Independent Media is taking 10 executives to the World Association of Newspapers conference in Italy, departing on Saturday June 7. Aneez Salie spoke to delegation head and Independent chairman Dr Iqbal Survé.
Aneez Salie: The irony is, the previous owners had a global company, with interest from India to Indonesia. But we had never felt more parochial than we did under them.
Dr Iqbal Survé: I think you have said it. Ironically, the Irish were international owners. But Independent was more closed to thought leadership internationally under the Irish than I think at any other time. So, when we acquired the business, I made it very clear that we will strengthen journalism; we will have best practice, and we will do partnerships globally, and we will participate in global forums of media, as well as other global business forums.
So I think my commitment to expanding the horizon of our journalists and executives to be exposed to global best practice is real and it’s happening. My target, as I said at the launch, is that within three to five years, every one of the editors, deputy editors, senior editors, and executives with Independent would have exposure to some international conference or programme. That is a great way to kick off.
But I think, probably the biggest demonstration of this is that, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) is one of the biggest in the world. It (deals with) best practice, thought leadership, latest technologies, innovation, changes in newsrooms, from print to digital, integration of newsrooms and issues around editorial independence. It is one of the most important conferences to participate in.
I think we are walking the talk.
Soon after that, two of our seniors go to China as well. Some others will go to New York in September for a similar kind of conference.
Salie: Tell us about the Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Survé: These are the thought leadership of the world on specific issues. And the Global Agenda Council for emerging multinationals of the World Economic Forum had their offsite workshop, if you like, in South Africa this year. It is the first time it is here in South Africa. As vice-chairman of this council, and as co-host of the offsite workshop, it was really good to have the best CEOs in the world in emerging multinationals, the senior partners of some of the world’s top consulting firms and, of course, the top academics dealing with this, to be present in South Africa.
Now, I think that we had two ways of approaching this; the first was to say, the council is exclusively for members of the council; the top 30 to 40 in the world in this area, and one could keep that information to themselves. Alternatively, I went to the co-hosts and told them since I am the vice-chairman of the council, “would you mind if I invite to participate in the council meeting senior executives from Independent and from Sekunjalo, and secondly, even some of our interns in our group?”. And I thought it was a bit of a cheeky request, but I was pleasantly surprised when the council said, “Absolutely! That is actually what the council is about.”
You actually have your world’s best thought leaders on the subject matter to engage with local people working in South Africa, in Africa, and who understand what they are doing. The council can only be enriched by that. So we had Peter Matlare of Tiger Brands, who was leading one of the sessions as a South African/African company, on expansion into Africa. The feedback that we got from the global players that were here is that South Africa is one of the best places in the world to come to. Cape Town is beautiful. They love the efficiency of our organisation, the way we operated and the logistics.
But they loved, more importantly, the quality of the discussion. The feedback our people gave us is that this was the highlight of their experiences.
Salie: And this was preceded on the Thursday by a seminar?
Survé: We asked two of the professors – some of the professors were from INSEAD, some of them were from Bombay University, and these are in the top five universities in the world; some from Harvard and Maryland – the professor from Maryland University, Anil Gupta, ranked as one of the top strategy professors in the world, and we asked the editor of Harvard Business Review, Anand Raman, if they wouldn’t mind coming a day early to engage with some of the senior executives in Independent and the Sekunjalo Group.
One of the things about the Sekunjalo Group is that it is a founder member of the WEF’s Global Growth Companies, and I was the only African serving on the board, and the first chairman of the board, for three years. I am still on the board. The chairman’s term is three years. But, through the Global Growth Companies, which is one of the world’s fastest growing companies, the ones with leadership DNA, we have taken probably about 30 to 40 senior executives of Sekunjalo to the WEF for meetings over the years. They benefited from that engagement with peers around the world in similar kinds of companies. We will do the same at Independent.
Salie: Your mantra is “digital first, print best”. How do you take that further at WAN? There are master classes on this issue. Are you targeting new media spaces, digital first, print best, those master classes could improve? Would our executives be participating in that?
Survé: The “digital first, print best” concept flows out of the strategic positioning of Independent. So, what is the strategic positioning of Independent? If you had spoken to anybody in Independent prior to us acquiring the business, they would have told you it’s a print business because it has got 14 major titles and community titles as well, and it’s got magazines.
The reality is, that is an old business model. Independent is not a print business. Independent is a content producer, and that is the first thing. So, once you recognise that you are a content producer you are putting journalism at the centre of what you do, because it is journalists that produce the content. Whereas, I think journalism was always at the periphery of the business.
So when you say content is your strategic direction that you are taking your vision, “to be the best content producer in the country in terms of excellence and quality”, then the next question is: “How do you distribute content?” It is very simple. You distribute it digitally, via print, magazines, events, audio, videos etc, along multiple channels or multiple areas. If you take that view, saying that whatever content you produce must go through digital first, it makes sense because you are not actually competing with print and digital, you’re actually augmenting each other. And so the “digital first, print best” strategy is derived from the fact that Independent now becomes a content producer.
In fact, at Independent, in our newspapers, we employ the largest number of editorial people in this country, by far. We have the most content production in the country, by far. But we have never monetised that content adequately. We are now at the point where we are able to monetise that content across multiple platforms.
You also develop what are called centralised content hubs, which you can then distribute across multiple channels, and which support and augment your titles so your titles get stronger.
I think what WAN does is reinforce the strategic direction Independent must go in. And part of the reason we are the largest South African delegation attending WAN is because I want our editorial and executives team to see what we are doing as a company is what is global best practice right now.
Salie: In the first quarter our economy shrunk a bit, and the market conditions are very tough for the organisation. We have seen retrenchments at the newspapers groups, except at Independent. What commercial lessons and opportunities do you hope to get from WAN?
Survé: I think one of the experiences is the transition from print to digital or, I would like to say, the transition from being a print company to being a content company. So what is the advertising opportunity that that presents in itself? And how do people monetise those advertising opportunities, and the 80/20 principle? Where do you put your resources to maximise those advertising and circulation opportunities? I think that is the first commercial principle.
The second is the re-organisation of the newsrooms, both at a title level, as well as a centralised hub level. If you look at best practice internationally, if you’re in a tough economy, what you need to do is increase productivity and efficiency. And if people understand that by doing that, you are actually creating a sustainable business, they will go and do that with you.
So part of WAN is to understand, how did newsrooms throughout the world do that? What are the mistakes that they made with the lessons learnt? And what are the kinds of best practices? What are the KPIs (key performance indicators)? What are the performance management systems? How did they structure themselves? Those are the firm foundations on which you build for the future.
You are quite right. We are the only media house not to retrench. However, that does not mean we will not retrench anyone. But we will not do what the Irish have done. The Irish simply said: “Okay, revenues are down, therefore we need to retrench x number of people.” Our approach is, no, we are re-organising our business to ensure that people are performance-managed. And second, to ensure there is greater productivity emerging out of the business.
We are giving people the opportunity to be part of a whole new, great business model. There are those that are not going to embrace that opportunity. And, of course, if they don’t want to go on the journey with us then we have to say maybe they don’t belong in this organisation.
Salie: But is it retrenchment in the sense that the business is doing badly, or are you looking at redundancy – of people who could or would not fit in?
Survé: I am saying exactly that.
Salie: What about the juniorisation of newsrooms?
Survé: It is not true. (We have) plus 40, average age. Some people are in their 60s already. Some people have been in the company for a heck of a long time. And we are giving special awards to about 300 employees that have spent 20 years with the company. So you realise that actually the newsrooms are not ‘juniorised’.
Independent is the largest employer of editorial people in this country, sometimes three or four times more than our competitors, and it is the largest content producer in the country. We are the largest spender on editorial content in the country.
Salie: These special awards – can you mention the amount?
Survé: Yeah. For me what was quite shocking, and it arose out of a strategic session in Johannesburg, is that people have been in the company sometimes for up to 20 years, yet were never acknowledged. And we thanked them by giving everyone employed for 20 years or more R10 000. It is our way of acknowledging them – giving them something concrete to take home – and also having their families present at a function soon to honour them. It is costing the company quite a bit, about R5 million in total. Many people broke down and cried when we announced this. And the idea was simply saying to our people: “Thank you for building the company despite the Irish.” (laughs)
But, coming back to your earlier question, the problem with many of our titles is that we have a top heavy structure. So, I don’t think there is any media group in the world like Independent, where you have more editors than reporters in your titles. And it is a historic thing because people have been here for a long time. Now, of course, in the newsroom you do need some of these very important people. But the way you do that is to benchmark. What does a global newsroom have? What are the resource plans for a global newsroom? What makes it the most efficient, and one which can produce high quality content?
We have an absurd situation with Independent where you have some titles that have four times as many newsroom staff as a similar title in another city; we have titles that have four times as many freelance and contracted people.
For instance, I can tell you that one of the most efficient titles in our group is the Cape Times because, from a resource point of view, it is well run. But, of course, because the group was not run on modern business principles, no one pointed out to the title editors that, “hey, you are over-staffed, or you under-staffed”. Of course, when you are under-staffed they always look for more people. There was no benchmarking and no reference point.
So, you have a situation where you have very experienced journalists that have been in the industry for more than two decades, but will sit at a desk doing some administrative function or sub-editing.
Whereas we are saying: “We don’t want you to do that. We want you to produce good quality content.” Of course, there will be a place for editors, deputy editors, and news editors. That is the normal structure of any newsroom. But you can’t have everyone being an editor because who is going to produce the quality content that you need to have if you are a content company, which is the focus of what you do?
So obviously, in our engagement with our people, our emphasis is on producing good content. There are many that will embrace it and a few that will not embrace it, I think. And many will welcome the opportunity to write again, and actually be a journalist again, no matter the age. Those are the ones we want on the team in the future. Those who don’t want to do that say, “hey, my job is to sit at this desk”.
Salie: You have now owned the business for six months. You sound inspired. But I must ask you, do you regret having got into this business?
Survé: I don’t regret having bought Independent, no. I think it is the greatest opportunity that I have faced in a long time and it is a business that is crying for change, that needs change desperately. If you get the change right, you build a phenomenal media house. I think there are people that are hungry to be part of a new way of thinking: a new direction; innovation, digital, technology, multimedia, good quality content, and an exciting place to be. There are others that are afraid of the change. We have to try and take them with us. If they don’t go with us, there is nothing more we can do.
Salie: Well, you had your first big test as owner in the first six months – our fifth democratic elections. How do you think the group performed, and the titles?
Survé: I think that we did well because we were the most accurate, and we were the most informed. And we were able to predict, with a high degree of reasonableness, the outcome. But I think more importantly, our group got such divergent views (laughs). You can pick up one of our newspapers on one day, and the Friday, the front page would be supporting the DA. And on another day, there will be an article in favour of the EFF. And on another day it will be the ANC. And that is wonderful. We fought for a democracy, we fought for a divergence of views. I don’t think that there is a single editor in our group that was told what to do, what to say.
Salie: So you did not instruct your editors to support the ANC?
Survé: There was only one set of instructions: be objective, fair, balanced and give everyone’s point of view. We are not doing journalism any service by trying to pretend the “other” does not exist.
Salie: So you are fairly satisfied Independent titles presented diversity in all its weird and wonderful beauty?
Survé: I think there is room for improvement – for the content to be a lot more inclusive, the headlines to be fairer; the photographs to be fairer in their representation of candidates and others – but, on balance, I was really pleasantly surprised that we were at the cutting edge of the elections. We were the ones that were able to predict the outcome the best, able to predict the cabinet the best.
* This interview was carried on the opinion pages of the Cape Times.