The Media Report 2014 interview. Undoubtedly the most influential and powerful woman in the media in South Africa, former editor-in-chief of Huisgenoot, You and Drum, Esmaré Weideman has a colossal challenge. As the boss of Media24, she is responsible for the commercial success of Africa’s largest publishing group, which includes top news titles such as Beeld, Rapport, City Press and the Natal Witness. Here she talks about this challenge as well as freedom of expression, advertising, independence and monopoly.

Esmaré Weideman, Media24the media report: independence graphicWhat does the phrase ‘media independence’ mean to you?
Esmaré Weideman: The independence of a country’s media is a key indicator of the health of its democracy. The term independent media is closely related to freedom of expression but they’re not interchangeable. The latter is an ideal that came to life with the birth of our democracy and is enshrined in the fundamental principles of our Constitution.

Beyond freedom of expression, however, media freedom also implies special rights, protections and responsibilities for journalists. These include the right to protect sources and protection from harassment or threats. It is a right that comes with serious responsibility but it was hard-won and should be protected at all costs. At Media24 the independence of our journalists and editors is paramount.

the media report: independence graphicWhy is an independent media important for the future and growth of South Africa?
EW: The independence of our media is vital to South Africa’s democracy and is essential for our economy to thrive. It means transparency of public administration and that any maladministration or corruption will be exposed. It means that we can hold opinions and receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Transparent governance is one of the foundations upon which a country and its citizens can develop and prosper.

This right to access of information and freedom of expression is under serious threat should the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the Secrecy Bill, be passed into law. The Bill poses far-reaching threats to the principles enshrined in our constitution and will mean that anyone who discloses, has in their possession, or publishes any information deemed classified will be committing a crime, including evidence of maladministration or corruption.

the media report: independence graphicHow does an independent media support our democracy?
EW: Madiba said it best: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” Our democracy requires well-informed, inclusive and diverse citizens and the media are, to a large extent, the creators as well as the ‘editors’ of our public sphere. The equal rights accorded to all South Africans means the possibility of our direct participation in collective decision‐making, especially through free elections, the choice of political representatives and the power to hold elected officials accountable.

If South Africans are to exploit these rights to the fullest, however, we must have free access to information that will give us a sufficient basis for making informed judgments and political choices. I believe that one of the roles of a working journalist in a free society is to scrutinise government policy, and criticise if need be, and that no public official is immune to the sting of a free press.

the media report: independence graphicIs it possible to draw a clear distinction between advertising and editorial? How clear are these lines at Media24’s news brands like Rapport, City Press and Beeld?
EW: Yes, it is possible and we have clear policies in place. We are firm believers in editorial freedom. If content is paid for by an advertiser our publications and platforms will clearly mark that content as advertorials or sponsored content. Our audiences must clearly be able to identify it as an advertisement. We even follow the same rules for our internal PR. If we want something published, we write a press release and distribute it to our editors – they decide whether or not to publish. We even buy advertisements in our own publications!

the media report: independence graphicThe past 12 months saw new editors take the helm at both Rapport and Beeld, partially reinventing the papers. Beeld in particular has become a major source of social discourse — breaking big stories, taking a stance on hugely topical and sensitive stories – all in all getting people talking. What are your thoughts and reflections on this — do the numbers and advertising support show any clear changes? Is breaking news and investigative journalism still important and the key to building news brands?
EW: Adriaan Basson and Waldimar Pelser have indeed revitalised Beeld and Rapport respectively. So has Ferial Haffajee at City Press, and Andrew Trench at the Witness [on Monday, 24 November 2014, it was announced that Trench is taking over as editor of News24 on 1 December 2014 — ed-at-large]. Do advertisers follow excellent journalism? It should! Alas, advertising revenue is declining around the world – the trend is no different in South Africa.

The situation is exacerbated by the weak economy, with even big print advertisers cutting back on their marketing spend in print. Newspapers are facing unprecedented revenue pressure but breaking news and good analysis of big stories do still lead to circulation sales, yes. For instance, we recently saw a 27% spike in Beeld’s sales with its coverage of the Oscar Pistorius sentencing. Nelson Mandela’s passing led to massive circulation spikes across the board.

the media report: independence graphicWhich benefits do advertisers get from newspapers that break big stories and do excellent investigative journalism?
EW: Good, thought-provoking newspapers — and editors — set the national agenda and attract premium readers which are, in turn, attractive to advertisers. These are the newspapers people remain loyal to and advertisers like to associate with. What’s more, our content is multi-platform so we’re able to offer our advertisers reach and a highly engaged audience. We have excellent advertising and content solutions teams who are able to interpret the needs of advertisers, offering them advertising solutions across digital and print.

the media report: independence graphicTell me more about the Afrikaans media. How important is this media sector to Media24? Does this sector show any growth? How has Media24 sought to ‘own’ this sector?
EW: Naspers, Media24’s mother company, was the pioneering Afrikaans news title owner. Next year we celebrate Die Burger’s centenary. What a milestone. Today, we are the largest Afrikaans publisher across newspapers and magazines, with incredibly loyal and engaged audiences across all platforms. They want to consume media in their own language, but what’s more, we offer them the best products in the market. Language alone does not attract audiences; excellent content does.

Does this sector still grow? Yes, there is definitely still growth potential and we continuously enrich our offering (as we do for our English audiences). We recently launched Netwerk24, a digital platform offering quality content from our four main Afrikaans titles, Volksblad, Die Burger, Beeld and Rapport, and we are delighted with the uptake. Kuier’s success is a publishing phenomenon and the magazine just keeps on growing. Many of our Afrikaans editors, commentators and journalists are superstars who publish books and are sought after on television and radio.

the media report: independence graphicThere has been criticism that Media24 monopolises the Afrikaans media sector in SA. Is this fair or accurate?
EW: As the custodians of the strongest and most established Afrikaans media brands we have 100 years’ experience in providing editorial content to the Afrikaans market – we know who our readers and users are, and they are loyal to brands which have served them well for the longest time. Let’s not underestimate Afrikaans audiences though – they read English too! If our Afrikaans media don’t offer quality content which speaks to their market, we will lose them to the many competitors out there.

the media report: independence graphicWhich unique proposition does Media24 offer brand owners and marketers? How is this different from any other media stable in SA’s offering?
EW: Media24 offers brands owners, advertisers and marketers an all-in-one solution and massive reach across many audience segments. We are an innovative and dynamic company and we offer tailor-made solutions across our platforms.

We are the pioneers in digital media in South Africa. News24 is the largest publishing platform on the continent and keeps on reinventing itself. It now produces and broadcasts more than two ours of video content each day. We believe that video – a medium used in our news and magazine environments too – offers us an added value proposition to bring broadcast (and print) advertisers into the digital environment, offering them a targeted and engaged audience.

the media report: independence graphicHow does Media24 manage the digital challenge? A potentially loaded question, but how are you managing the online-print mix, integrating social media, and reinventing advertising options?
Media24 embraced digital a long time ago. Our journalists and content providers have received extensive multimedia training and now produce content for all platforms, including print, digital, video, podcasts and TV.

News24’s video production is excellent, so is the multimedia work done in our Afrikaans news environment. During the Oscar Pistorius trial, Beeld broadcast 30 minutes of live analysis each day from its offices in Johannesburg. The audience was small but hey, it was a milestone for us and it is an indication of exciting things to come.

As far as a 24-hour digital-first news operation across all our publishing units is concerned, we have made enormous strides. Our heads are in the right place, but the execution is not yet fast enough. Of course the truly digitally minded teams at have been doing this for years and they do it so well, but we still have some way to go in our traditional print businesses. In addition, digital sales have shown excellent growth across the board. MyEdit, our content aggregator, is showing a lot of promise and its digital magazine bundle offerings have attracted a solid audience.

We do, however, find that the growth is increasingly coming from subscriptions to individual titles. As smartphone penetration increases and once broadband becomes more affordable, we believe the digital subscriptions of our titles, and digital consumption across all our platforms, will accelerate.

the media report: independence graphicDoes Media24 have plans in the rest of the African continent?
EW: Absolutely! It’s a key focus area for us — the rest of Africa has such enormous potential, particularly when you consider the booming economies of so many African countries. Producing content for mobile is a prime focus across our digital-media businesses. We are seeing much faster growth in the entry-level smartphone market, primarily on Android devices.

This — tied to higher customer education, the pass-on factor (where old phones with apps installed are handed down to a new generation of smartphone users) and good marketing through our digital platforms — is encouraging growth. There is much work to be done to scale faster when it comes to increasing our audience in the rest of Africa but we are ‘full-speed ahead’.

the media report: independence graphicWhich challenges does Media24 face in terms of profitability and sustainability? How are you managing these challenges, and what impact has the economy had on it?
EW: The profitability of our traditional media is under pressure because advertising, still the largest contributor to our revenue is under pressure. There are two reasons for the pressure on advertising revenue: the changing global media landscape and the economy. The latter is easier to explain: marketers are simply cutting back on their advertising spend. Things get more interesting when you look at the evolving media landscape. Electronic media, TV in particular, is having a good run and takes a huge chunk of the available revenue. Digital ad spend is also growing by leaps and bounds, but this is still priced well below other mediums and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Having said that, Media24 has had the foresight to invest heavily into new growth areas to diversify the company for long-term sustainability. This ranges from digital publishing to e-commerce and is in line with what some of the best media companies in the world have done.

the media report: independence graphicThis is a magazine for brand owners and marketers. What is your message to them?
EW: Partner with us! Media24 has world-class and powerful brands with long-standing relationships with millions of readers and users. We reach audiences in print, on digital platforms, through special events. We offer excellence in native advertising and content solutions. Partner with our brands and let us do what we love and know so well – market your event, campaign, CSI project or product.

the media report: independence graphicAre there any innovations, products or ideas at Media24 that marketers and brand owners should know about?
EW: As a company, we always strive to be the pioneers of media innovation and our brands are always producing cutting edge products. A few are already established, but we keep reworking and refining it as we move along — this includes specific news-related apps, Netwerk24, our e-fashion store Spree, content aggregator MyEdit and a range of multimedia and 24-hour digital-first news offerings.

the media report: independence graphicWhere and how does Media24 communicate with brand owners and marketers on an on-going basis?
EW: We communicate on an on-going basis, through all the usual channels and one-on-one meetings, to ensure clients understand our unique offering, the innovative solutions and data we can offer them, and the latest trends and market-related insights. For us, it’s all about nurturing relationships. Our advertisers are not just clients, they are part of the Media24 family. We ensure that we service our clients and listen to their needs – that way we are able to offer them a tailor-made solution.

the media report: independence graphicAnything we haven’t asked or that you want to add?
EW: Media24 is a proudly South African success story – committed to connecting our brands to people. Our aim is first to service the communities in which we operate. The market has been good to us and we always strive to give back and add value. What makes Media24 a great company is the people who work here – they are passionate, involved, generous and courageous. Our staff support numerous corporate social responsibility initiatives through our in-house Volunteers24 programme through which they are able to give back. For example they have built and customised more than ten container schools and facilities nationwide.

Another exciting venture is our flagship community project: WeCan24 is a mobile-based digital school newspaper network developed by Media24. We visit schools nationwide and provide training to aspiring young journalists with a keen interest in the media industry and give them the tools to set up their own online school newspaper. We hope to inspire them and expose them to the endless possibilities that the media world offers.

Follow on Twitter: @eweideman

the media report: independence graphicThis interview first ran in The Media Report 2014, which is published by Ornico with as its official media partner. Read or download the full magazine via Issuu.

Visuals used are licensed through Creative Commons. Attribution and gratitude go to: Reporters Without Borders and the Give Dictators The Finger campaign; r2hox, who documents urban and street art; Rebel Mouse Digital artist, Surian Soosay; Khalid Albaih, founder of; Nicolas Raymond, print buyer, and photographer, Karen Roe; photographer SandisterTei; and author, scientist and occasional photographer, Duncan Hull.

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