In the latest instalment of her “Backstory" series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for journalism.co.za:
Moegsien Williams – the editor at the centre of the row between The New Age and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille – told Journalism.co.za this week that the paper’s rivals painting it as an ANC-friendly newspaper is providing a valuable gap in the market that it can exploit.
“It has given us in a perverse way a niche so I’m saying, as an editor, if I’m labelled in a certain way, there’s no use in trying to deny it or run away from it,” Williams said. “The proof is always in the reading of the newspaper.”
The Democratic Alliance leader pulled out of speaking at one of The New Age breakfasts, branding the sponsorship deals another Infogate scandal and has called for a commission of inquiry into the funding of paper.
The New Age has hit back with stories that Zille received donations from the Gupta family – the owners of TNA Media, the parent company of The New Age and who are close to the family of President Jacob Zuma.
There have been other allegations and counter-allegations since then but yesterday Williams, who took over The New Age editorship in September last year after he left a top executive job at Independent Newspapers, said the paper was not at war with Zille.
“It’s not a war,” he said. “We are simply responding to some of the things she has done and has said.”
On how the two-year-old paper has been received by the industry, Williams said: “You know (TNA Media CEO) Nazeem [Howa] tells the story of how the two of us – when we were at Independent before the launch of this newspaper – were the key architects in a strategy to make sure this paper didn’t survive. Our fundamental approach was to try and position the paper in a certain way.
“And I think virtually all the newspaper companies in the industry tried to paint The New Age in a certain way. They try to portray The New Age as the ANC mouthpiece.
“The noble intention of the proprietors and shareholders of this newspaper were simply to provide a voice that will promote and defend the interest of South Africa – that’s it. You can interpret that in many ways.
“But the main shareholders are saying: ‘Provide a balanced discourse on politics, etc., in your newspaper… And if I’m labelled as a pro-ANC newspaper and a pro-government newspaper, let it be so. The proof is always in the reading of the newspaper.”
Williams said he believed the ANC could correctly say that in the past decade very few newspapers in South Africa were prepared to give the party the time of day. Further, the ANC’s believed that the press had adopted the mantle of the party’s political opposition, he said.
“That is the perception of the ANC… Where does that leave The New Age? It gives us a gap. It gives us an opportunity to say: ‘OK. If every single newspaper last December by the tone of its content was hoping that Jacob Zuma would lose the ANC presidency in Mangaung, The New Age will do the opposite. We will say: ‘Hey man, here’s the guy’ – and we did it very scientifically.
“We went to count for ourselves through sources and contacts what the (ANC) branch votes were doing. And every Friday in the run-up to Mangaung, we did take-outs on what it looked like in Limpopo and in the Western Cape, etc., and if I’m not mistaken, we were probably out by one percent.
“Our groundwork showed and we really reflected the reality of the situation in the ANC best of all the newspapers in the run-up to Mangaung. And why? Because we were given a gap by our rivals. ”
On the question of The New Age’s sales not being audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations of SA, Williams said the paper was being audited at the moment (by a firm that is independent of the Audit Bureau) and that by the end of March, the paper would be able to provide audited figures.
“We want to be different… We talk to our clients. We show them our figures and our market research and we are now ready to subject ourselves to an external audited process of our circulation – and for the simple reason that we have our internal SAP system working properly so we can now show proper receipts for sales, etc., in a proper accounting system… We are following a different model.”
Williams said The New Age was looking at the business model of (its strategic partner) The Times of India of giving away half of its print run.
“We are quite openly saying that we are looking at that model and, to some extent, we have done that with our print order (of about 100 000),” said Williams, who has recently returned from a trip to India to find out more about how The Times of India operates. “We try and sample half. That is the model we are pursuing. ”
On, the business breakfasts, Williams said: “They work for us. At this week’s breakfast with (Police Minister) Nathi Mthethwa there were about 300 people if I’m not mistaken. I would assume that 95% of them paid an entrance fee and they are all registered now for a six-month subscription so every time we have a breakfast, we grow the subscription base by the number of people who attend.
“It’s a model that works for the sponsor because it’s great marketing and branding. It works for us in giving a new entrant in the market a bit of a name and for SABC, it gives it content. They can fill almost an entire morning’s programme with it.”
For the full interview with Moegsien Williams in Q&A format, please go to Grubstreet, Gill Moodie’s website.