Future uncertain for Sapa staff, as industry tributes pour in

The South African Press Association posted a poignant tweet on Wednesday that said simply: “(Sapa) will send out its last story at midnight on March 31”.

A sad tribute to the agency could be found at the end of an article that followed entitled “Sapa to close shop March 31”. A small RIP had been placed where the initials of the writer usually go at the end of the story.

Sapa chairperson Minette Ferreira, a director at Media24, said in a statement: “After the disposal of the assets the company will be liquidated and its operations will cease on March 31 2015.” As a special category non-profit organisation, Sapa cannot be sold, she said.

With regard to staff members, she said the board was committed to “maximising opportunities for these staffers” in the new spin off company, or “elsewhere in the media”.

It has emerged, however, that many of the staff, while aware that the board were considering setting up a profit-based wire service, were unaware that they would be retrenched and have to reapply for their jobs. This could see staff challenging the Sapa board’s decision to retrench the staff.

Sapa’s future had been tenuous since 2013, when three big media houses pulled out of Sapa. The resignation as a member of the Sapa board by the Times Media Group (which remained a subscriber) was followed by Caxton and Independent Newspapers. Caxton had since returned as a funding member.

Sapa will stop operating on March 31 2015. (Screenshot)

A major cause of discontent has been Sapa’s funding model that required media organisations to fund the agency, which in turn supplied them with stories.

‘Sad demise’
The National Press Club in a statement called the closing of Sapa a “sad day for the media industry”. “The club joins the South African media fraternity in mourning the sad demise of Sapa,” chairperson Jos Charle said. “For many decades Sapa has been a trusted partner in the media industry, generating and providing news content and tips used by most media houses.”

He said it was not clear how the closing of Sapa would affect the industry but expressed concerns about the fate of the staff. “We urge the liquidators to look after the interests of staff members – many of them highly experienced journalists – as far as possible”.

The board said three companies had expressed an interest in setting up an profit-based wire service. These are Gallo Images, KMM Review publishers and Sekunjalo Investments Holdings, owned by Independent Newspaper head Iqbal Survé. The bids are still being considered, according to Ferreira.

Tributes poured in on social media from former Sapa employees, many who cut their teeth on the 24-hour wire service.

A Facebook page called I once worked for Sapa was set up within hours of the announcement of Sapa’s closure. Looking very much like a wall of remembrance, the names of all staff members past and present have been listed.

Angela Quintal, editor of the Mail & Guardian, said: “Another sad day for South African media. Africa’s last independent national news agency, Sapa, will shut its doors at the end of March. Very sad news.”

Sue Blaine, co-editor and writer for Business Day and Financial Mail‘s Life pages, commented: “I worked at Sapa twice and learned so much doing “parachute journalism”. It was always a great place to train to be a journalist, and a fab place to work.”

Toby Shapshak, editor and publisher of magazine Stuff, called the loss of Sapa a “tragedy”. He said he had gained “invaluable experience at Sapa as a young reporter covering, among other things, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and President Nelson Mandela when he was president”.

“Sapa has been the backbone of the South African news industry for decades. Newspapers will play down Sapa’s role and importance, but it has been central to news production in a way that no other service has been, ” Shapshak said.

“This is because it focused on news and covered stories that other newspapers didn’t cover because Sapa was there. Sapa has been the breeding ground for journalists, many who have made names for themselves. I think South Africa will be all the poorer for Sapa’s loss.”

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