Claremont.19.5.2015. Reading the Cape Argus at his offices in Claremont is Dr Igbal Surve. To the left is the INMA Global Award for excellence in media innovation programmes which the Independent Group won in New York. Picture Ian Landsberg

This Friday Files profile is not really about a person but about a grand old lady of Cape Town, writes Gasant Abarder.

It’s an establishment that has been around for 158 years– the Cape Argus.

If it could speak it would tell you about the things it’s been witness to: conflicts, wars, sporting triumphs, human endeavour and South Africa’s transition to democracy.

It has had its own transitions, from news ferried via telegraph wire service and landline telephones, stories written on typewriters and produced with metal plates and printed on steam-powered presses. Then came desktop publishing and format changes from broadsheet to compact, and then to its present day form of US broadsheet.

It went from its original name “The Cape Argus”, to “The Argus” and then “Cape Argus” with a few masthead re-designs along the way.

It has been said print is dying. For the past decade the Cape Argus has been staring down the abyss of an extreme downward trajectory. Truth be told, it was tanking – recording heavy losses in revenue, circulation and readership.

But the past few months have seen the beginning of a revival for the newspaper first framed in 1857 by editors and proprietors Brian Henry Darnell and Richard William Murray as “welcome everywhere, as welcome in the family circle as in the merchant’s office”.

In September last year, the Cape Argus changed to US broadsheet. It has since recorded a readership growth over the past six months of last year of 77 000, increased its circulation marginally for the first quarter of this year (while other papers lost ground) and seen bullish revenue returns.

The paper has been given a second chance. It is a metaphor for what is happening at Independent Media under the new ownership and executive chairmanship of Dr Iqbal Survé, known to the staff as Doc, after almost 20 years of non-investment by its former Irish owners.

Elsewhere in the group a new mobile-journalism unit, called Mojo is producing multimedia digital content to enhance newspaper coverage. The country’s only exclusively Xhosa daily newspaper is being published in the Eastern Cape. A quarterly national labour publication has been launched. Aziz Hartley, a former janitor turned journo with 35 years of service, is now the deputy editor of the Cape Times. There are state-of-the-art mobile apps and mobi-sites built by in-house tech engineers.

After years of stagnation, all of this has been achieved just 18 months after Doc’s arrival. The new developments were recognised recently in New York when Independent scooped the Global Innovation Awards for Best in Africa at the International News Media Association’s (INMA) awards ceremony for its considerable advancement since its takeover by the consortium led by Doc’s Sekunjalo Investment Holdings in 2013.

While Doc and the team were picking up the award, Cape Argus reporter Chelsea Geach, who was seconded to Mojo, was also in the Big Apple visiting the New York Times, CNBC, CNN and Vice to study companies dominating the digital media space.

“We learnt so much about how to produce content for a new generation of media consumers and we are excited to start putting it to use at Independent,” she says.

Chelsea is one of several Independent Media staffers to travel abroad in the past 18 months to look at new media trends and attend global industry conventions of best practice and digital convergence.

Back home, as Doc and the team headed to New York, the Cape Argus team started experimenting with innovations of its own.

Many other South African media houses had been practising multimedia journalism for years. But it was a breakthrough for a newsroom that had very much been steeped in the tradition of producing only newspapers, with scant offerings by way of multimedia and digital news. It was Wednesday, May 6 and new Cape Argus recruit Lance Witten – brought on board to strengthen the paper’s digital presence – was three days into the job.

Witten took one look at the municipal workers’ march that turned chaotic and set into action. The result was a multimedia project to behold: live tweets, with excellent pictures by photographers Henk Kruger and David Ritchie, Twitter analysis from Metro Writer Anél Lewis and Twitter updates on the ground from reporter Yolisa Tswanya.

A piece was filed for IOL, a picture gallery for Facebook that got tens of thousands of hits, an infographic of the issues related to the strike, and a long form piece for print the next morning that held true to the new mantra at Independent of “digital first, print best”.

The traction on social media was phenomenal. But the most satisfying was that it all happened organically with parts coming together to create a 360 degree, platform-agnostic news feature.

It was what Doc was saying when he first bought the company and the staff thought he was mad. But all along he was driven by turning Independent Media into a content company rather than a print legacy company with great newspaper titles.

“It’s not by accident what is happening at the Argus,” says Doc.

“The philosophy that allows this to emerge is by design. What you do is introduce rapid change and you let it sink in. You let people absorb that and out of that comes the emergent theory. People emerge with their own understanding of what needs to be done and you’ll find they’ll do it themselves.

“That process is now emerging throughout the country. Increasingly people in our organisation are beginning to see this. You could say let’s do a workshop for three or four days on multimedia, but you leave people to actually allow this to emerge.”

Doc started his career as a medical doctor-cum-activist in the 1980s, setting up detention treatment centres, first in the Eastern Cape and then nationally, to treat anti-apartheid activists brutalised by the security police.

By 1990, the ANC asked him to move back to Cape Town so he could see to Nelson Mandela’s medical needs upon his release.

Doc opened a practice in Lansdowne with a few other doctors, treating the elderly and disabled for free. People paid with chicken, pizza or sometimes not at all.

Ten years later, Doc established Sekunjalo – the largest empowerment investment company in South Africa.

“There are three things that are completely interlinked: I left medicine to come into business to have a social impact on scale. I realised that if I could create substantial wealth, I would have the resources to impact on society in a far greater way than I could as an individual.

“That really was my romantic notion of doing what I did, and maybe I had the crazy confidence of believing in myself – someone with no money could actually build an investment conglomerate of billions over time and could use that money and resources to affect society positively.

“In that sense, I’m living my dream because that’s what I want to do. In my soul I’m a doctor, in business I have the same soul. It’s no different; I want to make a difference. So that mission is an absolutely critical one…

“Buying Independent Media is a continuation of that mission. This was motivated by my kids in my kitchen at home, who did not see the stories of South Africa that they know being correctly reflected in the media.

“From their perspective, it was not a conclusive story. It was one narrative; and one isn’t even talking about politics here but the overall context, the overall society, the overall stories in society.

“The country needs to speak to itself. What better way to speak to yourself than through the media? For too long the country has been too polite, it has not spoken to itself. You have two conversations and I see both conversations. You have the conversations about what happens in the black middle class communities and you have a conversation about what happens in the white middle class communities. These are not true conversations. We see how exclusive they are, how divided they are.

“The reality is that those two conversations have to meet because if they don’t, South Africa is not going to see its potential.”

Doc says turning Independent into a content generation company will take time. But he has ambitiously set down the next 18 months to get it right.

“I inherited and acquired an organisation with a heavily top-down culture, heavily-hierarchical in structure and thinking and quite narrow in its vision. It was only focused on high profitability of a few titles.

“Independent has two options. If you look at all other print companies at the moment, they’re imploding. Option one is putting your head in the sand like an ostrich and imagine there’s nothing behind or around you and you can’t see it. Option number two is to be brave and to say we see the environment changing, the context changing, that print has a place but it may be less of a place that it was in the past. Therefore we have to take some very brave steps to change the business. What we’ve done is that we’ve taken a print company and we’ve created a multi-platform company – on mobile, digital and online.

“But what we’ve also done is to create a content company. We’re not there yet. We’re another year away from creating a content company – we’re about 30 percent of the way there.

“That’s the next big step, changing essentially a print company today, with a lot of technology and innovation, into a content company. That’s probably the biggest change management.”

The Cape Argus is on its way but hard work lies ahead.

Its turnaround was plotted by Doc when he threw the challenge at former editor, Jermaine Craig, and Group Executive for Advertising Sandy Naude to change the format to US broadsheet.

“I want to give credit to a lot of people who were part of this process, including Jermaine, Sandy and others. When we took over the business the Argus was facing a huge loss as a result of the decision by the Irish to go compact.

“It was interesting that the organisation saw this train smash in front of it and was completely paralysed because they had the broadsheet versus the compact and both were on a hiding to nothing. Then I suggested that they try US broadsheet after a visit overseas. Our response from the technical team was that it couldn’t be done because the printers were not able to do it.”

Doc personally paid a visit to the printers and got them to agree to not only print the new US broadsheet, but to do it at the same cost as the compact.

“The only other option for the Argus, had we not changed the format, was to shut it down. The year after we bought the Argus, the Irish had projected a loss of R20 million for the business… so we had to turn around this business. I took Jermaine and Sandy and told them to do a workshop on this change, speak to advertisers and educate them and I told them I would take the responsibility for this change.

“You cannot be caught in no-man’s land, which is where the Argus was.

“What you see with the Argus is a microcosm of what we did overall in the first year, finding the efficiencies, making the right decisions that make business sense and being courageous enough to make the decisions.”

Watch this space. Here’s to 158 more years of being relevant and breaking new ground.

* Gasant Abarder is editor of the Cape Argus.

Cape Argus