Mail & Guardian

Can print remain lily-white?

01 Aug 1996 00:00 | Staff Reporter

Black empowerment means more than just having black faces in the newsroom, argues

Jacquie Golding-Duffy

MAJOR newspaper companies seem to be lagging behind on the issue of black empowerment, focussing instead on doing their bit for affirmative action by training journalists and other staff. Although some print conglomerates have attempted to address black empowerment, others are worried that their affirmative action efforts are not enough to quell the quest by black consortiums seeking a stake in their newspapers.

The general understanding of real black empowerment is that substantial shares have to, at some point, be vested in black hands. That means that black partners, if they are to be empowered, need to have some clout at management level.

Affirmative action, on the other hand, is the bottom rung of the ladder where black candidates are trained in the newsroom as competent reporters and potential editors. But they do not have commercial power in terms of shares and redirecting a conglomerate such as Times Media Limited (TML) or Nasionale Pers (Naspers).

Perskor seems to be leading the pack on black empowerment since it jumped into bed with Kagiso Trust Investments (KTI), the financial arm of Kagiso Trust. This means, ironically, that The Citizen, the most notorious of the apartheid-era newspapers, will soon be jointly controlled by Perskor and its black partner, KTI.

KTI is adamant that it will not be a mere black token in Perskor. With its board representation and executive management positions, it intends to be actively involved in decision-making and have some clout when it comes to determining the stable's long-term direction.

The future of Rapport is uncertain as it is jointly controlled by both Perskor and Naspers, but there has been talk that KTI's interest in Perskor will not necessarily balance the all-white control of Rapport. As Perskor's black partner, KTI has, to some degree, empowered itself. It will not only play a role in the commercial aspects of the newspaper, but will also be involved in the editorial composition of The Citizen. Here empowerment has taken place at the top.

There seems to be consensus in the print industry, as in the advertising sector, that black empowerment has to go hand-in-hand with affirmative action and training. To have control at the top end without the necessary knowledge and expertise of what happens in a newsroom is futile. Furthermore, having black reporters, news editors and editors is useless unless there are shareholders in the upper echelons of management --- shareholders who are representative of changes in the newsroom.

Naspers, which owns Die Burger, Beeld and City Press, among others, is believed to be holding talks with potential black partners in an effort towards acquiring a joint shareholding in City Press. It is believed that Naspers wants control of City Press to go to a black shareholder.

Joint shareholding or even majority shareholding in a single publication is sometimes not enough, as can be seen from the situation in the Independent group.

The Sowetan is owned by New Africa Investments Limited (Nail) with the Independent as a minority shareholder. The Sowetan has editorial independence and managerial clout as far as the newspaper is concerned; but beyond that, the black partners are powerless and cannot play a role in the overall policy-making or direction of the conglomerate even though that conglomerate has minority shares in the publication.

Naspers's intention to rid itself of a mainly black- interest newspaper (City Press) and follow in the footsteps of Independent Newspapers may not be enough to address the imbalances in the print media.

But should print conglomerates take in black partners who are only interested in the commercial side of operations and not concerned with the basic functions of a newsroom? This throws up the debate of whether newspapers are like any other profit- making businesses and can be run like baked-bean factories where commercial concerns are the only consideration, and the quality of the baked beans of only secondary concern.

Newspapers require a delicate balance between costly editorial needs, which sell the paper, and advertising needs, which bring in the revenue. They usually thrive when they achieve a balance between management's desire to carry as many advertisements as possible and spend as little as possible on the editorial and editorial demands for space and resources in order to produce a good product.

Hence we may end up with a media industry where several black partners have shareholdings in print publications, but, like some of their white counterparts, have no desire to spend money to improve the publications.

Gauteng Newspapers managing director Deon du Plessis says an important question facing the Independent group is whether it can afford to enter the next century as an all-white company with no "affirmative action candidates" at an executive level.

He argues that no one can accuse the Independent of being "static" as it is actively involved in affirmative action. However, when it comes to real black empowerment, the stable may be faltering. Du Plessis, head of the policy committee on affirmative action, says the group is holding ongoing talks with unions and non-unionised staff in a bid to establish company policy. The committee is discussing the issue of affirmative action in management, a matter "high up on the agenda".

Independent Newspapers have embarked on a fast- tracking course at Harvard University to groom black journalists as the country's future editors. But the questions remain, whether this will be enough.

The fast-tracking course includes 12 candidates: 10 black males, two white females.

Although the Independent group is leading the way in training black journalists, it has not been seen to have embraced black empowerment, other than its joint shareholding in the Sowetan.

Ivor Jones & Roy media analyst Peter Armitage argues that it is difficult for the Independent group to make steps towards joint shareholding as its majority shareholder, Irishman Tony O'Reilly, is offshore.

No decisions can be made without O'Reilly's approval. This is similar to the Mail & Guardian's situation where a foreign publication --- the Guardian --- holds a majority of the shares. However, unlike the Argus and the Star, which are large newspapers, the Mail & Guardian is a small publication and the only newspaper in the M&G media group.

Armitage says there is concern among the newspaper houses as in all white businesses that the future requires a black partner. He believes that the Independent will, in the next couple of years, make a move towards real black empowerment and will not want to see itself lagging behind other stables.

TML seems to be at the back of the pack in both affirmative action training and black empowerment.

Although it is negotiating with the National Empowerment Consortium (NEC) whose talks are being headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, the company has been accused of wanting to stall the process by introducing an editorial charter.

The NEC has also set the tone by rejecting the TML charter and making sure that the transaction is not complicated by any preconditions stipulated by TML management. However, Ramaphosa has made it clear that he supports an editorial charter in principle, but is opposed to it being used as a bargaining tool.

TML is also believed to be having unofficial talks with Pearsons, owner of the Financial Times, in an effort to have its business publications, the Financial Mail and Business Day, jointly controlled by Pearsons and the NEC.

The group is clearly uneasy about having a black partner, but at the same time its management realises that a black partner can only bode well for it as it is clear that the road ahead for print media can no longer be vested in lily-white hands alone.

Once the NEC acquires a stake in Johnnic and in Omni Media, the holding and parent companies of TML, it will be in a position to have some clout on an executive level, allowing some balance from a black partner against TML's former custodian, Anglo American.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki also established a task team on communications (Comtask) earlier this year; the team's brief includes monitoring the role the media plays in reporting government issues and evaluating the impact that media conglomerates which are predominantly white, such as TML and others, have on government communications and the impartiality of the press.

The team has yet to address the issue of media ownership, but it is clear that the print media has to be more representative of the country. However, representation has to occur on two levels: Firstly, on an executive level and secondly, in the newsroom itself.

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