Peter Bruce takes the crown – or is it a three-cornered hat?

The milliners, at least, will be celebrating. Peter Bruce has emerged from the turmoil in the BDFM group as the wearer of many hats. He is now publisher, editor-in-chief and Business Day editor – an extraordinary breach in newspaper tradition.

Bruce wanted this when they first asked him late last year to take the publisher’s job. He is an editor at heart, and was reluctant to give that up. But the Financial Times, which owns 50% of BDFM, said no. He has struggled to find an editor to fill his post, and to take over the Financial Mail, so has ended up doing all three jobs with just one FM editor who will answer to him.

There are good aspects to this. Bruce is driving radical change in the BDFM group: merging the Business Day and Financial Mail newsrooms, pushing the online operation and its integration with their print operation, taking BD to a tabloid size. All of these are major changes which had been hitting blockages.

Bruce’s previous publisher resisted the move to tabloid. He is gone. FM editor Barney Mthombothi resisted the newsroom merger. He is gone. Now the plans can proceed apace, with Bruce unchallenged at the helm.

Maybe that is a good thing, because the survival of the group requires some radical root-canal work. The FM, in particular, is in dire straits with circulation down to around 16 000. New JSE rules which lower financial reporting requirements in print for listed companies will hit the group, as well as all other business publications, hard. Something had to be done.

It also breaks a long logjam between the FT and local Times Media shareholders, who hold 50% each and have long been at each other’s throats. The former had the right to choose the editor, the latter chose the publisher. Now, it seems, they all choose Bruce!

Bruce is highly respected and has done a good job over the years at three different business titles, so he is likely to give it strong leadership.

But one of the roles of a publisher has traditionally been to keep advertisers and shareholders off editors’ backs, limiting undue influence on the news-driven decisions. Theoretically, at least, the editor was free to make principled decisions based on what readers needed to know, and the publisher had to watch his back with advertisers.

This separation of roles and powers has been eroding for some time, with editors having direct contact with advertisers and being less immune, as advertisers got more powerful. The Independent group took a step away from editorial immunity a while back when they made their editors answer not to the board of directors, as had been the case in most newspapers, but to the regional publisher.

But at least there was a balance of power, with the editor expected to protect journalistic independence, and the publisher left to manage advertisers. Now Bruce will be juggling hats. Or he might need to find a three-cornered hat.

Most of the time this will not matter, but there are important moments when one has to think either like an editor or a publisher, when he will have to choose which hat he is wearing when making an important decision. At that inevitable moment, he will have a problem.

Here is one example: a couple of years ago, they experimented with the Weekender, a Saturday newspaper. Bruce was passionate about it, and torn up when the number-crunchers said it was losing too much money and had to be closed. As editor, he naturally resisted closure. As publisher, he would have to push for it.

Another: BDFM has had retrenchments and will probably have to have more. As editor, he should be obliged to resist it, provide a shield for journalists’ jobs, and prioritise the need to have enough good people to cover what he has to cover. But the publisher would be looking at the numbers, and pushing for more cuts and more cost-savings. He would wield the axe. Previously, the outcome would have been a tug-of-war between these conflicting interests; now Bruce has to attack with the axe and defend with the shield: the left arm against the right. Not easy, not comfortable.

To be fair, Bruce was looking long and hard for a new editor for both the publications. But I suspect that a key reason he struggled was that anyone who took the job would know that they have the powerful ex-editor, with strong views on editorial matters, looking over their shoulder. Would they really be editor, or just a jumped-up deputy?

There are similiar issues in the sister company, the Times Media Group, where publisher and former editor Mike Robertson is known to be a hands-on publisher with strong views on editorial decisions, to put it politely. Word has it that editors have needed, from time to time, to object to Robertson’s interference.

There is even an allegation – which I have not been able to check out – that Robertson asked his board to make him editor-in-chief, and this was turned down.

Across town at the New Age, Nazeem Howa is MD and editor-in-chief and Moegsien Williams is editor.

So it is a trend, for better or worse. If nothing else, it save on high-flying and expensive jobs, and maybe save a few jobs for the lowly journos at the coalface.

3 thoughts on “Peter Bruce takes the crown – or is it a three-cornered hat?

  1. Anton,
    I wonder what your take would have been on the goings on at BDFM had Bruce’s surname been Malunga or Mthombothi. Interesting take indeed, but we will watch from the terraces.
    Mzi

  2. I discovered when I moved to the World Editors Forum that it is quite common for northern hemisphere newspapers to have a position that encompasses both Editor in Chief/ Editor and Publisher/ MD. The President of the World Editors Forum, Erik Bjerager from Denmark is a case in point.

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