The media sector has been buzzing with speculation about the reasons why five senior editorial staff at the New Age newspaper simultaneously quit their jobs on Tuesday, a day before the paper was due to launch.
News of the resignations first trickled in on Tuesday evening, but by Wednesday local newspapers and even the BBC were covering the story.
Those who resigned include:
- Vuyo Muko, editor-in-chief;
- Karima Brown, deputy editor;
- Amy Musgrave, news editor;
- Vukani Mde, opinion and analysis editor; and
- Damon Boyd, arts and culture editor.
On Tuesday the group released a brief statement, saying: “We have taken the decision that it would be neither proper nor professionally acceptable for us to speak publicly about the reasons for our decision.”
The New Age‘s managing editor, Gary Naidoo, was also keeping mum about the resignations. Speaking with John Robbie on Talk radio 702 on Wednesday morning, Naidoo said management had not anticipated the resignations. He said the paper’s launch date would be postponed for a few weeks.
The Mail & Guardian was unable to reach any of the parties involved for comment on Wednesday. The lack of information surrounding the resignations has led to massive speculation about what happened.
‘To have that kind of set-up is very hard’
Professor Tawana Kupe, dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and a media analyst, said it would be easy to put the resignations down to a dispute over editorial independence. “Many people would love to hear that,” he said.
But he believes a more credible explanation could be that there was a dispute between management and editorial staff over whether the paper was ready to launch.
“I don’t think they’re ready, especially given that they’re a very different product to any other. They’re supposed to have a bureau in every province. To have that kind of set-up is very hard,” he said.
The paper, which was originally meant to launch in September, aims to carry at least one page of news from each province in the country. Yet staff in key roles were joining the paper as late as this month, and many positions at the paper remain unfilled.
Another rumour doing the rounds online is that the resignations were part of a negotiating gambit on the part of the editors, who may have been trying to force management to push back the launch date.
But this seems ever more unlikely given that by Wednesday morning the newspaper had already advertised the vacant posts.
Robert Brand, a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, said he disagreed with the rumour that the editors who resigned had done so as part of a negotiation gambit.
“If that’s the case, they wouldn’t have made a public resignation. They may have just threatened to resign and walked out. This [public resignation] gives it a kind of finality,” he said.
“They must have had a very good reason to resign and throw themselves into an uncertain market,” he added.
The resignations were also bad news for the New Age, which may have trouble replacing the experienced staff who have left. “To try to fill those posts with people of that calibre will be very difficult,” he said.
Brand said he was not surprised that the New Age was experiencing difficulties, given its ambitious goals and tough media environment. ThisDay, a daily newspaper that tried to launch in South Africa some years ago, also struggled to get off the ground and was eventually forced to shut down.
‘It’s a great pity’
Kupe agreed that the New Age was being ambitious , saying it may have been better for the paper to pursue a “two-stage evolution” rather than a “revolution”. “They could have phased the provincial bureaus in over time,” he said.
“My advice would be why not prepare properly to launch next year with coverage of the local government elections. It would give them a push,” he said.
Though derided by some as the mouthpiece of the ANC and praised by others as a chance to bring diversity to the media landscape, readers from all quarters have been awaiting the launch of the New Age with great anticipation.
“It’s a great pity. This is quite a damaging thing to happen at the moment,” said Franz Kruger, a member of the South African Press Appeals Panel. “It would have been a useful addition to the media landscape. We do need some diversity of voices, and especially a voice that is sympathetic to the ANC,” he said.
According to Kruger, this perceived lack of diversity of voices in the media is one of the things that has led to the ANC’s growing dissatisfaction with the media.