Newspaper owners need deft hands and thick skins, Dr Survé

WELCOME to the turbulent world of newspaper ownership, Iqbal Survé. As the incoming owner of Independent News & Media SA, the country’s second-largest newspaper group, you are going to find this a fascinating and complicated world.

It is a pity that you have started off with an unseemly squabble over the identity of your consortium and that you have upset at least some of your staff members who care — naturally — about who their bosses are. But it’s all part of the fray.

Don’t be surprised that your rivals have had a go at you: this is part of the world of media and it is healthy. We try to keep an eye on anyone with wealth and power and that includes — perhaps especially — media owners. We don’t always do it as consistently and vigorously as we should, but we try. We have to debate media ownership, diversity and quality, and that is going to mean you and your consortium can expect to be closely watched. I urge you to embrace transparency and set a high standard for all of those in your position, even when it is tough to face public scrutiny. You will expect your journalists to do it to others, so you must expect others to do it to you.

It is worth remembering that media owners may have a go at each other from time to time, but they also need to work together on printing and distribution and in fending off those who want to restrain the media. I hope you will throw in your lot with us all in this.

I must warn you: if this is an ego purchase, if you think you are going to be able to use these papers to promote yourself and your businesses and show your friends you have influence, then you are only going to get frustrated.

You will find that your friends, and people you did not know were your friends, will be all over you, complaining every time they are mentioned in your papers. Every faction of the ruling alliance will be tugging at your sleeve, thinking you can tell editors what to do and that transformation means having better access to editors. If you don’t work out quickly which of these phone calls to take and which to ignore, your life will be more complicated than an air-traffic controller at Waterkloof.

You might wish you had stuck to your fishing.

You will choose editors, but if you interfere with them too much in doing their work, then you will alienate your journalists, who take pride in their professionalism and independence, and you will lose money. Turn these into hack newspapers run by grovelling journalists and they will quickly become boring and lose readers and advertisers.

You see, being a newspaper owner requires care, skill and subtlety.

It requires a deft hand. And a thick skin. And you have to be prepared to be unpopular.

I am not sure you are aware of the minefield you are walking into.

Your newspapers have been in decline — in readership, advertising and quality — for some years. The only way to rebuild them is to spend money on remodelling newsrooms, so that you have skilled, experienced, dedicated people with the time and space to do good work. That is going to be hard when you have just borrowed R2bn, but it is the only way to survive.

And you are going to have to spend on learning how to move with your readers across to digital and social media. Legacy media companies always struggle with this, the more so when they have been victims of short-sighted cost-cutting.

These are things you are going to have to attend to before your lofty dreams of publishing in other languages and other countries.

And one last thing: please be careful of using words such as “positive”, “development” and “nation-building” in relation to news. They are used too often as euphemisms for boring, sunshine journalism and they make journalists uncomfortable. Let’s talk about quality, depth, balance and fairness.

More of that in your papers and you will gain readers and advertisers. And you will swell with pride when you have to avoid politicians’ phone calls.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, June 6, 2013

One thought on “Newspaper owners need deft hands and thick skins, Dr Survé

  1. I wanted to say this was coming, but I thought no, I’d be churlish, and in fact, people can’t be so predicable. A bit like that bell that makes the dog’s tail wag, yo, you think, no, no, not this time. And yet, here it is, in The Star. I wanted to say Anton, although I agree with you, you had it coming, yes, you had it coming from this cliché brigade.

    “And, very recently, Anton Harber and a coterie of Rosebank-based white male editors have taken it upon themselves to tell Iqbal Survé what it means to be a media owner. We are all caught up in this maelstrom.

    “In all of the above you will not find engagement, but an arrogant, condescending attitude by those who think they are God’s gift to us all. Those who want to define us tell us what to think and do.”

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