Tag Archives: sunday times

Polishing turds won’t save our papers

Circulation of English language broadsheets in South Africa is largely in decline. We all know that. But the response hasn’t been to invest in better content. Instead, staff numbers have been slashed, news from elsewhere gets regurgitated and a fixation with other media – websites, multimedia and, of course, Twitter – has developed.

Most of our broadsheets have become emaciated pastiches of newspapers, stuffed with copy from the news wires. I’m sick of seeing SAPA reports every time I turn the page – all too often they’re badly written, inaccurate and lacking nuance and context. The shoddy copy is hardly surprising when the overstretched and under resourced agency is often one of the few news organisations that actually bothers to cover a host of events across South Africa.

Across the spectrum, the desire to offer compelling, relevant content to readers seems to have evaporated. While cost-cutting and declining ad revenue has obviously impacted on the quality of content, a championing of mediocrity is as much to blame. Gone are the days, it seems, when South Africa’s journalists actually went out and hunted down exclusives. Instead, we’re served up stories that are in within easy reach: it’s so much easier to fill column inches about the folk across the corridor or fulminate interminably about the latest antics of Malema (or new bad boy on the block Jimmy Manyi) than it is to deliver an exposé about muti murders in Limpopo. Even areas not too far beyond the comfortable confines of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs seem too much of a stretch: the best, most comprehensive reporting on Diepsloot’s mob justice was in the New York Times – not in any of our rags. This results in the ANCYL’s buffoonery or Manyi’s madness getting disproportionate coverage. South Africa is a vast and astonishingly complex, diverse nation. It’s a great injustice that our newspapers largely fail to reflect this, and that so many stories remain untold.

The Independent newspapers are beyond redemption, almost. Regional titles like the Cape Argus do an adequate job covering their cities, but news about their respective provinces is poor, and international coverage completely reliant on wire copy.

Business Day is possibly our last credible daily. Its shrunken newsroom remains populated with some good reporters, but pressure from the bean counters still means an over-reliance on wire agencies as well as liberal copy-and-pasting of content from its big sister, London’s Financial Times. A lack of presence in the rest of Africa is a major disadvantage: a title committed to seriously covering African business should have bureaus in Lagos and Nairobi – or, in these straitened economic times, at least a set of reliable freelancers and stringers reporting out of these budding business hubs.

I read with dismay a few days ago that Business Day was developing an app for iPad. I’m no Luddite, but I think it’s a crying shame knowing that money’s being wasted on a gimmick when it should be rather spent on improving the paper’s core product.

In a developing country like our own, printed paper remains the best way of being accessible and affordable to your audience. Even with exciting developments like iMaverick on the horizon, tablets will still remain out of reach for millions of South Africans. Broadsheet titles won’t grow readership or convert the emerging middle class into devoted fans by wasting money on a snazzy app, especially if this is done at the expense of delivering quality content.

While the web plays an important role in both disseminating and shaping the news agenda, it can easily become distraction. Journalists and editors should undoubtedly be at ease with social media tools, but you can’t help thinking that if editors spent more time editing, and if journalists spent more time writing instead of tweeting, there would be a better paper at the end of it.

When we presented ideas that were beautifully rendered but conceptually weak, my branding course lecturers at college told us we were polishing a turd: we were trying to dress up something that was still, ultimately, shit. This is true of Times Live – after yet another facelift this week, the SAPA copy and celeb fluff may now appear in a slightly different layout but the content still remains largely dismal. A chunk of Sunday Times/The Times’s whopping digital budget would be better spent on hiring a few fact-checkers.

This is not a universal tale of woe. The Mail & Guardian is less provincial than many of its peers, regularly serving up vital investigations and engaging reportage about urgent issues. Its amaBhungane project is an exciting manifestation of its wonderfully old fashioned commitment to holding the powerful to account. Another weekly, the Financial Mail, is an elegant and essential business briefing. Online, The Daily Maverick deserves applause for its fresh, intelligent writing while Politicsweb embarrasses our print dailies by offering a far superior dose of political commentary, with the likes of RW Johnson and Rhoda Kadalie contributing regularly to the site.

Clearly there’s hope for quality journalism in South Africa. But if our papers keep dishing up myopic reporting and superficial analysis, their terminal decline will only be accelerated, not reversed. Slick apps and websites are all good and well, but if paired with poor content, they offer old media more of a red herring than a white knight.

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Zuma “rapes” justice system

As usual, Zapiro hits the nail on the head with, as it happens, a mighty sledgehammer in his latest Sunday Times cartoon. His hard-hitting, courageous, uncomfortable yet brilliant cartoon depicts Umshini about to rape “the justice system” which lies helplessly pinioned to the ground by Zuma’s head cheerleaders (Julius Malema, Gwede Mantashe, Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi).

Predictably, it has sparked indignant outrage in the Zuma camp — probably because they know that its message is spot on. Zuma’s supporters have been brazenly doing everything possible to undermine the judiciary to ensure that he is never held accountable for his alleged criminal activities. Perhaps they were expecting they could get away with it – without being challenged about it in the press. As Zapiro has so potently demonstrated, they were wrong about that.

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“Sunday Times” in red-faced retraction

The Sunday Times issued a terse retraction of an article it ran two weeks ago in which it claimed that Transnet, the giant parastatal, had sold of vast swathes of Table Bay to foreign investors. The erroneous nature of the report comes as a major blow to the publication’s credibility — an unfortunate development since the paper has established a reputation for controversial — and indeed courageous — exposés. Getting it wrong on such a massive scale is simply unacceptable. It will need to do some earnest reputation management in the weeks ahead if it wants its investigations to be taken seriously.

Read Chris Moerdyk’s fascinating column on the subject here.

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The plot thickens…

The Sunday Times  continues its arms deal investigation with details on the failure for Ferrostaal to successfully implement and maintain its obligatory offset programmes.

Read about it here.

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Our president’s arms deal bribe

For years I’ve suspected that the president was implicated in the arms deal’s corruption scandal. Ducking and diving, the president has clearly had much to hide. Today, however, we have more than conjecture (and an incriminating encrypted fax the DA has been in possession of) to go on. The Sunday Times bravely broke the story that Mbeki received R30 million from the German shipbuilding conglomerate MAN Ferrostaal in return for awarding the SA Navy’s submarine contract to the consortium it led. Apparently Mbeki gave R2 million to Zuma and the rest to the ANC. No wonder the arms deal probe has been a whitewash!

It will be interesting to see how the following weeks unfold.

Click here to read the story.

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Was Dave’s drivel really racist?

After reading Xolela Mangcu’s frothy condemnation of what will ultimately be David Bullard’s last Sunday Times column, I braced myself for the worst and prepared to be thoroughly indignant when I got round to reading it.

But when I eventually did get to the so-called controversial and allegedly racist piece, I was puzzled. He got fired for this? That seemed like a total over-reaction.

Don’t get me wrong — the column, in true Bullard style, was patronising and arrogant. Sweeping stereotypes and flawed logic abounded. So did hopeless ignorance about Nguni tribal culture. But all in all it was just clumsy, misinformed, lame and boring. Hardly seething with malignant racism. I just couldn’t for the life of me work out what the fuss was all about.

One can almost imagine Bullard at the keyboard, clawing his way through writer’s block as his deadline loomed. I suspect his tongue, when not wrapped around a cigar, was placed firmly in cheek. “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing” was the result.

The outcry in response to the column shows that Bullard has clearly hit a nerve. But firing him is sending out a message that some topics are too hot to handle. Is Bullard the soutie equivalent of Deon Maas, the firebrand booted off his Rapport perch for making lovey-dovey noises about satanism a few months ago?

Of course the similarities stop with the dismissal. One can’t help notice that none of the usual media luminaries (Max du Preez, Anton Harber, Jonathan Shapiro) are leaping to Bullard’s defence, beautifying him as a martyr for free (albeit controversial) speech — like Maas was. Perhaps Bullard’s self-celebrated repugnance has something to do with it. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is because race and colonialism remain rather touchy subjects — and Bullard has approached them like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

With the suspension of Bullard, we are running the risk of stifling debate and discussion. And though you might be thinking that with Bullard’s lowbrow contribution that’s probably not such a bad thing, it actually is — because you may just be shutting up people who have something more pertinent, considered and worthwhile to share.

Censorship is never a good thing. Self-censorship, inevitably a result of the tyranny of political correctness, is even worse. Bullard’s colonialism piece deserves a lampooning — not a lashing. To be quite honest, it’s not remotely worth the latter.

  • Ivo Vegter over at the Spike has a must-read post on this issue with some interesting theories as to why Bullard was really turfed out….

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