Sefara gone: many questions, no answers

On Monday evening Independent Newspapers confirmed that the editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara, was leaving. It was an "amicable" arrangement, we were told. So amicable, in fact, that neither side is saying why he's going, or who will replace him, or what has gone wrong. But it does appear to indicate there is severe turmoil at Independent Newspapers, and that that turmoil is having an impact.

In global terms, Sefara is a rare breed. A man who has been the editor of two newspapers, and then left, by the age of 40. You'd have to look far to find more like him. But at Independent Newspapers, he is actually in plentiful company. Just last week Philani Mgwaba left the editorship of The Mercury in Durban. Before him, Moshoeshoe Monare decided to walk away from the Sunday Independent's hot seat. And of course, there is what happened at the Cape Times, where Alide Dasnois was told to leave the editorship to take over something that didn't exist yet (a "Labour Bulletin"), after publishing the Public Protector's findings on Sekunjalo Consortium. Part of which, owns Independent Newspapers, and thus the Cape Times.

As Zaphod Beeblebrox would have said, 10 out of 10 for style, one out of 10 for foresight.

Sefara is not going to comment on his departure. But he did Tweet: "Been thinking of an uncontroversial tweet, one that can't be linked to my departure, news or current affairs." Hmm… At peace? Very. Content.

Well, there's subtext, and then there's subtext. But what is undeniable is that this was not a "planned, progressive" exit. There is no way that this was something both parties wanted as part of an orderly process. If it were, there would already be a new editor in place. And there would have been no "with immediate effect"; he would surely have been allowed to work out his notice.

Which means then, that he was probably made unwelcome. The immediate context to the push could well have been what happened in Durban last week. It's been suggested on Twitter, and not denied, that the group wanted Sefara to go down there and run The Mercury. There is no way that can be called a promotion; The Star is surely the flagship for the group. It has heritage, history, heft. And the closest possible address to the political action. (It is, quite literally, across the road from Luthuli House.) And while Durban may be more important politically than it was a few years ago, it's still not Joburg.

So why would you want this man, who won the Best Editor Award at the Sivukile Journalism awards just last month, to be demoted?

Then there is the longer context. Sefara is the deputy chair of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef). Ten days ago, it hosted the Nat Nakasa Awards. Dasnois won the award for courageous journalism, which must have been a huge slap in the face for Surve. It was a clear shot across the bows by Sanef, whether deliberate or not (the awards are judged by an independent panel). Some reports say Surve "stormed out", others claim he said it was "bullshit" and "racist". (Surve says he left because he had "another engagement".)

One has to ask if, after the position in Durban opened up, this wasn't an opportunity to take Sefara, and by extension Sanef, down a peg or two? While both sides aren't saying, if this theory is wrong, surely one of them would deny it.

All of this appears to show that the situation at Independent Newspapers is getting rather difficult. Just over a month ago, The Star's afternoon edition claimed that Ntombi Mekgwe would be the new Premier of Gauteng. It hit the streets as Luthuli House announced it would be David Makhura. No heads appeared to roll for that rather embarrassing mistake.

This is all beginning to sound a little like the National Prosecuting Authority; mistakes get made as the core business of the organisation gets ignored, in favour of in-fighting and power struggles.

What's so sad in this case is that they are competing for an organisation that has less and less influence. The Star doesn't sell nearly as many copies as it did. Every time circulation figures come out, Independent Titles appear to be down . While some other titles, like Business Day or The Times are able to keep their figures relatively stable, the Independents' figures show a consistent decline.

This is surely because the product is not what it was. A few years ago The Star used to get exclusives almost weekly. Front page, agenda setting, local or national stories would be broken there. No longer. Last week's front page lead about the lack of fire engines in Johannesburg was one of the first big exclusive stories in the paper for months.

This is not Surve's fault. It's the fault of a lack of investment for years by the owner before him, Tony O'Reilly. Shortly after taking over the group, Surve said that their web offerings were "sub-premium". But since then, it does not appear as if there has been any significant change. There has been no crop of new hirings at the reporter level, only at management level. There is very little evidence of new thinking, of new ways of doing things, of actually making the product unique and special.

One of the problems these papers have is that they don't go for a niche. To be blunt, the Sowetan knows what it is; so does Business Day. The Star doesn't always appear to. And that's because of not enough investment, and nothing that makes it unique.

As competition for eyeballs and ears continues to get tougher, there doesn't appear to be a strategy at the moment to get those figures back up again. People don't need newspapers anymore; they expect much of their information to be free, and paid for by ads. They will pay for specialist and hard-to-get information. That is what the group needs to be doing.

For that to happen, it needs to be staffed by people who believe they will have the freedom and the independence to do what it takes. To know that if they piss someone off, their boss's only reaction will be to back them. That requires a consistent commitment to proper editorial freedom.

It is too early to say that a lack of editorial freedom is the reason all of these Independent editors are leaving. None of them (apart from the Dasnois case) have been explicit about that issue. But it is becoming harder and harder to draw any other conclusion.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.