Reg Rumney
Reg Rumney

New Age harkens back to a previous age

Thanks to City Press, we now have an idea of how the New Age, a newspaper without audited circulation figures and little advertising, survives in the competitive daily newspaper market.

The Gupta family, who are said to be close to President Jacob Zuma, created the New Age as a deliberate counter to the mainstream commercial press, which some in the ANC see as acting as an informal opposition to the ANC. The ANC complains that mainstream newspapers are negative.

The recent ANC conference at Mangaung noted:

“Whereas weaknesses have been identified in government communications, the media continues to have a propensity to publish mainly negative news on government disregarding the good service delivery record of government. The media continues to distort and ignore information provided by government in a transparent and accountable manner.”

City Press reported the many millions the newspaper has received from parastatals such as Eskom, and the support through a free breakfast broadcast link with the SABC that represents a substantial subsidy. Amabhungane reported that government had leaned on the parastatals to spend the money.

Grubstreet’s Gill Moodie reckons we should all learn from the New Age business model. Unfortunately the SABC is not rushing to give other commercial news operations like the Sunday Times the same sort of free TV exposure and other commercial outfits don’t have the same influence on parastatals, and government at national and local level, to get such huge sums to provide breakfast and a speaker. Nor would they necessarily get a stream of government speakers.

Like many other media commentators, I have had mixed feelings about the New Age from its inception. One the one hand, competition is welcome in South Africa. A new voice, particularly one wholly or largely supportive of the ruling party, could have offered a different perspective on events and issues.

On the other hand there were ominous signs that the motive for the launch of the newspaper resembled that of the Citizen newspaper of the past, and that there might be some sort of government funding. DA leader Helen Zille has complained of the similarity. The prospect of the state using its economic power to subvert what it perceives as journalistic opposition through distortion of the market is worrying. The National Party did try to do this, not only by launching the Citizen, but also by trying to buy South African Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Rand Daily Mail.

Professor Anton Harber argues there are crucial differences between the way the Citizen was funded and the way the New Age is funded. He points out that the funding of the New Age is not secret. This is true for the early stage of the Citizen, but after the Infogate scandal, overt funding replaced covert funding. Perskor, which replaced the government as owner of the Citizen, merging the paper with its own Financial Gazette, was awarded lucrative contracts by the government to print telephone directories.

There was no reason, ironically, for the apartheid state to launch — at enormous expense — a secretly funded English-language newspaper. Perskor was already publishing one, the Financial Gazette. Perskor could have been nudged to change the focus of the Gazette and broaden its appeal.

The rationale for the launch of the New Age is similarly difficult to discern.

Let’s deal with the negativity claim. I do find that South African newspapers are sometimes hysterical about the ANC and the state of the nation — and I am not an ANC member. However, the press routinely uncovers or gives publicity to exposing very real and worrying specific cases of corruption and abuse of power. Rather a press that cries wolf than one that does not cry out at all. And much of the political scandal in the newspapers is supplied by ANC members themselves, in pursuit of their own agendas. The ANC itself knows this. The resolutions of the ANC’s 53rd National Conference noted:

“The greatest source of negative portrayal of ANC is misconduct and public ill-discipline of ANC members and the use of the media and other platforms to advance their personal and factional interests.”

So what is the use of a bland newspaper publishing ”positive” news, if that is what the New Age is supposed to do? If it isn’t painting a pretty picture of a Zuma-ruled South Africa, it is competing in exactly the same space as the other newspapers, but in a way that hobbles itself.

What else does it do? Though it does feature columns and opinion pieces, I haven’t seen much ”quality” journalism when I have bought the paper, or fierce independence. All I remember from the launch is the famous statement about looking at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. At least the early Citizen’s paranoid pro-government propaganda was good for a laugh.

The only differentiating service the newspaper promises is to cover all the provinces. In practice this means inadequate coverage of what’s happening in the provinces. I live in the Eastern Cape. I don’t need to see half a page of stories on the Eastern Cape when I can read two whole newspapers, full of detailed news about the Eastern Cape, The Herald and the Daily Dispatch. Indeed, I cannot buy the New Age in Grahamstown. The provincial coverage seems more like an excuse to get advertising from the provincial governments.

So why should government give such extraordinary, if indirect, aid through parastatals to a commercial newspaper? Harber points out that with no audited circulation figures it is impossible to determine if the parastatals, which patronise the New Age, get much benefit and are therefore wasting our money. This includes Eskom, which wants to double the cost of electricity over the next five years to make up for past bad planning about building new electricity plants.

Given our demographics and history, I don’t think the print industry is particularly overconcentrated. Moreover, the idea that the barriers to entry are too high for new entrants in the newspaper market is untrue. Anyone with some money can start a newspaper. There are no expensive licences to pay, and there should never be licensing. It should be possible for anyone to print news of any sort on any sort of paper and distribute it in any fashion. This guarantees freedom of expression.

From time to time someone does try to establish a new major daily newspaper. If you think that this idea is ridiculous, remember that Claud Cockburn started The Week news sheet in the 1930s, using the then novel technology of roneo. It became an influential news channel, outdoing the newspapers of the day, which were too stuffily beholden to authority. Cockburn broke the story of the king’s abdication, for example.

Moreover, from time to time there have been attempts to launch new major newspaper operations. It is true that most have failed, and some failed because of the lack of committed long-term capital. Entry may be easy, but survival is hard. Establishing a newspaper operation and a brand takes time, and at the top end of the market, print must be losing readers to other online information sources. Print has for some time been losing out to TV when it comes to advertising revenue.

That doesn’t mean we should be comfortable with what we have, but the New Age seems to me a failed attempt to provide an alternative voice. Were it fighting in the marketplace without the patronage of government, it might have closed already.

There is an argument for state support to create diversity in the news, but if the state is to spend money it should go to the many struggling independent community newspapers that perhaps represent the long-term, hyper-local future of news and are essential to holding local government accountable.

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