Business

Times Media old guard butchered

Chantelle Benjamin

The pressure has long been on for the company to realise its full potential and satisfy shareholders.

It was inevitable that any reshuffle would involve a focus on the Sunday Times, the country's biggest Sunday newspaper and the company's strongest brand. (Gallo)

The bloody purge at Times Media Group (TMG), which started with the sudden departure last year of Mzi Malunga, the managing director of the business unit BDFM, continued this month with the loss of two editors of major publications – and more job changes are expected.

The Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi's sudden resignation on Wednesday followed an announcement just a few weeks before that the Sunday Times editor, Ray Hartley, would be replaced by Phylicia Oppelt, who would leave her job as editor of The Times.

The embattled media company, formerly known as Avusa, and John­nic Communications before that, has had a tough few years and is under pressure to deliver better results to shareholders, who believe the company is undervalued and not ­realising its full potential.

Besides difficult economic conditions, its media and entertainment divisions are struggling under market changes, with Nu Metro, Exclusive Books and the print division feeling the effect of consumers switching to electronic books and pay TV, and the digitisation of the media.

The entrance of a private equity company, BlackStar, and in particular its chief executive, Andrew Bonamour, continued the restructuring started under the chairmanship of the Mvelaphanda Group founder and chief executive, Mikki Xayiya.

This was driven largely by the head of Mvelaphanda Holdings, Mark Willcox, who wanted Mvelaphanda to regain some of the money it originally invested in the media company, which had continued to underperform. Mvelaphanda eventually sold its share to the head of Caxton, Terry Moolman.

Willcox had been at loggerheads with Avusa's former chief executive Prakash Desai for many years. Desai left in 2011 amid allegations of a lacklustre performance.

Another recent and prominent resignation was that of the TMG editor-in-chief and former Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya.

It was inevitable that any reshuffle would involve a focus on the Sunday Times, the country's biggest Sunday newspaper and the company's strongest brand. But the extent of the purge of the old guard at the Sunday Times took media commentators by surprise. In one swoop, the newspaper lost its editor, deputy editor Marvin Meintjies, news editor Buddy Naidoo, business editor Marcia Klein, review section editor Fred Khumalo and picture editor Darryl Hammond.

Meintjies has been appointed the editor of the sister newspaper, Sunday World, which has been without an editor since Wally Mbhele's resignation.

The remainder of the staff, with the exception of Khumalo, is believed to have been offered other positions within the newspaper. The Mail & Guardian understands that some staff will not return to writing jobs, which they consider a demotion. It was announced this week that Stephen Haw, editor of the Sunday Times Extress edition, had been appointed as editor of The Times.

Mthombothi's resignation, as sudden as it was, is less of a surprise than that of Hartley's sudden two-month sabbatical. Mthombothi will be gone by the end of the week, with his deputy, Max Gebhardt, taking the role of acting editor until a replacement is found. This means both Business Day and the Financial Mail are being run by acting editors.

Mthombothi, who edited the financial publication for eight years and wrote a popular editorial, had differences for some time with the board and then-editor of Business Day, Peter Bruce, over plans to merge the newsrooms and websites of the sister publications. Mthombothi was vehemently against a merger.

TMG and the international group Pearsons each own half of BDFM, which is made up of Business Day and the Financial Mail. The latter has been battling to grow its readership for some time.

Mthombothi is believed to have resigned after the board rejected an alternate plan he placed on the table. The Mail & Guardian was told that Mthombothi was offered the executive editor position, which would have given him control of the Business Day and Financial Mail editors. But it appears he turned down the offer. He has told staff that he plans to take some time off.

Hartley this week said he believed the Sunday Times was a good brand. "Perhaps it's time for new people to come in who will bring new ideas and a new perspective."

He said he had worked as deputy under Makhanya, then as editor of The Times before moving to the Sunday Times as editor. "It's been a hectic few years and it was not easy to start a new newspaper from scratch." Hartley said he would return to TMG after his sabbatical.

A TMG planning session was held this week to discuss the future of the company, which is almost certain to see further changes.

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