/ 3 February 2012

Struggling Cape Argus looks for a gap

Changes are afoot at Independent Newspapers and there are plans for a possible relaunch of one of its flagship daily newspapers, the Cape Argus, as a morning tabloid.

If the proposal goes ahead, the afternoon paper will face off with two other publications from the same stable, the Cape Times and the Daily Voice.

This is just one of a number of possibilities the company is considering to present to its Irish owners in a bid to revitalise the historic publication, according to Gasant Abarder, the Cape Argus executive editor.

The South African group is owned by Ireland-based International News & Media (INM), led by Gavin O’Reilly, son of former chief executive and board director Tony O’Reilly. Gavin O’Reilly is expected in the country within days to discuss the plans.

“The idea of a tabloid is one of a number of proposals. A number of feasibility studies looking at a range of factors, including revenues and distribution models, have been conducted,” said Abarder.

“It’s no secret that afternoon papers are in trouble worldwide and the print media is under pressure. We aim to revitalise a product that the company feels deeply about. But, ultimately, the decision will be made by the owners.”

The idea of a morning tabloid, which appears to be emerging as a favourite with local management, has sparked concern among the staff over where the paper could be positioned and how this would affect its content.

The Cape Times dominates in the upper living standards measure categories, whereas the Daily Voice is aimed directly at the lower measure categories. The Cape Argus and Cape Times also share many resources, including a pool of subeditors and a photographic and graphics department, and rely on a political bureau that writes for publications across the group.

But Chris Whitfield, Independent Newspapers Cape editor-in-chief, said the content would not be “dumbed down”, should a tabloid format be the route taken. It was also not the intention to create a publication in direct competition with the other titles. “We already have two in the market, so we need to be very careful of how it is placed,” he said.

The issue of shared resources would be a “huge issue that needs to be addressed”. The cost of the project would be determined by the decisions taken, but a large increase in costs or a loss of jobs was not anticipated. “If anything, we would be asking for more resources,” he said.

Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the move was not surprising, given the decline in afternoon newspapers internationally and the steady decline in the circulation of Cape Argus. It has dropped from more than 70 000 in 2007 to little more than 45 000.

The viability of the relaunch would depend on who the product was aimed at and how well it was put together, Harber said. “My concern is that the Independent group has shown itself in the last few years to be concerned only with harvesting as much short-term profit as possible to feed the needs of its debt-ridden Irish parent company.

Despite breathtakingly good returns, they have barely reinvested in plant or editorial quality, allowing a steady hollowing-out of what was once a mighty operation.

“If they were to take a long view and start investing again in producing quality product, encouraging interesting journalism and experimenting with new media possibilities, then one would be much more hopeful about these changes.”

In the company’s 2011 interim results, the South African operations recorded revenues of €101.4-million for the group and operating profits of €19.1-million. Operating profits were slightly down from 2010, which was buoyed by once-off World Cup-related advertising, the company said in a statement.