Just as veteran newsman Moegsien Williams leaves Independent to become the man in The New Age’s hot seat, media analysts and strategists say it is high time the Gupta-owned press became transparent, accountable and got its circulation certified. Is The New Age being printed to be read or pulped? By MANDY DE WAAL.
The revolving door has swung round once more at The New Age, as editor Ryland Fisher tenders his resignation and Independent’s Moegsien Williams steps into the media house that Guptas built.
Williams is a heavyweight with decades of experience. Media analyst Wadim Schreiner says he has huge respect for Williams, but is unsure whether the former editor-in-chief of the Independent stable of newspapers will make a major difference to the focus of The New Age.
“Moegsien Williams has been around longer than I have been in business. I believe he has now been on the receiving end of restructuring at the Independent Group. He certainly has experience, of that there’s no doubt, but if he is the right person for The New Age is difficult to say.
“I believe he is the fourth editor of The New Age. As these editors have changed, there has been virtually no change in content, so I am wondering whether in fact it matters who the editor of The New Age is, and if this is isn’t a symbolic position because the news content and direction might be more driven by the owner than the editor.”
The New Age is owned by the Gupta family, which is said to have benefited significantly from its links to Jacob Zuma and the first family, as has Zuma’s son, Duduzane.
Zuma himself has come under fire because of the link to the Guptas. Last month, African National Congress Veterans League president Sandi Sejake was said to have called for Zuma’s removal as president, because of his ties to the Guptas.
Moegsien Williams has had to face his own barrage of allegations in recent times. The July issue of Noseweek ran an article titled: “Independent News bosses struck secret deal with Auction Alliance” in which the editorial director of Independent was said to have allegedly benefited from secret kickbacks from the auction house, which was founded by the now-disgraced Rael Levitt. The court papers in the matter are on view at Noseweek’s site.
Independent hit back at Noseweek, saying that the article was “based on fundamentally flawed view of events which took place when Auction Alliance sought to interdict the company’s newspapers from publishing an article containing serious allegations against the auction house”.
“To suggest that any person in management of Independent Newspapers received money is untrue and reckless. This transaction was fully and properly accounted for in the company’s books as part of the final sale proceeds,” Williams said in a statement with editor-in-chief Chris Whitfield, who was also implicated by Noseweek.
“With reference to information about the attorneys of Auction Alliance, copies of these papers were attached to the answering affidavits filed on behalf of Independent Newspapers. These allegations remain in the public domain, for anyone to read or publish. It is telling that none of the Independent Newspapers executives named in the article – nor any others – were contacted for comment, information, corroboration or response by Noseweek,” Whitfield and Williams said.
Williams will start at The New Age in September. Vuyo Mvoko was the newspaper’s first editor, but quit well before the presses started turning. Former editor-in-chief of Die Burger, Henry Jeffreys, followed Mvoko, and only stayed a few months, but got the newspaper into print and out to the public in December 2010. Ryland Fisher came on board as a quick-fire replacement for Jeffreys.
“Ryland has always indicated that it was never his intention to stay at The New Age for a long time,” TNA Media’s chief executive Nazeem Howa said in a statement.
As news breaks that Williams moves from Independent to The New Age, members of the local advertising and media analysis fraternity call on the newspaper to be transparent and provide the industry with accurate, accredited circulation figures.
“The New Age isn’t listed with Audit Bureau of Circulations at all, and it is concerning that a publication with such promise isn’t a member, particularly if you look at the investment that the owners have made in terms of staff and resource and quality editorial. It certainly is out of character, one would have expected them to have an ABC long ago,” says Gordon Patterson, vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which certifies media circulation figures for use by media planners and advertisers.
“Without an ABC certificate, there is no transparency, because nobody knows what you are doing. Honestly, there is no justification why any publication should not have an Audit Bureau of Circulation certificate. For me it screams some sort of deception – why wouldn’t you want an ABC? The irony in this situation is that The New Age is measured by AMPS, so there is readership data. But the circulation isn’t there.”
Patterson says that while there is some value in readership figures, advertisers needed verified circulation figures in order to get the right perspective on the average number of readers per copy, and to fully understand the fabric of the publication and its readership.
The South African Advertising Research Foundation releases readership figures for media as part of its All Media Products Survey (AMPS). The latest figures for 2011, which were released in March this year, shows the first year’s readership figures for The New Age, which is set at approximately 39,000.
“The difference between circulation and readership is that circulation shows the number of copies of a newspaper sold in the broadest context of the word sold. Readership relates to the claim that people make that they have read, seen or paged through a copy of a publication. It is a larger number, but it relies heavily on memory while circulation is a numeric statement of fact,” says Patterson.
Patterson adds that if one wants to get a handle on the circulation of The New Age, one would have to take newspaper industry averages of around three to five readers per copy, which would set the paper’s circulation anywhere from 13,000 to 7,800 copies of the newspaper sold per day.
“Without a circulation, you are just guessing – it is like trying to assess an athlete by only looking at one side of their body. You can’t do that – you need to see the whole picture, and we’re not seeing the whole picture,” says Patterson, adding that commercial advertising interest in the publication is low.
“There’s very little sales effort from the newspaper’s side to attract advertising. I understand that, because the first question from most advertisers is ‘Where’s your ABC?’ There’s the old saying: ‘No ABC, no advertising.’ I know there’s been discussion of The New Age coming onto the ABC, but nothing has happened yet, and it is not as if the publication is new.
“The New Age is well quoted on radio stations. I think the initial concerns with objectivity have long since been addressed. It is an objective publication with a credible part to play in the industry, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have an ABC.”
The same concerns are voiced by Schreiner, who is the MD of Media Tenor South Africa. “The New Age has a detailed provincial focus, but I am not sure that it really matters because we don’t know if The New Age is being read by anyone, either nationally or provincially. We find the absence of audited figures a concern. It makes the job of media analysts like us, and others who consult with business and government, very difficult. We cannot tell our clients whether or not they should or shouldn’t consider The New Age, because we have nothing to compare it with,” says Schreiner.
“I am concerned that there is a national publication that comes out every day, but that we have no idea who is reading it and how many people are buying it, which makes it very difficult to assess the importance of the newspaper,” Schreiner adds.
Media Tenor has been conducting ongoing analysis on The New Age, and Schreiner says this research shows that the paper didn’t have an overt bias towards government as previously anticipated by local media. “The New Age gives considerably more coverage to government than any of the other daily publications, but accusations by other publications that The New Age would be a positive mouthpiece for government, according to our data, don’t seem to be true.”
Schreiner says, after tracking the publication for more than a year, that The New Age carries more negative stories on government than positive, but that this doesn’t differ significantly from other local newspapers. “What is different is that The New Age gives government spokespeople a bigger platform than other publications. Government people obviously speak positively about government because that is their job, but the context in which they are being quoted is as negative or positive as that of other publications,” says Schreiner, who confirms that his research indicates no particular positive government agenda by The New Age.
Andy Rice, one of SA’s best known brand experts, says stability will be important for The New Age media brand. “Brands choose their environment, not just numerically, but in terms of the match of the environment for the brand. An editor can influence how a newspaper environment looks. There is an oxpecker synergy there – a symbiotic relationship – brands absorb some of the environment of the media that they are in, and equally, brands give some of their equity to the environment,” says Rice.
“Perhaps more important is that like brands themselves, media need to be consistent and need to build trust over time. If there is a constant changing of people at the helm, it is very hard to develop that consistency, to develop that trust. If you are a media strategist with a keen sense of these nuances, it might just be too much of a confusing medium for the brand until such time as it had settled down and proved its credentials,” he says.
“I suppose I have a rather naïve and conspiratorial view that those who go to The New Age are perhaps going for the shilling, and perhaps leaving for it as well. Or at least are leaving for lack of editorial opportunity, I suppose. I haven’t got a scrap of evidence to support that, but you do feel that,” Rice says.
Both Williams and TNA Media CEO Nazeem Howa were phoned for comment on this story. Neither responded by the time Daily Maverick was published.
Stability, a certificate of circulation, transparency, industry accreditation? Paging through The New Age, which is filled almost wall-to-wall with government advertising, and seeing the ad feature urging people to book their appointment with Blade Nzimande at The New Age business briefing, one wonders if that’s even necessary. The New Age has got its audience in government and in cadres in the civil service. Its owners have deep pockets and, allegedly, an unrelenting loyalty to the Zuma regime. The New Age’s future looks assured – at least until Mangaung this December. DM
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