New kid on the block

2011-07-21 00:00

A stream of journalistic invective greeted the launch at the beginning of the year of The New Age, a daily newspaper accused by competitors before it even hit the streets of unquestioning support of Government. “Government mouthpiece” and “sunshine journalism” were two terms bandied about. Now into its second six months, how is it doing? And will it survive?

Until it obtains an audited circulation certificate that’s difficult to assess, although advertising volumes seem to be growing. CEO Nazeem Howa nods agreement about audited figures but says he wants to reach critical mass first. Meanwhile, he’s testing new ways of building copy sales and advertising.

“We focus on getting more copies into the hands of targeted readers – even if it’s for free,” says Howa. Complimentary copies are delivered to targeted homes and followed up aggressively in a circulation drive. Former soccer players are running a Soweto distribution company. There are weekly advertising supplements on such subjects as motoring, lifestyle and travel. “We’re taking traditional best practice and reinventing it with revolutionary ideas,” says Howa.

It’s a decent-enough newspaper with a low cover price and is attracting some advertising.

Howa and executive chairman Atul Gupta were both clearly taken aback by the negative publicity from other media. “We expected opposition but not lies, misrepresentations and outright hostility,” says Gupta, whose industrialist family is the venture’s major backer. “But we’re here for the long haul.” He knows newspaper publishing requires deep pockets – and patience.

The newspaper market is unforgiving and many have predicted The New Age will go down the same path as previous publishing failures ThisDay and NOVA. The New Age’s start wasn’t promising, being plagued by staff walkouts and delays. But Howa talks of “growing support from readers and advertisers, proving it has what it takes to be a successful national daily”.

Though competitors have focused on its supposed pro-Government role, agency media buyers are more pragmatic. As OMD CEO Josh Dovey has pointed out, every country has pro-government newspapers. And the demonstrably lickspittle SABC has no difficulty attracting advertising support. Advertisers go where the people are. And let’s face it, unbending opposition to Government hasn’t always gone hand in hand with commercial success in this country.

Anecdotal evidence suggests large sectors of the reading public are fed up with the unremitting diet of negativity served up by some newspapers – and that, Howa believes, is why less than 30% of adults read a daily newspaper. The New Age provides the first real test of the strength of that disenchantment.

But unquestioning sunshine journalism is equally unlikely to work. “I think we’ve shown we’re no Government mouthpiece,” says Howa. “We’ve run a number of critical yet constructive articles covering service delivery, corruption and crime.”

Howa says its advertising is “in a healthy state”. There’s support from insurance companies and iconic national brands, such as Vodacom and Telkom, while dedicated provincial pages attract some regional advertising. Game now runs price promotions twice a week, an important breakthrough in SA’s tough retailing market.

Copy sales will provide just 10% of revenue (the industry norm is 40%, with 60% from advertising). That strategy – adopted from the Times of India (a major backer, along with the Gupta family) puts the emphasis on attracting a large audience so advertisers receive good responses, says Howa. “Like any business, it’s simply about return on investment.”

The approach to advertising is similarly unconventional, driven by finding creative ways to deliver results to advertisers. Front page ads for Game were positioned above the masthead. A Cell C ad swooshed across the front page, breaking with the tradition that strictly separates ads from editorial. Heresy to some; good business to The New Age. But there’s still that small matter of circulation...