You will be assimilated
26 October 2014 02:50 (South Africa)
Opinionista Tim Cohen

The pain, the business and The Weekender’s fate

  • Tim Cohen
‘Build it, make it brilliant and they will come,’ is the great business refrain. But what if they really can’t be bothered?

The Weekender newspaper, which sadly closed last weekend on 7 November, was founded on the notion that if you produce a quality newspaper with interesting, lengthy, discursive stories full of good writing and respectable intelligence, eventually people will come.  Well, scratch that idea.

Or at least, this is the cynical approach, the one I know the people who produced the paper will probably favour. And I should acknowledge up front I was one of those people: I was the editor of the second section of The Weekender called the Review Section from its formation until just on two years ago.

Yet even if I weren’t involved in the formation of the paper, I think its closure is disturbing. It’s disturbing not only because the notion of quality journalism in South Africa has taken a big hit, but because of what it says about the companies involved - BDFM and more particularly its 50/50 shareholders, Avusa and the British publishing giant Pearson.

The Weekender built up an interesting, core readership of about 12,000 – far too few to sustain a publication of its overall production quality and style, not to mention its lofty ambitions. Its odd physical size, called Berliner, was a novelty which ended up being a problem, because it prevented it being more widely printed around the country.  Consequently, its reach was poor. Its distribution was abysmal, its marketing was largely non-existent and its advertising sales strategy seemed to be based on the notion that people who wanted to advertise would phone in.

Yet frankly, I’m not convinced that even in better hands or under better circumstances, the publication could not have survived - and perhaps thrived. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but consider the facts.

I should acknowledge that the failure of all publications ultimately comes down to their failure as businesses, and this paper was clearly a business failure. I understand it was losing about R5m a year and it obviously failed to gain any traction among advertisers.

To be brutally honest (and I include myself in the blame here) it was also a bit of a failure editorially. Because the paper did not brand itself strongly with Business Day, as the Financial Times’ weekend edition did, it slipped almost inadvertently into the same sort of category as the Mail & Guardian and The Sunday Independent – a pretty tough, saturated market.

I actually remember how this mistake happened. One of the requirements of launching a publication is that you do an expensive, public survey. Partly, this involves inviting groups of the target market, divided interestingly into racial sub-groups, to answer a list of questions about their existing reading habits and their future desires.

Yet the results of these questions were actually very ambiguous. People basically wanted everything - news, sport, comment, and so on. They tended toward the polite, and they weren’t very specific, even when the questions were.

The only real discernable thing that arose from these exhaustive sessions was that very few people wanted what they described as “business” on a Saturday, on the basis that it was too much like work. So the paper, which was intended to be branded the “Business Day Weekender”, suddenly became just “The Weekender”.

The paper then found itself sandwiched between The Sunday Independent, itself loss-making, and the Mail & Guardian, which had a much stronger tradition of breaking news and conceptualising a weekend read. Crucially, it also came out a day before The Weekender, partly absorbing what little newspaper advertising there is in this category.

The news in The Weekender was produced largely by Business Day staffers who were writing stories through the week on the same topics, and most often not bothering to keep their best quality stories for the lower-circulation weekend publication. This is partly why most of the news stories in the front section of The Weekender generally felt as if they were extensions of what had already been written about during the week.

One of the distinguishing things about The Weekender was supposed to be the Review section, and my sense was that this section should be intellectually stimulating, unequivocally upmarket, quality journalism aimed at an engaged audience of all races. We devoted two full pages to books, for example, and for the first year, two more to international commentary. This was an extraordinary - and extraordinarily unappreciated - extravagance.

Yet this approach ended up being more controversial than I anticipated. The publisher and management of Business Day argued strongly it should have a more “black”, perhaps more populist, profile. I think they blamed me for the totally unintended “suburban” quality, in their eyes, and ultimately, it seemed prudent to step aside. Yet oddly, even after I left, no serious and deliberate attempt was apparently made editorially to achieve this end.

However, in the end I think the publication was closed, not for editorial reasons and not even for business reasons, but for reasons of strategy.

One of the things contributors and former staff of The Weekender are particularly bitter about is the vast amount of money Avusa is spending on The Times, which is being given away free to Sunday Times subscribers.  Insiders tell me the Times has lost hundreds of millions since its launch, and still Avusa continues to publish it apparently for tactical reasons, particularly for attacking The Citizen and The Star, rather than because of its prospects of imminent profitability. At that level of expenditure, The Weekender could have been sustained for decades rather than the diminutive three-and-a-half years it was.

At least one offer was recently made to buy the newspaper, which was summarily dismissed. It’s hard not to notice how closing The Weekender opens up possibilities for Avusa in the Saturday space, and likewise for Avusa’s other shareholder, Pearson.

Pearson actually sells a newspaper on Saturdays in South Africa, the Weekend Financial Times. Obviously clearing out a competitor, however minuscule, could not have been that hard a decision to make. The Saturday edition of the Financial Times took almost a decade to show a profit and is now a flagship part of the newspaper. This same courtesy was not extended to The Weekender. Clearly, more than just money is at stake here.

  • Tim Cohen
  • Politics
tim cohen 01

Cohen is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day.

After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now divides his time between Johannesburg and a house situated almost exactly in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

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