The shift of M&G editor Ferial Haffajee to City Press seems to signal a concerted push by Media24 to take on the Sunday Times, whose dominance in the Sunday market has been unassailable for a long time, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. But the Avusa flagship is in a weakened state. 

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

FERIAL Haffajee surprised us when she announced — rather precipitously — that she was abandoning the Mail & Guardian editorship for City Press. It was a big shift for her, and an even bigger one for City Press.

It signals a push at City Press to take on the Sunday Times as number one in the Sunday market. It comes from the very top, I hear — Naspers CE Koos Bekker wants it to be a much bigger newspaper and not just the voice of a segment of the black elite, as it is now.

When Bekker backs a project, he does it seriously, so expect the group to throw money, resources and their brains trust at this project.

The Sunday Times, however, is a formidable product, and will not easily be displaced from its perch. It is a money machine, with profit margins among the best in the newspaper world, and one of the country’s strongest brands, with valuable sub-brands all quite craftily designed to allow a family to pull it apart, with different sections aimed at different family members.

However, it has been hit — like all media — by the economic climate and its circulation has been looking shaky, propped up by giveaways. Total sales are kept just above the 500000 mark, where it has been for decades, by special deals. But the number of single copies sold was at 316000 in late 2006, then 306832 for the same period in 2007, and 281000 for last year — a steady decline.

City Press starts much lower, at 183000, jostling with Sunday World for the number four position in the Sunday market after Rapport at 280000 and Sunday Sun at 213000.

Interestingly, three of the biggest Sunday papers belong to Media24 (Naspers), of which its long-standing flagship, Rapport, is shrinking fast, which is why it sees the future in its other two, City Press and Sunday Sun.

Internally, the Sunday Times is in a mess — as shown by the independent review in which I participated last year, and the recommendations of which have been discussed but barely implemented. What the report made clear is that the paper will be vulnerable if it does not fix some obvious problems. And it hasn’t.

Its daily and online ventures, The Times and Times Online, are interesting editorial products but must still be draining the coffers, particularly at this difficult time.

Giving the daily away for free to Sunday subscribers has brought in only a few more subscriptions, and attempts to sell the paper in some areas have been unsuccessful.

On the other hand, Haffajee faces a different set of formidable challenges. City Press was strongly positioned by former editor Mathatha Tsedu and his successor, Khathu Mamaila, as the Africanist voice of the black elite, and it became a must-read with some of the most interesting political coverage in the country.

For City Press to go for the wider, family-based, cross-racial audience of the Sunday Times requires a complete turnaround in newsroom culture. Haffajee might also walk into a wall of hostility, as an outsider with a different political outlook who has to manage a number of seniors overlooked for the post. She is going to have to turn the place on its head, and bring in a number of new people.

And, through all of this, she must hang on to the existing reading base.

Haffajee is giving up a position at a small company with a very different corporate culture to City Press. From a big cog in a small machine, she is going to be a medium-sized cog in a giant machine. A big change. Her replacement at the Mail & Guardian, the young and respected Nic Dawes, is likely to follow firmly in her editorial footsteps, though with somewhat less of the sartorial flash Haffajee brought to the post.

An interesting aspect is that her chief rival and good friend, Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, is also a product of the Mail & Guardian, where they both started their careers and ended up as editors. From there, has it been up or down? I am not sure of the answer to that, but I suspect it was the Mail & Guardian job they most enjoyed.

# Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University and was a founder of the Mail & Guardian.
This column first appeared in Business Day on 13 May 2009.