news gathering, particularly if they are to compete with giants like Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. I am not sure that is what they are seeing. I see a lot more sellers of news, but no new buyers – so it is hard to see how this will be sustained,” he said.
Joseph says the group with the deepest pockets will be the one left standing. “I do believe there is an element of the major groups screwing each other over in this,” he said. “I simply can’t see all three surviving. It will come down to deep pockets and which one builds a proper news platform agnostic operation that delivers multimedia content across multiple platforms.”
Macleod said News24Wire would absorb a number of Sapa staffers, including news editor Fienie Grobler who will head the news editing operation. “About 10 of our 16 positions will be filled by ex-Sapa staff so we are retaining the institutional knowledge and expertise within Sapa in order to bring a service on line in time for the closure,” she said.
“We planned to make a significant investment in News24’s original content and journalism prior to the decision to close Sapa. When the decision to close was made (with Media24 the last man standing at the table) we decided to scale up our investment and to offer this journalism for free to other digital publishers.
“Our investment is arguably the most significant yet by any South African media organisation in a national digital-first newsroom. We are offering this quality content for free to other digital publishers because we believe in the free flow of information on digital platforms and we decided to provide a quality free service to others. We also believe this will allow other digital publishers an opportunity to invest their scarce resources in creating further original and quality journalism which will be for the greater good of society,” Macleod said.
Hartley said TMG had been building online reporting capacity in its newsrooms for some time. “Both the editors of our wire service – Juliette Saunders and Dominic Mahlangu – are already employed in this capacity within the group. The Times was launched in 2007 as a fully integrated print and digital newsroom and it continues to lead the way. This is the logical next step: extending this reporting group-wide and making it accessible in a single wire service. We are not seeking to make a large, unsustainable investment so much as to make full use of the talent and resources we have within the group. Limited additional staff will be hired to bolster daily reporting,” he said.
Macleod said Media24’s vision for a “fully digital newsroom” required a group of “superfast, experienced reporters who can react and write on anything, in a hurry. It requires news editors who understand the importance of quick, multichannel commissioning and building out stories to be much more than just text. It requires a thoughtful 360 degree view of the media landscape and how best to tell a story: should it be a live update, a Twitter Q and A, a gallery of fantastic pictures or a straight up news story?
“We have the advantage of being unencumbered by print workflows or deadlines. Our reporters, if not already able to, will all be trained to capture audio and images, and we will make sure they have all the training and equipment they need to do the job of multimedia journalists. While we will start the service with just a text offering, we are planning on scaling up to offer multimedia soon thereafter,” she said.
All three plan to sell on their content, but as yet, they’re all untried and untested in this market. News24Wire will sell only to print and broadcasting clients as digital will be free to subscribers. Hartley says RDM Wire copy will be made digitally available to commercial subscribers and to other news sites. And ANA said it will provide subscribers with syndicated international text and picture content from partners such as China’s Xinhua and Germany’s dpa news agencies.
Harber is not convinced. “I see a lot more sellers of news, but no new buyers – so it is hard to see how this will be sustained,” he said.
Joseph said the best thing to come out of the newswire wars is that journalists are finding jobs. “May the best one win.”