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Dr Iqbal Survé is the majority shareholder of the Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium, which owns Independent News and Media South Africa. The transfer of ownership from the Irish-based Independent News & Media was confirmed in August. Dr Survé, the executive chairman of the INMSA board, is interviewed here by Makhudu Sefara, editor of The Star, on his plans for Independent.
QUESTION: Entrepreneurs John Henry, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos are buying newspapers at a time when circulations are freefalling. You join this list of people who appear either too stupid or too clever. What do you know that we don’t?
ANSWER: Print media may be dying in the developed world but it is growing or sustainable in the developing world. Also, I bought a media company whose digital capability has not been exploited. It’s not so much a question of what we know that others don’t as a question about what we will bring to the industry. Legacy media needs an injection of new thinking and perspective that is uncoupled from the way these businesses were run in the past.
Q: There are concerns that, with your ANC background and the controversial firing of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois, your intention is to turn these papers into ANC imbongis (praise singers). Is it?
A: These are two separate questions. The offer of redeployment to Alide Dasnois was a business call. That matter is at the CCMA. We await the outcome.
Second, this conjecture being bandied about, largely by competitor media companies, about me turning Independent titles into praise sheets for the ANC should be taken in that context. I am a businessman and I plan to run this media company like a business, premised on having a portfolio of media products, print and digital, that grab the bulk of audience share in South Africa.
Q: Questions have been raised about editorial interference, and it has been said you wear your ANC heart on your sleeve. Any response?
A: I am not apologetic about my politics or my background. I have that right as a citizen. This does not translate into editorial interference.
When I talk about transformation of our media, I am not talking about owning media brands that blindly champion the cause of a political party. I am talking about transformation so that we tell the South African story fully, honestly and without an agenda.
As a media company, we have a social contract with the people of South Africa. Where is the business sense in destroying that trust relationship? If we do that, we have no business.
We have a potential audience that is much bigger than the current readership of our titles, and this requires an all-South Africa approach that will see the transformation of this media company into the leading player in the industry.
Q: How do you feel about your papers running critical views about you in letters and opeds?
A: Do as you see fit as an editor. You have your independence. You have your responsibility to your readers and especially to your code of ethics, which requires fairness. If you are running an allegation about me, I would expect you to get my response, as I would expect you get the response of anyone against whom an allegation is made.
Q: Our newspapers are some of the strongest brands you will find in Africa. But they have taken a knock because of under-investment by previous owners. Now they seem to be taking a knock because of the turbulence that comes with change. I am certain our reporters yearn for a time when you will talk about growth or expansion and not corporate wars with the Mail & Guardian or Times Media Group. What is the nub of the problem? Are you and Andrew Bonamour, the TMG chief, planning a truce of sorts any time soon?
A: The “knock” that you speak of comes from a coterie of people who have a competitive agenda or who believe they have dibs on public thought.
Most people don’t care about the wrangling in the industry except insofar as it has an impact on their lives.
Will this transformed Independent become a mouthpiece of a political party? No. Will this media company ignore issues most central to people’s lives? No. Will this changed media company be unmindful or dismissive of public interest? No.
Will the new Independent care about the lives of readers and society as a whole? Absolutely. Will we tell everybody’s story? Yes. Will we treasure the social contract we have with our society? You bet we will.
About truces… media owners and leaders should take their battles into the circulation field. Independent – and I, as the new owner – have had no choice but to respond to what has been a scurrilous campaign against the new ownership. Refusing to go to battle when your reputation and that of your organisation is being rubbished… well, that’s not the way we will be doing business.
Protecting and growing brand Independent is one of our key goals. Of course our reporters are keen to know what our plans are. To this end, last month we held comprehensive strategy sessions across the group in the three major cities – Joburg, Durban and Cape Town – to kick off a very inclusive round of strategy design.
Q: Our newsrooms have some of the most talented and hardworking journalists. But they need to be turbo-charged. When do we start recruiting?
A: We’ve started. Critical posts have been unfrozen (they were frozen under Irish ownership), and as soon as we sign off on our strategic plans we will begin building our newsrooms against very ambitious goals.
Q: Of all the things you could do with your money, why did you choose to buy newspapers? Any regrets or reasons to smile so far?
A: No regrets. My smile will get broader as we start asserting ourselves in the marketplace. Media can transform society, change the world. It can give me return on my investment. Buying Independent speaks to that side of me that is entrepreneurial and to that side of me that wants to change the world.
Q: How do you plan to transform Independent from being a newspaper house to what you desire it to be?
A: We will shore up our print portfolio and expand it. More critically, we will pursue an aggressive digital strategy with respect to product development and acquisitions. We plan to be in everyone’s homes, in everyone’s hands, on every medium, 24/7.
Q: There has been talk about new projects and vernacular titles and an aggressive online and digital strategy. Can you elaborate?
A: We plan to do all that, and more.
Q: Will our papers, which have loyal readers, change?
A: Absolutely. They will serve our audiences better. Better content, better journalism.
Q: You’ve invested R50 million for this year, which is the first real investment into this business in two decades. What will this money be spent on?
A: That R50m is being discussed by the leadership and management team to determine the critical areas of need. Broadly, it will be spent on rebuilding current assets (inside and out – the organisation and our brands) and acquiring new ones.
Q: If all goes to plan, where do you want Independent Newspapers to be in the next five years?
A: The leading media company in South Africa and a significant media player in Africa.
Q: What do you want for this country and continent? What role should the media play in getting us there?
A: What do I want? Democracy and development. An end to poverty and hunger. People having basic needs met. All young people having access to quality education and inspired to be the greatest they can possibly be. An economy and political systems that enable innovation and critical thinking, that drive us towards a dream of Africa being the greatest continent on this planet.
The role of media is to tell the stories to get us there. To tell all the stories – the ones about the stuff we need to fix and the ones that give us hope, the ones that critique our failures and the ones that celebrate our individual and collective victories.
* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak