There's much afoot in the world of business and financial media with a restructuring of Media24's business division and disentangling of an integrated newsroom, while over at rival BDFM, I-Net Bridge and Business Day are going the opposite route and creating an integrated newsroom as a first step towards a paywall site.
Marc Ashton, newly appointed acting editor of Finweek.
Marc Ashton, the recently appointed acting editor of Media24's Finweek, tells Bizcommunity.com how the magazine is being repositioned to suit a younger market and why reports of retrenchments have been overstated.
Bizcommunity: You guys feel that Finweek needs a sharper focus in terms of positioning but I often wonder if we give ground away too easily in South African media. Business media is such a competitive market - why not just do what the Financial Mail (owned by BDFM, which is jointly owned by Avusa and Pearson) does - which is cover the political economy - and do it better. If the recipe works of them, it will work for you, won't it? [Finweek, which sells for R19.50, had an ABC circulation of 26 729 in the first quarter of this year while FM, which sells for R22.50, had 26 115.] Marc Ashton: That's something that the FM is very good at and they've stuck to it. Finweek under [previous editor] Marc Hasenfuss did a lot of companies and specifically the stock-market investing side of things - that's the niche that Marc has driven since he took over in August last year. In a lot of ways, we probably have given ground to the FM but we've also played to our strengths.
We have very strong investment writers covering listed investments and the investment side of money, rather than broader economics and the political economy... I think that's reflected when you look at all the major financial journalism awards for 2011 - Sanlam, Telkom, Citadel. They have been won by Finweek but that's pretty much because we stuck to the niche of money and investing. So, as we start to reposition ourselves, I think that trend is going to continue. There will be a repositioning of some of our content and we will play to the things that we believe are our strengths.
Biz: OK, so is a more of a refining than a repositioning? Ashton: The main thing that happened here is that we've had Finweek sitting within the newspaper division for the last two years and it has lost out on a lot of the exposure that the broader magazine division had.
I was at the Media24 [inhouse] conference last week and I was just blown away looking at some of the technology they're putting into the magazines, like QR codes for Huisgenoot, for instance, and the apps that they're developing around it. For the last 18-months-to-two years that kind of investment hasn't really been put into Finweek. I think that's the first point.
The second is I think Finweek's market had changed and we haven't necessarily seen it changing, simply because we haven't taken a close look at what the figures are telling us. We have a 60% black readership and a lot of them are in that aspirational market. They're trying to get into making that first investment, making a bit of money. Our average reader is 32.
Biz: That surprises me. Most financial publication have older readerships. Ashton: And if I look at the way we package content - as a 30-year-old myself - it doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me.
Biz: So what' s happening in our society that the Finweek's market has changed? Ashton: The essential demographic shift is that there is a black middle class that has evolved. Something I spent most of last week trying to get my head around is [the question] how do I consume media...
I don't know if you've seen this new magazine, NewsNow that Media24 is bringing out? Its content is much shorter and punchier and it answers the question "So what?" so readers can look at it and sum it up in the same kind of time it takes to scan a website.
Biz: OK, so is that why you said earlier in a Finweek article that you're looking more at news for the individual and not the corporate? And you want to make it more fun? Ashton: While a lot of investment analysis is great, people still want to be entertained. To give you a cheesy example, what about a story about the best bars in Joburg to find a rich husband? That is the kind of entertainment factor that I think financial media may be missing in some places. While it's nice to be serious, if your reader is young and socially active, you want to cater for that.
Biz: If your average reader is 32, they're very comfortable with online so let's talk about that. I've never quite understood Finweek's relationship with Fin24.com. And now this relationship is changing. What's happening there?* Ashton: Well, it all got chucked into the newspaper division and there was thing that came out of it: FinMedia24, which was Sake24, Fin24.com, Sake24.com, [financial and stock-market data service] McGregor BFA and Finweek.
There was this idea that it was an integrated newsroom and journalists could take some content of an interview with a CEO, for instance, and that could be put up onto the website and then they could write comment and analysis - almost a flow of data through it.
Historically, I think there were some people who were reluctant to make those changes and to produce copy along those lines.
Biz: What were the reporting lines? Ashton: Well, everyone had to look after their individual domains but [also] had to buy into the idea of integrated copy. It was difficult to make it gel and people didn't always know what was expected of them. And everybody still wanted to have their own publications [with] their own unique look and feel.
Biz: I-Net Bridge is about to move into Business Day's newsroom in what will be an integrated newsroom. You guys must have learned some lessons about integrated newsrooms? Ashton: A lot of Fin24.com's business model was supported by News24. You could probably say that about 60% of its traffic came from News24, which is the biggest media portal in the country.
At the end of the day, the kind of things that drive people from a generic news site on to a financial-news site means that it is a lot less of a targeted audience. The kind of stories that do well are, for instance, stories such as 'Julius Malema going to take away the land'. That will prompt a whole lot of people to go through to Fin24 but they won't be typical financial readers.
Biz: So the integrated newsroom has been disentangled? Ashton: We are in the process of de-integrating it now. Finweek will have its own online presence, essentially from August 2011. And it will have its own logos - that will come in from about 1 September. They're separate business units. Fin24.com is a separate unit [with McGregor BFA] to Finweek.
Biz: So what lessons have you learned from trying the integrated newsroom? Ashton: I think the readers' demands have changes. Let's assume a lot of the Fin24 readers are coming through from News24 but when it comes to your sophisticated financial reader, you're competing with the likes of TechCrunch or Mashable in the US. Your reader has woken up to the fact that the rest of the world is out there and good comment and analysis doesn't just come from local content anymore.
If you look at the makeup of financial media in South Africa, primarily you get your comment and analysis online via Moneyweb or Fin24. Now Fin24 has moved away from doing that comment and analysis and it's primarily a wire aggregator again, so its cost-base changes. It doesn't employ journalists, it doesn't generate copy and it will develop products around its data offering.
Biz: I presume Finweek won't give its content away for free online? Ashton: I don't think content will be enough to get people to a site and make it sustainable. We think there are a couple of opportunities that we could look at, including online communities for traders and investors, personal finance - I guess, brand extension... like events. Being able to have a live webinar with the CEO or some of the analysts about the prospects of small-cap shares, developing online trading baskets, the opportunity to follow your favourite financial journalist and see what they're doing with their portfolios, etc.
Biz: But will you have a paywall? Ashton: I don't see us simply replicating Finweek content on a website and hoping to make money out of it. That's not sustainable.
Biz: There are quite dramatic changes happening at Finweek as there seems to have been quite a serious wave of retrenchments amid all this corporate reorganisation? Ashton: I would like to clarify that as I think it was poorly reported.
Biz: Ok. Ashton: I've read reports that 26 people are being retrenched and I think in the editorial department there are 26 people on the dot, which would imply that everybody's been retrenched.
There has been a restructuring and we've gone through all the various HR steps. Everybody's had to approve the proposed new direction of the publication. Everybody's been asked to approve the various role profiles - the various roles we have to fill.
Often what happens with these kinds of things is that you have a staff complement of X two years ago and gradually, as recession bites and people resign, other people start to do one and half jobs or jobs that go beyond what their traditional job descriptions said. And you get to a point where people need to stop for a moment and clarify what it is they do for an organisation so that they can be refitted to the structure.
I don't think anybody has been retrenched from the editorial staff complement... Obviously with all the restructuring and the reports in the media on it, it does lead to negativity but I think there's a positive feeling coming through, now that's there's a direction for people to buy into.
*Bizcommunity can also report that Tim du Plessis, head of Media24's broadsheet newspapers, confirmed that Sake24 editor Ryk van Niekerk and three other staff members - Danie Toerien, James-Brent Styan and Tarina Coetzee - have resigned recently from Sake. Du Plessis said they had resigned to "pursue new opportunities and for personal reasons. Styan has accepted a promotion as Beeld's parliamentary correspondent".
In response to a query on whether responsiblity for Sake was being returned to the various newspaper titles, Du Plessis said: "The editorial team remain centralised under Sake24. There is a Sake24 editor and all Sake24 reporters report to him/her and not to the individual editors of Beeld, Die Burger, Volksblad and Rapport. The financial management of Sake24 has moved back to the individual newspapers. The reason for this is to give the individual newspapers (Beeld, Die Burger, Volksblad and Rapport) full control over the financial performance of the business section, but that a centralised editorial team provides the editorial content.
"The restructuring has not meant any redeployment of any Sake24 editorial staff. Fin24 remains in FinMedia24 along with McGregor BFA, MiningMX and Sake24.com. Finweek has now moved to the Media24 Magazines [division] and Sake24 to Media24 Newspapers [division]."
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 and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.
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