Trevor Ncube buys the M&G

The Mail & Guardian has been sold to Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean entrepreneur and newspaper publisher.

Ncube, who will relocate to Johannesburg, takes over as chairperson of the newspaper’s holding company, M&G Media, from Bob Phillis, CEO of the Guardian Media Group of the United Kingdom. He also replaces Govin Reddy as CEO of M&G Media.

Ncube’s company, Newtrust Company Botswana, has acquired 87,5% of M&G Media from Guardian Newspapers, which will continue to hold a 10% stake in the group.

Ncube will also acquire M&G Media’s 35% share in the Mail & Guardian Online, the newspaper’s Internet business.
The other 65% is owned by the Internet service provider M-Web, the largest player in the South African dial-up subscriber market.

Ncube (39) is the majority shareholder, publisher and CEO of two privately owned Zimbabwean newspapers, The Independent and The Standard.

Howard Barrell, editor of the M&G, said Ncube was the new proprietor staff had hoped for.

“As we say goodbye to The Guardian we thank it for its support of this newspaper and for proving true to its word in choosing a new owner with a proven record of political courage, independence of mind and good business acumen.

“Ncube is the man to give the newspaper a more decidedly African commitment. Our main challenge now is to make the newspaper profitable while maintaining excellence,” Barrell said.

Ncube said he was delighted with the acquisition.

“My company’s long-term vision is to be a regional media player and the M&G, with its strong presence in the Southern African region, has presented us with an opportunity to set this in motion.

“The M&G is a quality product that has a proven track record in the democratic transformation taking place in South Africa and in the continent’s rebirth. Indeed, the M&G is a giant symbol of press freedom,” Ncube said.

The sale was announced after a two-and-a-half year search for a new owner. The Guardian group, which estimates it has invested about R50-million in the M&G over 10 years, said it had considered about 10 proposals from different companies before choosing Ncube.

“We didn’t just sell to the highest bidder,” said Phillis. “We interviewed about 10 groups of potential buyers, but they didn’t meet the criteria we had set for the continued editorial and financial independence of the M&G.

“Guardian Newspapers is proud and privileged to have been able to support the M&G over the years ... the money we have put in has been a privilege because the M&G has carried the flag of independent journalism in South Africa like nobody else,” said Phillis.

Ncube said that he aimed to turn the loss-making M&G into a profitable entity in the next two to three years.

The Zimbabwean businessman stressed that he valued the independence of the press, but said this independence depended on the newspaper’s commercial viability. He said press freedom was a vital ingredient of democracy and economic prosperity.

“We wouldn’t have gone into this deal if we didn’t think we could turn this newspaper around and make a profit,” he said.

Ncube hinted that there could be synergies with his newspaper interests in Zimbabwe and other independent newspapers in Africa.

“The M&G has an African presence and we are going to ask how best we can serve the African continent. We need to link up with other independent newspapers in Africa. There should be synergies with the Zimbabwe Independent group, which could be extended to Zambia and other African countries.”

Ncube confirmed that the news- paper’s name would not change: “The M&G is such a great brand it would be folly for anyone to change that. We like the brand and we are keeping the brand.”

He said he had long wanted to be associated with a publication such as the M&G which, he said, was “an emblematic champion of the struggle for a democratic dispensation, not just in South Africa but in the region as a whole”.

Guardian Newspapers will continue to provide print and online news content to the M&G and it will also retain a seat on the M&G board.

Reddy, the M&G‘s outgoing CEO, will remain at the company as a consultant during the newspaper’s transitional phase.

Ncube was one of the founders and shareholders of The Independent in 1996 and The Standard in 1997. He was editorial director of The Independent and The Standard between 1998 and 2000 and editor-in-chief of The Independent between 1998 and 2000.

In 2000 Ncube became publisher and CEO of The Independent and The Standard, a position he still holds.

He began his journalist career in 1989 as assistant editor of Finance Gazette and was executive editor between 1991 and 1996. In 1994 he received the Zimbabwe Editor of the Year award.

Before entering journalism, Ncube was a teacher and later was an assistant lecturer in the history department of the University of Zimbabwe. He has been acting chairperson of the Commonwealth Press Union since 1999.

The M&G, formerly known as The Weekly Mail, was launched in 1985. Guardian Newspapers began working with The Weekly Mail in 1991 and in 1995 became the majority shareholder in the paper, which was then renamed the M&G.

The M&G has a circulation of more than 41 000 copies a week and has won numerous awards for its in-depth, investigative journalism.