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Why buy Avusa? Because it can be so silly?

Why will Avusa insist on doing such silly things? Why not just give the enterprising young Michelle Solomon the 2008 report on the Sunday Times she sought? She wouldn't have been able to do much with it as it is almost three years old and doesn't reflect on today's Sunday Times, under new editor Ray Hartley.
Instead, Solomon got a very compelling story out of the fact that she has filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application with the Sunday Times - and in her own words: "In an unfortunate irony, I found myself arguing that Avusa's continued secrecy and refusal to release the 2008 report infringes on my right to freedom of expression and access to information".

Does the Sunday Times have something to hide? It's unlikely - nothing interesting anyway more than two years after the fact.

Frankly, I have often wondered why the paper published the embarrassing executive summary of the 2008 report in its own pages in the first place. After all, the report was commissioned by and paid for by the Sunday Times. Not being a state entity funded by tax payers, the Sunday Times can do with it what it wishes.

Are readers that interested?


When I read the executive summary of the 2008 report in the Sunday Times, I was mortified for everyone I knew at the paper. Did the Sunday Times really have a duty to readers to self-flagellate so publicly? Are the readers even that interested in the internal workings of the newspaper? Couldn't it just have fixed things quietly with a semblance of dignity rather than doing an Oprah-style confession? It all seemed so unnecessary and, well, silly.

As oft said in newsrooms, the readers will vote with their money. They will tell you what they think by their decision to buy or not to buy the paper.

I never really understood why the Sunday Times called in the outside panel (comprising Anton Harber, Franz Kruger, Paula Fray and Dario Milo). It was plain as day to anyone who worked at the Sunday Times at the time that the paper was top-heavy - too few reporters; too many of what we salaried Sunday Times hacks [see disclosure below] laughingly called "the helicopters".

These were the middle managers with nothing in particular to do but meddle, sometimes to the newsroom's detriment, if the helicopter in question didn't have real hard-news experience. It was legend that your story was cursed if it were contending for the Page 1 splash. One 'sarcy' remark from a helicopter at the editor's conference could torpedo it completely or you might spend the Saturday before deadline tying yourself up in knots as you dealt endlessly with queries and rewrites that had the potential to obscure the original angle.

The case long before


And this was the case long before the editorship of Mondli Makhanya, who was running the paper in 2008 when the task team did its investigation. I would say an underpowered news desk under Makhanya made a key contribution to the less-than-rigorous environment that allowed the infamous "Transnet sold our sea to foreigners" story to make it into print as the paper's Page 1 splash in August 2008. (It was retracted soon after.)

It's not rocket science. If there are gross inaccuracies making it into print, it means there has been a slip in rigour - in reporters and news editors, sub-editors and editors being thorough in checking and double-checking the facts - and that they understand the facts correctly. You don't need a panel to tell you that.

But although the full 2008 report lacks currency to us now, while researching this column I came across the fact that the journalist who wrote the Transnet story, and one of the reporters on the earlier Land Bank story that led directly to the task team being called in, was Mpumelelo Mkhabela, who was appointed editor of Avusa's Daily Dispatch this year. And he was appointed by Makhanya, now editor-in-chief of all Avusa newpapers.

Mkhabela told me he had nothing to add to what the Sunday Times had already said on the matter.

Makhanya said the paper exonerated Mkhabela personally for the Transnet story and took collective responsibility for the environment that allowed Mkhabela to write the stories. The task team made the same findings, he said, and went far in exonerating Mkhabela personally. Makhanya also said he had full confidence in Mkhabela as a title editor. "He's a strong newsman and he's one of the most highly respected political writers in the country, so I have absolutely no qualms in appointing him."

Questions about Mkhabela's credibility


I can't help but feel this raises questions about Mkhabela's credibility and suitability as a title editor. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, is chastised and moves on - but when the mess-up is this big (enough to lead to a retraction and a task team), I question if you should get a title editorship later. Even if you were exonerated from blame, how far removed can you be from the problem if you were the reporter? Maybe we would like to see the full 2008 report, then.

On the PAIA application, Makhanya reiterated his view that the 2008 report belongs to the Sunday Times and that it's privileged. He didn't wish to be drawn further because of the PAIA process now set in motion.

I have to wonder if one of the reasons that investment house Capitau sees value in a proposed buy-out of Avusa is precisely because Avusa management is not known to be the slickest on the block.

Capitau's motive have got all in media a bit baffled because Avusa is weighed down by legacy businesses such as retail books and cinemas that have embattled long-term futures. Its digital strategy seems half-baked, while the reasons for its recent acquisition of Universal Hirt & Carter are confusing.

Seeks to unlock


It may well be that - as The New Age business correspondent Sibonelo Radebe points out - the value that Capitau seeks to unlock is in finding new managers for Avusa.

"There is the fact that Capitau's move, while primarily preying on the discount between Avusa's share price and its underlying value, must also be seen as an expression of doubt in the competence of Avusa's management," Radebe writes. "The suitors obviously hope to unlock value, presumably that exists on the blind side of the prevailing management."

You get the drift. Replace some of the more ineffectual or damaging managers and, Hey Presto!, the company may sing again (...with a bit of asset stripping on the side - though Capitau says it will not do this - and an upswing in recruitment advertising expected to buoy the Sunday Times' coffers).

Capitau has said it intends to work with the existing management to grow the business but I wouldn't count the chickens just yet.

Treating people callously


An Avusa-rite asked me recently why people who leave the company hate it so much. I don't have the answer except that treating people callously - even if it's due to bumbling ineptitude - tends to have that effect.

But the truth is many ex-Sunday Times people such as myself still feel great affection for the newspaper itself - for all its arrogance corporate culture, its ruthlessly competitive environment and the internecine infighting. If you survive the Sunday Times, it will be the toughest experience of your career. It's no place for sissies.

I could go on about the Bizarroland that is the Sunday Times and the peculiarly intense relationship between Avusa's MD of media, Mike Robertson, (the Sunday Times editor before Makhanya and Mathatha Tsedu) but I think it's enough to say that I don't think Robertson ever truly left the paper's editorship behind him when he was promoted to publisher in 2002. The Sunday Times is, after all, the flagship of the group and I think Robertson, who was a hugely successful editor, would have dearly liked more than the six years he got to captain what is one of the country's most enduring and influential newspaper brands.

So, it is not surprising then that the Sunday Times dominates the attentions of Avusa's management team, which some in the group believe is to the detriment of other parts of its media business.

However, the Sunday Times, I'm sure, will endure as the unruly, fractious, questioning, wonderful paper that it is - Avusa or no Avusa and with or without Robertson.

Disclosure: Gill Moodie worked for various titles owned by Avusa and BDFM (which is half owned by Avusa) for many years but had left the Sunday Times before the 2008 panel did its investigation. She is married to Andrew Trench, the Daily Dispatch's previous editor. He no longer works for Avusa.

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About Gill Moodie: @grubstreetSA

Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) is a freelance journalist, media commentator and the publisher of Grubstreet (www.grubstreet.co.za). She worked in the print industry in South Africa for titles such as the Sunday Times and Business Day, and in the UK for Guinness Publishing, before striking out on her own. Email Gill at az.oc.teertsburg@llig and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.

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