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Moegsien Williams Q&A: The New Age business model, the business breakfasts and Helen Zille

Date posted: February 5, 2013

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by Gill Moodie (@GrubstreetSA) Is The New Age the Great Evil or just another newspaper trying to get off the ground?

Ever since it launched two years ago, controversy has swirled around the paper because its main shareholders – the Gupta family – are close associates with the family of our controversial president, Jacob Zuma.

The paper has always said its intention is to tell the good-news stories of South Africa and give the government credit where it’s due but not to be the mouthpiece of the ruling party.

But its detractors – especially since the latest controversy around parastatal funding for its SABC business breakfasts – say the paper is nothing more than another Citizen of the infamous Info scandal of the 1970s.

Grubstreet interviewed The New Age’s editor, Moegsien Williams, last week to find out more about how The New Age operates, its emerging business model and what kind of paper he wants it to be.

GILL MOODIE: There’s a lot of us who would really like to know why you left such a powerful position (Gauteng editor-in-chief and group editorial director) at the Independent Newspapers and went to The New Age (in September last year)?

MOEGSIEN WILLIAMS: You know, I kind of abdicated the editorship (of The Star) in February last year after editing the paper for almost eleven or twelve years. And the reason was that the paper was struggling from a circulation and financial point of view – not unlike other papers (in SA) but The Star is the flagship paper of the company – and I’d been in conversation with my superiors at Independent for about a year and a half before February…

I had to pose a tough question to myself: whether it was not time for the paper to have a new editor to introduce fresh blood and fresh ideas. I had this conversation for a while with the chief executive (Tony Howard) of Independent and Nazeem (Howa, then COO of Independent who joined The New Age as CEO of parent company TNA Media in January 2011) when he was still there.

Eventually we came to a decision (with Howard) at the beginning of last year that I should pay more attention to my night job at Independent, which was group editorial director – dealing with politicians, cost-cutting, centralisation, group initiatives and group units, etc… Between March (when I relinquished The Star’s editorship) and June – when I marked my 60th birthday – I realised that not being on a newspaper directly was probably something I was going to miss. I wasn’t looking forward to a job in which I would be bored and not directly challenged…

But I’d been having calls from and conversations with Nazeem asking if I wanted to move (to The New Age)…

So in June on my 60th birthday, I took Steve Jobs’ advice: that if you’re going to make one last career move, you might as well make it a big one and a wild one because you might not live long enough to regret it… so I said: “Let’s give it a go.”… So to answer you question in a nutshell, it was to make one last career move that I hoped at the time would be interesting and exciting.

MOODIE: And it has been exciting. Are you feeling under siege at the moment?

WILLIAMS: You mean our controversial business briefings? You know, I started here on a Sunday and we had a business breakfast on the Tuesday. And if I had any doubts about having joined The New Age, when I looked at the energy of the staff at that particular function – the fact that from the shareholder to Nazeem to the senior creative editor here, they were all up at 6 o’clock putting up banners and getting the tables ready.

It’s that kind of operation. It’s really, really hands-on. It’s a real collective effort to put out this newspaper and I must say I’m enjoying it immensely.

Also, because the paper is new, we are able to innovate and try new things. If we have an idea, we talk it over a bit of lunch in our building and the next day we implement. There’s no long meeting, unlike some other companies that are like super tankers – you know, difficult to turn…

MOODIE: Well, let’s talk about innovating. I wrote an opinion piece last week putting forward that your business model could be to be a events company first and a newspaper second. That is a business model we’re seeing in overseas publications – but not here yet.

WILLIAMS: No. We only started off with one or two breakfast briefing a month, if I’m not mistaken…

MOODIE: So am I wrong on that?

WILLIAMS: Well, yes and no, Gill. You know, The Times of India is a seven-percent stakeholder in The New Age. I’ve just come back from India and the reality for us as an industry – and I say this having come back with my eyes wide open – is: “God, we have to change”.

The Times of India’s secret of its success is that they’ve segmented that market like you can’t believe…(with localised editions, supplements on religion, editions and supplements aimed at school children and students, etc)… (At The Times of India) there is also a very, very close relationship with the advertising department and the editorial departments… One day 90% of the front page, while I was there, was an advert…

Coming back to The New Age it is our desire and our intention to look at papers like The Times of India and ask: “How can we change the way that we do thing to ensure the survival of newspapers in this country?”

MOODIE: But now you’re at war with (DA party leader and Western Cape Premier) Helen Zille (who pulled out of speaking at a breakfast and has called for a commission of inquiry into the funding of paper).

WILLIAMS: It’s not a war. We are simply responding to some of the things she has done and has said… And she has responded and we have responded…

MOODIE: You know, it seems to me that The New Age has always been a pretty even-handed newspaper when it comes to reporting on politics. There hasn’t been that much to distinguish it from the other newspapers in South Africa but now, with the row with Helen Zille, I detect a bit of a change. For instance, there was a funny little flag on one of the Zille stories (last week) that said “Helen Zille Scandal No 3”. You do seem to be leaning more towards supporting the ruling party.

WILLIAMS: You know, Nazeem tells the story of how the two of us – when we were at Independent before the launch of this newspaper – were the key architects in a strategy to make sure this paper didn’t survive. Our fundamental approach was to try and position the paper in a certain way… And I think virtually all the newspaper companies in the industry tried to paint The New Age in certain way. They try to portray The New Age as the ANC mouthpiece.

The noble intention of the proprietors and shareholders of this newspaper were simply to provide a voice that will promote and defend the interest of South Africa – that’s it. You can interpret that in many ways.

But the main shareholders are saying: “Provide a balanced discourse on politics, etc., in your newspaper”… And if I’m labelled as a pro-ANC newspaper and a pro-government newspaper, let it be so. The proof is always in the reading of the newspaper. It has given us in a perverse way a niche so I’m saying, as an editor, if I’m labelled in a certain way, there’s no use in trying to deny it or run away from it. The proof is always in the reading of the newspaper.

The reality of the situation is that the ANC can quite correctly say that before the arrival of The New Age virtually every single newspaper would not give them the time of day… That is the perception of the ANC – that the press is this country have adopted the mantle of the political opposition.

Where does that leave The New Age? It gives us a gap. It gives us an opportunity to say: “OK. If every single newspaper last December by the tone of its content were hoping that Jacob Zuma would lose the ANC presidency in Mangaung, The New Age will do the opposite. We will say: ‘Hey man, here’s the guy’ ” – and we did it very scientifically.

We went to count for ourselves through sources and contacts what the (ANC) branch votes were doing. And every Friday in the run-up to Mangaung, we did take-outs on what it looked like in Limpopo and in the Western Cape, etc., and if I’m not mistaken, we were probably out by one percent.

Our groundwork showed and we really reflected the reality of the situation in the ANC best of all the newspapers in the run-up to Mangaung. And why? Because we were given a gap by our rivals.

MOODIE: But is this tactic translating into finding a readership? This is the crucial thing we don’t know about The New Age because you are not audited by the ABC. Why don’t you just get audited by the ABC and clear this all up?

WILLIAMS: The Voice (which Howa was instrumental in launching when he was at Independent Newspapers) is not audited…

MOODIE:  Yes, I’m well aware of that and I know you don’t have to be audited by the ABC but isn’t this a weakness for The New Age?

WILLIAMS: We are being audited as we speak, I can tell you that much, for the first quarter of this year. So by the end of March we will be able to give you an audited figure of our sales.

MOODIE: Yes, but not by the ABC. Why not just get audited by the ABC – the standard for the industry?

WILLIAMS: But why?

MOODIE: Because why not just see off your naysayers and say: “Here we are”?

WILLIAMS: Because we want to be different.

MOODIE:  I find that quite perverse.

WILLIAMS: …Look, we talk to our clients. We show them our figures and our market research and we are now ready to subject ourselves to an external audited process of our circulation – and for the simple reason that we have our internal SAP system working properly so we can now show proper receipts for sales, etc., in a proper accounting system… We are following a different model.

The Times of India give away half of their print run and the reason they do that, they say, is that they’ve got advertisers to satisfy because they want eyeballs on the ads. We are quite openly saying that we are looking at that model and, to some extent, we have done that with our print order (of about 100 000)… We try and sample half… That is the model we are pursuing.

To come back to our business briefings, they work for us. At the breakfast with (Police Minister) Nathi Mthethwa (last week) there were about 300 people if I’m not mistaken. I would assume that 95% of them paid an entrance fee and they are all registered now for a six-month subscription so every time we have a breakfast, we grow the subscription base by the number of people who attend.

The sponsorships covers the rest of the costs. I’m guessing now but if you want to hire a venue at the Sandton Convention Centre, you’ll be out of pocket by about R150 000 to R250 000. We run a complete back office here to organise the event – about eight to 12 people – and that is costly. There’s the cost of the food that we serve and the audiovisual system – all these other costs in terms of staging an event like this. That’s where the sponsorship goes.

It’s a model that works for the sponsor because it’s great marketing and branding. It works for us in giving a new entrant in the market a bit of a name and for SABC, it gives it content. They can fill almost an entire morning’s programme with it…

But to get back to your question about what distinguishes us from the rest of the newspapers, the truth of the matter is some of the problems I am encountering now is that staffing was done in a very hurried way. (The first paper’s editor, Vuyo Mvoko, and senior staff walked out at the launch of the paper in late 2010.)

There were great ideas but the execution probably fell short. There were – and there still are – some serious defects in the newsroom operation that are not peculiar to The New Age but let me not skirt the issue: it’s a very junior newsroom… I’m trying to put a new team together here.

The reality is that I’m going to have grow my own timber here because I just can’t find the people to produce the different kind of paper I want The New Age to be and that you’re not seeing yet.

The DNA is here. There is no other newspaper that covers the provinces the way we do. We, in fact, have offices in all the major provincial centres. If you ask me a straight-forward question about whether they are working very well then I would have to be honest and say ‘no’.

But we have the basis for producing a newspaper – and now you can see the parallels with The Times of India – and hopefully before I retire,  I would like to put a newspaper into Limpopo, for instance, that is going to go to five of the key towns there with different zoned edition.

I would want to put a newspaper into Durban called The New Age that would maybe cover the North Coast, Pinetown, Durban central and the South Coast in different zoned edition. That is the dream.

That is what is going to make us different.

I’m what is called a writer’s editor. I put a lot of emphasis on writing… sometime I cringe in the morning when I pick up the paper and read some of the writing – and, again, this is not peculiar to The New Age. It’s probably going to take me five years to get it right. Hopefully, Gill, when you pick up the newspaper then, you’ll say: “Hey man. This paper is distinguished from the other newspapers for these reasons”.

- SA’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie, offers intelligence on media – old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet.

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