My first response on hearing that Dr Iqbal Survé of Sekunjalo was leading the consortium that is buying Independent News and Media was that he had no background in media and was taking on what is one of this country’s toughest media industry challenges.
On second thoughts, though, he is a doctor, and that, I am told, is good training for dealing with the sick. When I spoke to him yesterday, he said he was going to do what any good GP would do when they realised their patient had a chronic condition: send them to a specialist.
“I am not an operational man,” he said, which is business talk for “I am sending you to the specialist, any specialist”. And a media physician is what this company will need. Take two Disprin and call me in the morning just will not work.
On the face of it, Independent News and Media is in rude health, making a good profit. But prod around the body’s organs and you will come away worried. The group is a shadow of what it was a decade ago, having had no strategy in this period except to cut costs and harvest profit in order carry the parent company’s debt payments. In that period, it has relinquished its leadership position to Media 24, which now publishes more titles and has more readers – even in the English market – that what was the behemoth of traditional media. It has been led by accountants who play with numbers rather than the words which are the stock-in-trade of this company.
Apart from its one isiZulu title, Isolezwe, its newspapers have been either stagnant or in readership decline for some time. While that is true of most newspaper groups, others have been investing in and experimenting with new media to at least try and carve out a future. It is hard to discern a coherent new media strategy at Independent Newspapers, as that might have required investing some cash.
Having failed to renew its printing facilities for decades, it has recently been shutting down its presses. That means that most of the money is made by its rivals who have been investing in(and making pots of money from) printing presses – either Caxton or Media24. The production of its core products is in the hands of its competitors. Now that’s good strategy, isn’t it?
Perhaps the story that sums up the malaise which has gripped this company for the last decade is the Daily Sun story. That paper was planned, researched and designed at the expense of Independent Newspapers, under the eccentric tabloid genius Deon du Plessis. But backing it brought risk and would have meant groveling around with a mass readership and getting teased at dinner parties, all of which the company had successfully avoided for decades. Du Plessis took it across to Media24 who turned it quickly into the country’s biggest daily, and for a while it sold more copies than all 18 Independent titles added together.
The company has done well with Isolezwe, which has revived this part of the market and raised questions about the potential in other parts. But then you have to recall that they launched this a few years after selling the 100-year-old Ilanga title to an Inkatha Freedom Party company. That was clever, right?
The company’s backbone used to be classified advertising, which is disappearing fast as the internet offers most cost-effective ways of dealing with this market.
So why would Survé, a shrewd investor, pay R2-bn for this. A recent American Journalism Review article said there were three reasons why anyone was buying newspapers these days: either they got them cheap (as Warren Buffet did), or they think they can run them better than the previous owners, or they are doing it out of a sense of civic duty.
Survé told me that he thought he got the group cheap and that he was driven by his civic duty. I am not sure of the former, though this is hard to judge when one does not have access to the numbers. And he is going to find his civic duty a burdensome one. He will have all sorts of politicians and advertisers on his back, and his capacity to deliver to them what they want and demand will be limited. Start messing with the editorial integrity of these papers, and you are quickly onto what I would call the “SABC route”.
But I think he may be able to find the people to run it better than the previous owners. It is wonderful news that ownership has come home, and it has come home to an owner who is saying all the right things. There is a chance now that it is in the hands of people who actually care about the quality of news and information in this country and its role in building our democracy.
Survé asserted his independence in his first round of interviews: he comes from an ANC background, but now has enough resources and clout to stand his ground. That’s a good position to start from, certainly a more promising one than presented by most of his rivals for ownership of the group.
He wants to grow the group, particularly across Africa. That’s already a major change of attitude, but one that presents formidable challenges when his company is struggling to hold on to the audience in this country that it used to dominate and now clings to. Just to get his papers reporting the news again in a lively and engaging way will take major investment in that most expensive and troublesome thing: skilled journalists.
Survé is going to find this a task which sorely tests his character. And his chequebook. And his friendships. And his dinner parties.
You have to be a little bit crazy to buy a newspaper in this country at this time. Anywhere in the world, it is an industry going through a complex and unpredictable revolution where new technology is taking away the barriers to entry and making redundant everything we know about how to make it work. Add to that a depressed advertising market and restless politicians, and you need to have a touch of insanity to take it on.
Having chatted to Dr Survé, my concern is this: he might be a little bit crazy, but I am not sure he is quite crazy enough.
Let us hope he succeeds. Our country needs it.