The New Age newspaper is full of surprises, as I discovered during a visit to the paper this week. Given the thinness of the product, I wasn’t expecting the grandeur of its three huge buildings in Corporate Park South, Midrand, all marked “TNA”. Normally, one big building does the trick.
The second surprise was that Sahara, the computer business owned by the Gupta family, is a physical neighbour of the New Age, as in just a few metres away. The message is an upfront one: whether selling computers or papers, these are both Gupta businesses.
The third surprise was the nouveau riche ambience inside the newspaper building, with its avant-garde lighting and Italian tiles. Rather odd for a newspaper, which tends to be an understated or even scruffy place.
I was looking for back copies of the paper to carry out an analysis of its advertising-editorial ratios and advertising patterns, to assess how it is progressing three months after its launch.
I made an appointment, using only my first name, as instinct told me that as a Mail & Guardian reporter I might not be welcome. The ruse failed, as the first question I was asked was about the company I was representing.
Hearing I was from the M&G, a member of the welcoming committee said: ‘Well, then — you should pay for the newspapers.” I ultimately got the papers for free.
As I was leaving, I thought I should take pictures and was startled to see my every move being watched by two large white males in suits with wires around their mouths — headphones, perhaps.
I changed my mind about taking photos, threw the newspapers into my car and waved goodbye to the men, who responded with tight smiles. I’d never seen bouncers at a newspaper before.
The major surprise, however, was the relative scarcity of government advertising in the paper. But then, it doesn’t have much private-sector advertising either — except for ads placed by Gupta-owned companies.
Given the paper’s very low cover price — R3.50 — the Guptas clearly have deep pockets.
Retail sales manager Ravi Naidoo could not provide ABC sales figures because the paper hit the streets only in December.
However, “we do distribute about 100 000 nationally”.
An industry source put sales at about 7 000 a day.
I asked Naidoo if he has anything to say about the paper. His response? “Just subscribe, please.”
Underwhelming ad ratio at New Age
Neither the private nor the public sector is exactly falling over itself to advertise in the Gupta-owned The New Age newspaper, a month’s survey of the paper shows.
The advertising-editorial ratio is consistently below 10%, falling to 5% on some days.
The analysis of editions over the month February 15 to March 15 shows that private-sector advertising accounted for 64% of total advertising, overwhelmingly dominated by other Gupta-owned companies such as the Sahara computer company.
But advertising by state entities is significant, at 36% of total. The balance in a typical edition is four private sector ads to two ads placed by state agencies.
Eighty percent of editions of the New Age are 32 pages in length, although the paper sometimes falls to 24 pages.
In the period under review Telkom is by far the heaviest state advertiser, followed in order by the Free State government, the correctional services department, the Limpopo and Mpumalanga governments, the department of trade and industry and the department of agriculture and fisheries.
On March 1, for example, there were six private-sector adverts and one full-page government advert, for Telkom’s 8.ta cellphone service.
The 8.ta advert appeared in every paper in the month under review.
Assuming full rates – and the advert may well have been discounted — a full-page advert would cost about R75 000, according to an industry source in the know.
The New Age has also run supplements about the Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo governments.
There have been media reports of close links between the Guptas and Free State Premier Ace Magashule and his family.
More than 90% of the private-sector advertising was placed by Gupta-owned businesses.
Adverts by Sahara and IT components and solutions firm Annex appeared in every edition during the period under review, while adverts for Gupta-owned JIC Mining Services feature in 80% of editions and Shiva Uranium in 60% of editions.
ArcelorMittal, a company tied to the Guptas by a pending empowerment deal, advertised in 80% of editions.
The papers reviewed carried a very small number of other private-sector advertisements, placed by such companies as Vodacom and — offering treatment for erectile dysfunction — Mens Clinic International. — Glenda Daniels
This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.