by Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) Tim du Plessis, Media24’s head of Afrikaans newspapers, retired at the end of May 2014. He has had a remarkable career that has seen him edit three newspapers — Rapport, Beeld and The Citizen — as well as time as deputy editor of City Press. Grubstreet spoke to Du Plessis about his plans for the future, the challenges of editing newspapers in a tough market and reporting on the Afrikaans community’s move to the new South Africa.
Gill Moodie: So what are your plans post retirement, Tim?
Tim du Plessis: (DStv channel) KykNet has approached me because their viewers want to see more news and actuality content. There’s already a lot of news and actuality in the breakfast show and then there’s a programme that Freek Robinson does but that’s about it. There’s a 7pm news bulletin but that’s supplied by eNCA.
So they’re looking at opportunities to beef up their offering of news and actuality and they offered me a two-year-contract to come help them do that.
GM: In front of the camera or will you be producing?
TDP: I do some work in front of the camera already (for KykNet) but it’s just discussion of newspaper headlines and then I have a little slot on Saturday mornings with Dawie Roodt, where we talk politics and about news over the week.
So we want to explore possibilities and see what we can do. They’re looking at late night because they discovered that the viewers are very faithful but at 9.30pm they go elsewhere on DStv – mostly to Sky and CNN and so forth. So they figure there’s maybe a gap for some late-night actuality.
GM: It sounds interesting.
TDP: I’m very happy to be doing this because it’s back to content creation, which I really like. I won’t be responsible for the channel in the same way I was responsible for four struggling Afrikaans titles – struggling from a business point of view.
So ja, I’m really looking forward to this. It’s a wonderful opportunity and I’m really very grateful.
GM: And you’re a very young 60-year-old.
TDP: Well, thank you very much. I like to think so. I think I have another one – maybe two – fights left in me…
GM: Let’s talk about those four struggling newspapers. Beeld and Rapport are battling circulation decline but Die Burger is holding steady and so is Volksblad mostly. I can’t work out why this is so for Beeld and Rapport. They’ve both have such smart young editors (Adriaan Basson and Waldimar Pelser) and I think both papers are looking great. It’s so difficult today, isn’t it?
TDP: It is. Beeld is continuing its 5% annual downward turn and for Rapport it’s slightly more. But you know, Rapport is a very difficult paper to figure out in the sense that its Amps (readership figures) are still relatively high.
I know there are a lot of dark arts involved in Amps but the fact is that the readership (for Rapport) is still there and advertising revenue at Rapport is the best of the lot. From a business point of view, it is a successful newspaper. Revenues could be better but it is financially quite robust.
GM: I find it interesting how Rapport had been brought into the modern era. It’s far more diverse and textured now. It used to rely a lot on rugby and the travails of Joost van der Westhuizen and Steve Hofmeyr.
TDP: I left Rapport six years ago and in my last year at Rapport that started to change. We decided that rugby just couldn’t pull it off for us anymore.
The paper has been modernised tremendously. I think it’s a great read. It has a very smart young editor with a smart team.
I’m not so concerned about Rapport. A decline is inevitable but I would like to see a smaller decline.
GM: Is decline inevitable?
TDP: Well, the most recent wisdom worldwide is that legacy titles are going down gradually but there’s a new wisdom: that print newspapers are not going to die altogether. They will change drastically – and continue to change – but do you remember the newspaper extinction table (in which newspaper were to become insignificant in the US by 2017)? That’s gone. Nobody talks about that anymore…
GM: I know you were originally a Beeld reporter but was that your favourite newspaper to edit (from 2009-2011)?
TDP: I was only editor of Beeld for three years whereas I was eight years (as editor from 2001-2009) at Rapport.
Rapport was a big challenge for me because I had a daily (newspaper) training except for 13 months that I spent at City Press (1998-1999) and dailies and Sunday papers are so different. They do the same thing but they have completely different sets of wiring and engineering.
So it took me a while to adjust but once I got on top of that, I enjoyed the challenge in the sense that you start your week on Tuesday and the cupboard is bare. Then you make a few plans and fly a few kites and see what comes back. By Wednesday you have some ideas. By Thursday you start to panic and Friday you work your arse off. And when it come together, it’s usually very satisfying.
I enjoyed Beeld because it is a well regarded newspaper and you have a little bit more freedom with your readers. They expect their newspaper to be slightly left of centre. They may not agree with you but it’s fine. With Rapport, they don’t cut you the same kind of slack.
GM: Why? Because the readers are more conservative?
TDP: I think it’s just part of Rapport’s DNA. That’s how the paper developed over the years. It also has a wider spectrum of readers – and it has a very big rural readership. Farmers are a major constituency…
GM: And were you actually fired from The Citizen (which he edited from 1999-2001)?
TDP: I wasn’t fired. I had a disagreement with the owners (Caxton) over the direction of the paper.
They were actually very kind. They said: ‘We’re not going to fire you but we think it’s better for us if our ways part. We will honour your contract’. I was 15 months into a three-year contract with them. This was in 2001.
GM: What direction did you want to take The Citizen?
TDP: I thought we could make The Citizen South Africa’s USA Today and said: ‘Let’s pump resources into editorial, build the staff, run the paper from Johannesburg with strong bureaus in the rest of the country’. Incidentally we thought KZN would be a stronger launch base for a national newspaper than the Western Cape. They thought: ‘No, this is a Gauteng newspaper. We must take on The Star.’
But we ended things amicably. They were generous in saying: ‘Go find yourself a job and when you find one, we can talk about your contract.’ I still occasionally bump into (Caxton CEO and major shareholder) Terry Moolman and we sit down and have a coffee or a beer.
GM: So are you going to miss it?
TDP: I’m going to miss it one hang of a lot. It’s not me in particular. The news business becomes part of your personality. It’s part of your identity.
I was thinking that next Monday (June 6), I’m doing to tweet that for the first time in 38 years I will not be employed as a print journalist.
That’s something to get used to. Print has been so dominant in my life. And in terms of influence and impact, nothing comes close to print. And I will keep on saying that – even in my new workplace.
GM: I interviewed (also now retired) Peter Bruce (from Business Day) recently. He told me that he found that editing had become exhausting in recent years because you have to think about so much beyond editorial – circulation, advertising, online.
TDP: Ja, I agree… These days newspaper editors are burdened with much more than getting the editorial formula right.
Also managing decline takes a certain toll on you… Your editorial resources are diminished and the newspapers are getting thinner and thinner so everything must be tighter and tighter.
When I started off as a newspaper journalist 38 years ago it wasn’t about what you wanted to cover; you just covered all the news. Now news editors and editors must take tough decisions every day – and not once a day but several times a day – on what to cover.
GM: What are you proudest of in your career?
TDP: Gill, you know I’m not going to take any credit for it but I was a political journalist in the 1980s, when we were reporting on the dismantling of the old National Party. I think Afrikaans newspapers played quite a role in preparing their readers for what was coming. I know people will scoff when they see this but, particularly at Beeld, we were advocates for political change in the country. Our big thing was that change was not only inevitable; it was desirable…
GM: What a privilege to have reported on the Afrikaans community moving into the new South Africa?
TDP: Ja, but I think when you reflect on the past you must look at the good and the bad.
The bad was that our newspapers supported a party that put this system in place and that’s why in ’97 we were a group of young Naspers journalists who felt very strongly about the fact that we should go to the Truth Commission and acknowledge that we didn’t commit any humans rights violations or kill people ourselves but we were part of this system. We didn’t ask tough enough questions and we easily believed the assurances of the ministers and the bureaucrats… That was a major thing in my career.
I personally felt very strongly about it. The image that I used was: we are immigrating to the new South Africa and on the way we need to collect a stamp in our passports… and that stamp says ‘dealt with the past’.
I’m not saying that it’s gone now and we don’t have to worry about the past because we are still dealing with the legacies. But at least I have a stamp in my passport that says that I went through customs.
GM: How many journalists were part of that group?
TDP: We were about 130 in the end. The company’s decision was that it had nothing to declare and that it wouldn’t participate (in the Truth Commission). I wouldn’t say we broke ranks but we disagreed with the company and they allowed us to go and make a statement.
GM: And what was the company’s response?
TDP: Look, we were put down in public but not a single person in this group were victimised in any way and shortly after that I was promoted to deputy editor of Beeld…
GM: You know what strikes me about the Media24’s Cape Town head office is the old fashioned, Afrikaans feel. I’ve noticed men stand back to allow women in and out of the lifts first.
TDP: Afrikaans boys are taught manners by their mothers and grandmothers… You know, when I started at Naspers you addressed your seniors as “meneer” and when you were called to the editor’s office, you put on your jacket.
But when Koos Bekker came (now chairman of Naspers), he changed the dress code and he insisted that we all address him as “Koos” and not “Mr Bekker”. That was a big change for a lot of people. Many of the senior people had a wardrobe of suits to wear – at least five or six suits. They didn’t have the stylish casual clothes that Koos wore.
It used to be very hierarchical. The MD of Naspers used to be a God-like figure and his decisions and his word were final. That has changed. There’s much more of a robust debating culture and discussing of ideas irrespective of where they come from.
South Africa’s leading media commentator Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) offers intelligence on media, old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet. This piece was published first on Journalism.co.za, the website of Wits University’s journalism school.
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