Published on Monday, 05 November 2012 10:20
In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for journalism.co.za:
In the second of a two-part series on The Witness and Daily Dispatch newspapers, Gill Moodie, in Backstory, speaks to Brendan Boyle, editor of the East London-based Dispatch, about the challenges of dealing with being printed in Port Elizabeth, where the paper is going and how to break out of the negative mindset that permeates so much of the newspaper industry today.
Gill Moodie: The Dispatch was distinctly down in the last ABCs (at 26 751 circulation in the second quarter of 2012 compared with 29 043 in the same quarter of the previous year) and it was in this period that the earlier deadlines kicked in (because printing was moved from East London to Port Elizabeth). Have these new deadlines been very difficult for everyone?
Brendan Boyle: Ja, it was a plunge (in circulation) really. That quarter exactly matched the first quarter of the new press, which to a degree was a shake-down period. In that first quarter (of printing in PE) – but particularly in the first six to eight weeks – we battled with keeping our deliveries on track. We had a lot of trouble with getting deliveries right under the new system and we weren’t getting to the right street corners and we weren’t getting to the right shops on time all the time reliably…
We had, until this week when the road collapsed (due to recent floods), fine-turned the delivery system and we’d had about a month of very good on-time deliveries right up to Mthatha and everywhere else. But the road closures have presented a challenge because the trucks came down the R72 (between PE and East London) through Port Alfred. The (N2) Grahamstown road (from Port Elizabeth) before that hole appeared was being worked on and you always had at least one – and often two – stop-go’s that could arbitrarily add an hour to the delivery trip… So we couldn’t really use the Grahamstown road. We were using the Port Alfred road… You know, we moved to two editions with the press move?
Moodie: How do the two editions work?
Boyle: We have a first edition (for the Transkei) because the Transkei is a very strong growth area for us. Sales have just been ticking up there for the last year – a lot of that, I think, based on a very strong (editorial) team in Mthatha… With the press move, we had to make sure that we kept that up.
Moodie: When I worked at the Dispatch in the mid-1990s we had a first edition for the Transkei so it’s been brought back then?
Boyle: It’s about a third of our print run… That gets there (to the Transkei) in good time…
Usually if you do two editions, they’re about half an hour apart or something like that but in this case we can be up to four hours apart. So we can run our second edition a lot later and, obviously, the biggest challenge with consolidating printing in Port Elizabeth for us at the Dispatch was getting the breaking news and later news into the paper with the much earlier deadline required.
But we were looking at the print schedule and had a plan in place – which we would have been refining right now had it not been for the road closures – to refocus on the final edition as the flagship. The first edition is a very important newspaper. It’s not in any way a lesser thing but the flagship of the Daily Dispatch must be the second edition that comes into East London, Bhisho, King (William’s Town).
Moodie: So when is the second edition going off stone at the moment – and when would you, ideally, like to see it go off stone?
Boyle: The problem that we have is having a production team that can span enough hours in the day. So if you’re bringing them in to be off stone at 6pm for the first edition – we’ve now brought this forward because of the road closures but it’s normally 6pm – that team work like maniacs because, when you do a paper with that sort of a deadline – you get a tremendous bottleneck at 3pm or 4pm. Stories come in fast, the (news) desk is battling to move them quick enough and you’ve got to make up the pages, get them subbed and get off stone by 6pm. So we’d have to expand the production team and beef it up in some way in order to cover another up to four hours (till the second edition goes off stone)…
The next step, once the roads crisis is resolved, will be to produce a final edition as late as possible on the presses and as well made for these audiences as possible because they are different audiences (for the two editions)… and that would allow our reporters to work later into the day building really powerful stories…
Moodie: Sjoe, these are very difficult circumstances. You should have been an editor 10 years ago. It was a doddle then compared with what it’s like now.
Boyle: One of the challenges (that the new printing arrangement) introduces for us is that, I think, it’s well known that Avusa (the Dispatch’s parent company – now a part of Times Media Group – that also owns papers such as the Sunday Times, Sowetan, Sunday World and The Herald) has a copy sharing arrangement between most of its newspapers. But because our cousins are mostly producing for 10pm-12pm deadlines, it’s not in the nature of their day to produce copy at 3pm. And you’ll know from Sapa (news agency), they don’t really have much at that time. So the consequence of this is that our team have had to produce a much higher proportion of the news that goes into the Dispatch.
Moodie: And what about soccer results? I presume you can’t get them in.
Boyle: There’s not much we can do but what we do do with the final edition when there’s an event that’s big enough – like a soccer match or boxing – we let it run and then we just stop and slip a page. We can slip a picture for front (page) or back (page) and a story… But going forward, as we learn more about working with a remote press, we’ll be able to refine it further and do more of this sort of thing…
Moodie: I need to back up a bit here. I’m aware of the 50-metre deep hole in the N2 but what’s the problem with the R72? I know it’s never been a very good road for the volume of heavy trucks that hammer up and down it but what happened to it during the floods?
Boyle: Between Alexandria and Port Alfred there’s a section (of the road) that they are concerned has the same problem as the N2. The shoulder has collapsed and it’s down to a single lane and they won’t let anything over one-tonne drive on it because they are worried that it will collapse… (The packed-earth onramp to one of the bridges on the Port Elizabeth side of Port Alfred also washed away so this has also been reduced to one lane. Since this interview, the R72 route between Port Alfred and Kenton-On-Sea was closed so that road engineers could take soil samples.)
Moodie: So can the Dispatch trucks get through? Are they one-tonners or heavier than that?
Boyle: We’ve adapted since this time and have now introduced two one-tonners that bring subscription copies of the final edition. The main deliveries are on a round-about route through the Olifantskop Pass (on the N10 between Paterson and Cookhouse) way up to the north.
Moodie: What a nightmare. That’s a long route between PE and East London.
Boyle: Ja, it takes between five and six hours for the trucks to get through as opposed to three and four previously on the R27. But we’ve made our contingencies plans. We’ve put a depot in King William’s Town to help with the redistribution… So it’s a kind of patch and glue at the moment till the roads are sorted but they’re not going to be sorted in under three months.
Moodie: Good grief, the newspaper business is tough as it is. You really don’t need this.
Boyle: I’d rather not. We were getting into a consolidation phase. We hadn’t seen a turn yet on the ABCs but I think that we would have and the roads crisis has put a spanner in the works for us.
Moodie: And have you still got faith in the paper’s future?
Boyle: I think this paper’s going to be around for a very long time. I think we have a particular culture here and we still have a very loyal readership. You know, according to the recent Amps (readership) analysis, half of my readership is under 35. If that is correct, that is really good news for us because you’re building a new readership rather than just trying to stay with a readership that’s moving on…
I think that we’re probably in one of the areas in the country that is most favourable for a daily print newspaper. Of course, we’re looking at ways to rebuild the digital (the paper has taken back the website after it was put behind a paywall in late 2010 and became more a part of a company-wide digital division.)… We are experimenting with how much to put out (beyond the paywall). You will see at this point a selection of stories from the newspaper and quite soon you will see more news on the website coming in from reporters who are out on the road.
Moodie: OK, so why do you think the eastern part of the Eastern Cape is favourable for a daily print newspaper?
Boyle: Partly, it’s a culture thing. At a simple level, there’s isn’t an awful lot else to do. People will take a newspaper in the morning and then come home in the evening and read all the leader-page stuff and the analysis. It’s not like Cape Town or Jo’burg where there are so many other things to do.
But I think that we have a highly politicised, highly analytical populous here. It’s a thoughtful area. If you look at the Dispatch Dialogue (events that are open to the public), where in the country could you bring (economics professor) Sampie Terreblanche and Lumkile Mondi (a member of the State Owned Enterprises Presidential Review Committee) together and get an audience of 500 people? There’s just nowhere else in the country that people have that wish to go and engage. Our letter writing is quite heavyweight. We get a lot of letters and lot of analysis and debate.
We have a very strong conversation with the political leadership here. It’s not always an easy conversation but they recognise that our brand speaks to a lot of people – and they want to speak through it or they want us to tell their story. They don’t always feel we do this to their satisfaction but I’d be more concerned if they called me up every morning to congratulate me because that’s not what we do. We tell the story of the whole region…
Moodie: And how is ad revenue?
Boyle: I can’t do precise numbers but last month (September) we had a record in classifieds. It was a big number and we are holding up (generally) exceptionally well…
Moodie: So the road problem aside, you’re positive about the paper’s future?
Boyle: Ja, that’s a big challenge but we’re going to get through it. And it’s not all we’re doing – fighting challenges. We will get there… There’s a conversation going on in Times Media: ‘Have we been trapped in negativity? Have we been trapped in a sense that we’re managing a dying product or are we looking at the product and saying that there are ways to grow it back?’ We’re trying very much to look at things that way and not get too caught up by the negativity of it all.
I have a chart on my wall of 11 years of Dispatch sales and the trend line is drifting down. So the tendency is to assume that that trend line is going to stay down. But across Times Media – and certainly here – we are saying: ‘Well, maybe that’s not true and if we can be innovative enough, we can actually turn that trend line. We can flatten it and then turn it up’. In the time that I’ve been here (as editor, since September 2011) it’s flattened but what’s very interesting is that it’s much, much more volatile than at any point in the 11 years. It goes up and down on a completely different scale and we’re finding that, I think, with all publications. I think, as they say, you’re only as good as your last story.
DISCLAIMER: The writer worked for the Dispatch twice – in the mid 1990s and mid 2000s, and her husband, Andrew Trench, was an editor of the paper though he has since left the company.
‘Another printing press on the chopping block’, Journalism.co.za, September 2011
‘So long and thanks for all the awards’, Bizcommunity, November 2010