Let’s cool down on the over-heated New Age debate

Let’s all take a deep breath on the fight over New Age’s circulation and finances.

The argument over whether they have been subsidised by parastatals and government departments because they are ANC-friendly is getting out of hand, and the tone of exchanges on both sides is going beyond the healthy competitiveness of the media market.

Other newspapers are scrutinising every cent spent on the New Age and New Age is lashing back at them in most unpleasant terms. While there is nothing wrong with keeping a close watch on parastatal and government department spending, or rival newspaper circulations, it is getting to the point of mutual destructiveness.

City Press counted how much parastatal advertising there was in New Age and put a full value on it in their weekend report. It was a breath-taking amount, though it is unlikely that so much cash changed hands. More likely, it was an exchange for discounted subscriptions which allowed New Age to boost its circulation numbers.

The New Age CEO, Nazeem Howa, and the editor, Moegsien Williams, are likely to use such tricks because they learnt them at Independent newspapers. Almost all of our newspapers have been using such chicanery to smooth out falling circulations in recent years, and control of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) allows for mutual cartel-like agreement to shape the rules to suit this.

It works like this: newspaper can claim paid circulation if they charge at least 50% for a sale or subscription. They offer big companies and clients advertising space in exchange for a bunch of discounted subscriptions or free hand-out copies as part of the deal. Everyone wins: the advertiser gets cheap space, and the newspaper boosts its circulation. Little or no money actually changes hands.

It is an unspoken, informal conspiracy of media owners and advertisers who share a mutual interest in keeping things looking good to their mutual benefit through the ABC. The point is that almost everyone does it, and so there are not a lot who can point fingers.

New Age have taken it one step further. They hold a business breakfast, which SABC televises for free, probably because it is easier to have someone else worry about breakfast show content. New Age gets a parastatal or government department to sponsor it, because the sponsor gets some exposure for it. They appear to overpay grossly, because they are desperate to buy decent publicity and are sympathetic to the New Age (because it is sympathetic to them). As part of the deal, everyone gets a free subscription, but New Age can say it is paid for by the sponsorship, and therefore add it to their circulation figures.

New Age is claiming sale of 50 000, but since it is not audited, it is difficult to believe this, especially since there is no way of knowing how much is the result of this kind of cosy deal with their friends.

The real question is why the loss-making SABC is giving away their airtime, while the New Age is gathering large sponsorship for it. This is the anomaly.

My point is this: the other newspaper groups would do this – and some do, or at least try it. Everyone is desperate for circulation, advertising and sponsorship. I don’t believe anyone can point fingers.

The Mail & Guardian have alleged that parastatals and government officials are getting political pressure to favour New Age. If this is true, it needs to be exposed.

New Age has responded aggressively, pointing fingers at their rivals and making counter-accusations and personal attacks. They charged that the City Press had been dishonest by not putting their allegations in the context they would have liked them to be put: and did their own count of City Press’ government and parastatal advertising – again estimating it at full price, even though we all know that no-one charges or pays full ratecard price for newspaper advertising.

New Age is feeling the heat of competition and lashing out on their front page. This is not doing much good for their standing and credibility. Again, this brutal rivalry is something that Howa and Williams know well, as they were themselves doing all they could to undermine the New Age for the Independent group just a few months ago before they crossed the floor.

I can tell you this: the Independent group is a ruthless competitor which sets out to destroy any rival and uses its influence on distribution and advertising to make life hell for any new entrant into their market. For years, as a co-editor and co-owner of the Weekly Mail (now the M&G), I saw how we had to fight off their attempts to undermine us in the name of competition.

I don’t believe the other newspaper owners are much kinder.

But they are being short-sighted. The industry is under severe financial and political pressure. The government is calling for greater diversity and transformation, and the competition authorities are taking a close look at some of the cosy relationships which have divided the territory up between the incumbents.

New Age brings some diversity and counters the ANC belief that they get a universally hostile reception in the commercial media. It has its place in our media and political marketplace, and the other newspaper groups would do well to let it find its place and role.

This does not mean there should not be competition or that newspapers should not keep a close eye on state expenditure. But it does mean that there should be sensible rules of engagement and that both sides should temper their rivalry with an eye to their shared concerns for a difficult market and a sometimes tough political atmosphere.

We say we believe in and support greater media diversity. Let’s show that by allowing for it.

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