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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  • 15 Responses to “New Age harkens back to a previous age”

    1. Tofolux #

      @Reg, one wonders if all this Gupta bashing, is as a result of the madame caught out personally receiving money and with all this belligerence and accusations of ”fraud and corruption” why none of these groupings have NOT laid charges of whatsoever at the police stations? I mean how can anyone be falsely accused by the very groups who profess to be defenders of the constutional principles of our country? But in saying that, the agenda is quite obvious much like your admiration for the City Press and the incorrect conclusions of Mangaung Media resolutions. Firstly the CIty Press accused the Dep Pres of fraud and having a secret pregnant girlfriend with multiple children. The City Press has also accused our President iro Nkandla without admitting that it is the contractirs who are under investigation by the Hawks,are the ones who handed over the ”secrets” to them. It is quite wierd that theie own suspicions were not raised iro conflict of interest and suspicious pricing of contractual work but because it concerned JZ they ran with news that is highly inflammatory and extremely biased. But clearly with all this black bashing that dominates the media discourse and with all this ”white outrage albeit from a ”white perspective” how can any person conclude that this interpretation of citizenry is not only insulting but contains racist undertones. It is quite remiss to ignore the fact that the vandalism of the insulting paintings, had the approval of ordinary…

      February 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm
    2. The Critical Cynic #

      Oh dear Tofolux – the spear is back! The insulting painting that was ‘pointing’ at all the insulting self-serving politicians, one in particular, that abuse their position. No doubt there are also white contrators in collusion with the Nkandla debacle – how about instead of getting stuck on the racial demographics of the corrupt you join us in denouncing the corrupt (whoever they are, whatever race or gender they are) and promoting the honest. .

      did you read the bit where the article states
      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.”

      Even the ANC recognise the greatest source of their negative portrayal is thanks to their own members behaviour (yes, that AND the subjectivity of the media). How come you are unable to acknowledge this thorn (or is it a spear) in your side that is hampering your objectivity?

      February 12, 2013 at 10:26 am
    3. Tofolux #

      @critcyn, the greatest source of information must be media and we as citizenry MUST be able to test that information knowing that in the first instance it is objective, WITHOUT ANY BIAS and substantive. If you subject yourself to these principles then the moral outcome is high (geddit?) The greatest danger that we face today is the peddling of information that borders on speculation, untruths, smokescreens, sources with no names(haha). We have seen the advent of social media and we know that some reports rely heavily on untested information such as twitter, facebook etc. There clearly is no investigative journalism and there are no journalists who are ”out there” gathering news. eg the Popes resignation was ”lifted” from twitter. Not one journalist broke the news. The news had to be verified by journalists (omg) So clearly if one understands the conceptual thinking of responsible information how will you eg carry the news of a breakout of a plague for instance? Will you rely on twitter to tell you what to do and where to go? You cannot because in life and death scenarios, you need to trust the information. Hence if media played a responsible role, acted more honestly and relayed important information without ANY bias, then I am better able to make an informed decision and not become a chorus-singer. Now given all the papparazi news that we are force-fed, do you really think that the public at large has any confidence to rely on city press information?

      February 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm
    4. Skumbuzo Mbhele #

      The New Age is taking us all back to The Dark Age.

      No difference between the New Age and the Citizen.
      We all forget that the old Nationalist Party is so firmly intrenched into the ANC and is simply teaching the ANC exactly how to plunder the country, exactly as the Nats did. Plundering includes press propoganda!!

      February 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm
    5. Sandile Memela

      @ Reg intriguing article, indeed. But as a newspaper insider can you confirm the following:
      1. Is it true that ALL media houses have business development managers or government liaison managers who sole purpose is not only to solicit but secure profit-making deals to enrich them?
      2. Is it true that most newspapers would love to be in the position of New Age where they enjoy this fruitful relationship?
      3. Finally, if we were to closely look at all newspapers, is it not true that their lifeblood is government advertising in their career sections and other forms of partnership, including supplements?
      I am raising these questions because we have what seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
      If all newspapers are looking for lucrative contracts from both goverment and corporates, who has the right to judge the other?

      February 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm
    6. The Critical Cynic #

      I wish someone would replace the reply editor with one that works better – or am I the only one to type a comment only to see the whole thing go when I think I’m deleting one sentence?

      @ Tofolux here’s an attempt to quickly recreate-
      Yes, idealistically we as citizenry SHOULD be able to test that information knowing that in the first instance it is objective, WITHOUT ANY BIAS and substantive. But if it is that and we already know it, why would there be any reason to test it? But I do agree, we should be able to test it and find it to be that nebulous subjective thing called the truth.

      Nevertheless, here in the very imperfect world I do believe there are still a few striving to be good investigative journalists out there, and as long as there’s at least one your assertion that there are none is wrong and um rather subjective and biased.

      However, if you are corrent and theere aren’t any good journalists left out there why are you defending the New Age as if they have just miraculously found and hired the last good non-existant investigative journalists to work exclusively for them and the good of the country by only publishing the truth.?

      So let me answer your question…
      Now given all the papparazi news that we are force-fed, do you really think that the public at large has any confidence to rely on city press information?

      Nope, but relative to the liklihood that I can rely more on New Age juournalism, Yes!

      February 13, 2013 at 11:19 am
    7. Tofolux #

      @Critcyn, with all the mumbo-jumbo one can only conclude that you agree with me. There is one fact you fail to acknowledge though and is that New Age is a NKOB. Noting that you & et al are so principle and also noting that we are talking about bias and sustantiveness I must therefore conclude that either you are a genie or you have these magical powers to see into the future to enable you to conclude that New Age is unreliable.

      February 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm
    8. The Critical Cynic #

      @ Tofolux
      What mumbo jumbo? try reading it again just after reading your comment to me..
      I’m not agreeing with you at all.

      I’m cynical enough to know that New Age journalism is unlikely to be any better, and quite likely to be less objective than, say, City Press. You on the other hand seem to be idealistic enough to faithfully believe they will be fantastically objective, despite the saying that the person who pays the piper gets to choose the tune. This is the problem with Big Media in the world – and perhaps an areas where we do agree – and I for one am not at all enthralled with big media and do look around for different perspectives. However, I think you will see the same with New Age, bias and subjectivity that is..

      How do we determine this? If the % of articles attacking the ANC is way outnumbered by the number of articles lauding them do we assume them to now be objective compared to the statistical patterns in the other mainstream press? Or do we now read that as being very bias reporting and discount it on that basis? Reg points out that the press routinely uncovers or gives publicity to exposing very real and worrying specific cases of corruption and abuse of power. Let’s see how the New Age deal with this kind of situation.

      I get the feeling that you believe the New Age WILL be reliable yet here’s a NKOB that you are defending purely, it appears, because of its links to the ANC and the Guptas and not. Next thing they’ll give it away…

      February 13, 2013 at 5:13 pm
    9. The Critical Cynic #

      and not being objective at all, yet again!

      February 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm
    10. ntozakhona #

      Sandile

      As an SMME trainer I decided to include the New Age business model as a case study. They ventured into a territory where there are many and solid barriers to entry. They chose to report on national news, province by province appealing to our South African ties, they realised that the public is eager to hear leaders in their owm words as evidenced by mass rallies, they knew that the government was worried about correct information not reaching the population and knew that parastatals have an interest in correct information reaching consumers, and WALA they were in business.

      The inside information you have provided I wil use as additional material in the analysis of competition, Shu, great material for market research and market penetration.

      February 13, 2013 at 11:33 pm
    11. The Creator #

      3 Is the New Age a good newspaper? (Everybody says “No” except maybe Tofolux.)

      4. Could the ANC have produced a good pro-ANC newspaper? This, of course, is the $64 000 question which Harber and Rumney would never answer because the answer is hostile to their funders. The answer is that the South African press establishment has become so appallingly inept and corrupt that if the ANC had simply produced an honest house journal focussing on serious political debate and factual information about politics, written by halfway competent and serious journalists, it would probably have sold quite well. But obviously it wouldn’t have got any advertising from big business, so the ANC would have had to subsidise it.

      The reason why this didn’t happen is a) because the climate within the ANC is hostile to honest comment and critical debate, b) because the Zuma cabal has plundered Chancellor House so there’s no money left to sponsor a newspaper, c) because nobody believes what they read in the newspapers any more than what they hear from ANC politicians, so it would have been an uphill battle even if a and b hadn’t been there.

      A big question is whether the New Age was really intended as a newspaper, or whether it’s just a scam to divert public money into the pockets of the Guptas. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have been very healthy, for South African journalism, to set up a newspaper actually free from big business control.

      February 14, 2013 at 9:14 am
    12. Tofolux #

      @Critcyn, there is a fine line between cyniscm and sarcasm and my Gogo always says that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”
      @Creator,I put it to you that your bias against New Age is only because of ANC. If we were to discuss this subject matter objectively then clearly you would be on a slippery slope anyway. Flip side, we could have a fruitful engagement discussing media, its role in building a healthy society that is truly democratic, progressive and vibrant. I can conclude that they have NOT delivered on any of these principles. You cannot dismiss the fact that the majority of South Africans have no confidence or any trust in the media. Hence what is our role in society? Are we going to stand on the sidelines and shout mumbo jumbo? I know that it took 350yrs for some to say somtething and vote in a referendum ( even this was done in secret). Media today only reflects the anger and fear of the minority. They do not reflect the SA where the majority of the populace wants to get on and build a society that is socially coherent.

      February 15, 2013 at 7:58 am
    13. ntozakhona #

      Creator

      You have not disputed that the New Age has outwitted the monopolistic commercial press on this one. In any case most newspapers will not survive without government advertising and the New Age offered the government and parastals a better advertising forum.

      How have you established that the New Age is an ANC newspaper? Your enemies are not our enemies as Mandela would say, where I buy my copy of the New Age I have to make sure I buy it before 14h00, otherwise it would be sold out.

      Where do you get your story about Chancellor House? You are a thinker- though I may differ with you – but rumuor mongering will reduce you to the rest of the robotic rubble. -

      February 15, 2013 at 8:06 am
    14. Tofolux #

      @Creator, can I point you to something which will be radically revolutionary reading for you “UMRABULO” a journal with a rich history. Also, it MUST be remembered by you & yr ilk that the ruling party has always produced intellectually captivating newsletters, journals, thesis, art, poetry, readings, lectures, community newspapers throughout its 100yr history see Mayibuye and other historical archives. In fact, the ruling party has more experience than some any of the so-called journalists who are mere conspirator-theorists and bad ones at that. You should also be reminded that the ruling party ran a radio station called RADIO FREEDOM which was listened to by doctors, lawyers, intellectuals etc together with ordinary township and rural folk. Hence how you can contest all that experience and balance this with the papparazi information you consume today, is disingenuous.

      February 15, 2013 at 11:07 am
    15. The New Age is ANC propaganda…..I will and cannot read that dribble..did so once and found it nauseating…I will can cannot wast money on it…

      April 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm

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